Every man and his dog seem to have published an autobiography, particularly if the man or dog has a connection to popular music; not having a book on the market now marks the subject out from their contemporaries. Stevie Simkin’s What Makes the Monkey Dance, The Life and Music of Chuck Prophet and Green on Red is a different animal.
With no sign of a Prophet autobiography in sight, What Makes the Monkey Dance is the first book of any kind about this rock and roll luminary, and can be easily compared to Dave Marsh’s ground-breaking Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story (1979); both put the artist’s story, most of which has not been heard before, in print for the first time.
It’s reported in the bio that Prophet had a book deal of his own in the noughties for a collection of prose, poetry, photos, doodles, artefacts, scrawled lyrics, and diatribes with road diaries by others, tentatively titled Shoulda Stayed In School – Road Diaries from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trenches, but lost interest in the project. Simkin humorously remarks that Prophet was possibly the first author in history to have voluntarily returned an advance for failing to deliver the goods.
What Makes The Monkey Dance was written with Prophet’s co-operation and benefits from access to past and current band members, collaborators, friends, industry insiders and Chuck Prophet himself, who is definitely a character: hip, edgy, finely dressed. However the book does not serve as a direct portrait of its subject; instead it weaves a tale of “time in the trenches”, with a blend of oral history and criticism, and exclusive access to Prophet’s archives including previously unheard outtakes and previously unpublished photos. In Prophet’s forward to the book, we find that he was initially sceptical of its purpose, as if a biography was attempting to “sum up a career that he felt very strongly was not over yet”. Fortunately Simkin persisted, as this is an informative and entertaining read.
Prophet’s career is carefully traced from his time in Bad Attitude and Wild Game in the early ‘80s, through to Paisley Underground pioneers Green on Red, and on to his solo career starting in 1990 and continuing up to The Land That Time Forgot (2020). Simkin puts Prophet’s story in the wider context of the music industry, and considers what it may mean to be considered a “cult” artist. Prophet suggests that it’s ultimately futile to impose anyone else’s ideas of success on him. Appealingly, his goal is to make a “great” or “classic” record as opposed to making big money; Prophet wryly suggests that his hit single, “Summertime Thing” in 2002, had the effect of expanding his audience from five men with beards to 25 girls in tube tops.
Readers of rock biographies and autobiographies are well used to tales of degradation, such that (as poet John Tottenham puts it in the Los Angeles Review of Books), the author becomes a wide-eyed chronicler of scandalous but clichéd behaviour. Refreshingly, Simkin chronicles Prophet’s struggles with addiction minus the sensationalism, with Prophet insightfully noting his drug of choice was really “more…’in every way. Faster! Louder! More!”. Prophet suggests that his Green on Red partnership with Dan Stuart was like being a cross between army buddies, brothers and addicts – the band enabled them to extend their adolescence and keep the party going. He recalls his last hurrah in London, demolishing a tray of drinks; however the significance of addiction only really hits home when seen through the eyes of his wife and fellow musician Stephanie Finch, who dryly admits it was no fun.
The rock and roll tales often serve a comic purpose. Highlights include Prophet being served legal proceedings while at a sound check in Nashville (surely as rock n’ roll as one can get). On another occasion the band members get strip searched at border control, at a time when Finch is wearing Prophet’s underpants, having run out of clean clothes. In another scene, in the studio, one of the children from the Vine Street Church Children’s Choir (who are providing backing vocals for Soap and Water) comments on Prophet’s distinctive half-spoken vocal style by asking her teacher when he will start singing (“He’s just talking”). In contrast, when rehearsing for Live from Daryl’s House, Prophet suggests Daryl Hall include some “Darylisms” (i.e. vocal licks) at the end of “Summertime Thing”.
Overall there’s a sense of some mythological (albeit true) stories; Springsteen may have clambered over the gates at Graceland to call in on Elvis, but Prophet jumped through a glass roof after getting locked out of warehouse flat, setting off alarms and alerting the police. Similarly, Green on Red impress producer Jim Dickinson by scoring some weed via a rooftop fishing pole, and Prophet’s stolen Fender Squier Telecaster guitar is returned on rollerblades in a rendezvous with the underworld.
Prophet’s long and productive career allows Simkin to range through a gallery of impressive collaborators. He records with Warren Zevon on Life’ll Kill Ya, and writes with Kim Rickey, Kelly Willis, Dan Penn and Alejandro Escovedo (Springsteen sings one of their co-writes, “Always a Friend”). His years with Green on Red are extensively covered through interviews with Dan Stuart, Chris Cacavas and others.
One of Prophet’s key partners, and another character, is the poet klipschutz. The pair started writing together as early as Prophet’s second solo album, Balinese Dancer, and have since had a successful creative relationship, interrupted by a ten year period in which they had fallen out “over money” (namely that there was too much of it, klipschutz pithily allows). Simkin interviews them both about their relationship, with Prophet acknowledging he is lucky to know and work with klipschutz, who he describes as an “American Original”.
The book is particularly adept at getting to the root of what it’s been like to work in a turbulent industry. Prophet first says he does not have an opinion of the industry at large, but later admits, after some prodding by Simkin, to being “utterly lost” after he was dropped by New West on the heels of Age Of Miracles. We also see the sharper edge of business in dealings with managers, agents and lawyers; when Green on Red pass their advance from Phonogram straight to the band’s booking agency, Prophet merely shrugs as they leave the pub, and wonders whether they should have asked for a receipt.
What Makes the Monkey Dance demonstrates the arrays of skills a musician needs as a writer, performer, business person and technician (Prophet recalls frantically fixing a Wurlitzer piano on stage as an audience arrives). As well, it shows how the world has dramatically changed during his nearly 40 years in the business. Green on Red’s road manager would stop at a phone box to be told more dates had been added to the tour, and touring in the ‘80s saw musicians in effect disappearing from home for months with little contact – “those early tours, you’d come back and your girlfriend would have moved”, Prophet recounts.
Generally both author and subject sensibly appear to be cautious about over-sharing, although Prophet proves to be an insightful interviewee, perhaps due to a growing level of trust between author and subject. On the face of it, Prophet may seem like a hardboiled character, but Simkin finds vulnerability; according to Prophet, making that “classic” record may make sense of “all my foolishness and all my mistakes and poor decisions”. In spite of this, however, and to his credit, Prophet remains enigmatic, with all roads leading to the art itself.
Faultlessly executed, What Makes the Monkey Dance should attract both casual and more committed fans. In the appendices it includes an informative section devoted to “20 historic performances”, as well as comprehensive coverage of more obscure side projects like Go Go Market and Raisins in the Sun. But perhaps the best one can hope for any book about a songwriter and performer is that it will inspire the reader to dig out the records and give them a spin, with a greater understanding of the musician’s world; to this extent, What Makes the Monkey Dance may be more like a beginning than an end, for both reader and subject.
Publication Date: 21 AUG 2020