TEMPLE BEAUTIFUL: A San Francisco Masterpiece

“Castro Halloween”

As the title suggests, “Castro Halloween” places us squarely in an iconic San Francisco spot for the biggest party night of the year. We are there with Prophet and his paramour celebrating a Castro Halloween on what feels like a third date night, when suddenly shots ring out and two men die.

The shocking tragedy pulls these two young lovers closer together much faster than they bargained for. Masks are hastily removed. She watches him cry. Later in the ballad, he has the sagacity to step outside of the moment and soliloquize, “when the merchants hose the sidewalks down, will the leaves on the trees turn gold or brown,” reminding us with a poetic flourish that even after a double homicide, the blood gets washed away into the gutter and life in the big city goes on.

CHORUS:

Halloween was here but now it’s gone/Men in skirts and heels are marching on. Halloween is gone.

It’s here, it’s gone, they’re marching on.  Past/present/future are toggled as fluidly as a three-way Fender pickup switch in this lyric. Similar time-tweaks happen throughout the album, usually too subtly to be noticed right away, but subconsciously reminding you that the past is never really the past in this treatment of San Francisco; the dead keep coming back to life.  The city’s history is a Chinatown procession snaking in and out of the fog, but never disappearing for long.

In the final chorus, Prophet slows down the band to emote “it’s gone” in twice as many iterations as you’d expect (eight measures instead of four), convincing you that this veteran balladeer still brings a boyish sense of wonder toward the basic philosophical absolutes like here and gone; life and death; and before and after. You’ll hear it often throughout the record.

Temple Beautiful”

Although slotted third in the lineup of songs, “Temple Beautiful” serves as both the title track to the album and its establishing narrative. The story begins here, at this short-lived but 100% non-fictional San Francisco punk-rock venue called “(The) Temple Beautiful.”

At some point, a teenaged Chuck Prophet begins attending shows at this former synagogue. One of these nights out becomes the transformational experience that shows a kid from the suburbs what is possible in the world of rock and roll and how it can be done.

Temple Beautiful is the young Prophet’s Crossroads, the urban intersection where the rock and roll bargain is struck. Prophet gets the gig but he loses the girl. In the car ride back home, his metamorphosis has already begun.

To the chorus:

We were so excited/Manchester United!

You’ll be pleased to know this isn’t the kind of album where the songwriter feels obligated to scratch “Manchester United” and replace it with a more San Francisco-themed lyric like “Sutro Tower was lighted.”

When Prophet sings, “we were so excited,” you already secretly know that the only true payoff to “how excited were you?” can be “Manchester United!” and when he delivers, you are pleased.  (Aside: Is it just me, or did there used to be a ton of working class Brits in the City 20 years ago? If you went out to bars back then, you probably knew all about Man. U, not to mention Arsenal and Crystal Palace.)

For more backstory on the album’s title track, let’s turn to Chuck Prophet himself as heard in the Mar. 30, 2012 interview on KQED Radio’s “Forum” program. Here, Prophet explains that there really was a building by the name of Temple Beautiful that had once been a functioning synagogue, but by the late 70s had been converted into a punk rock club.

The club closed not long after it opened and largely receded from public memory, but Prophet never forgot. He had long believed this temple was Jim Jones’ notorious People’s Temple, until further research informed him that the Temple Beautiful was in actuality just next door to the Jim Jones site.

Prophet goes on to say during the interview that one of the many bands he saw at the venue was the Roy Loney-fronted Flamin’ Groovies, and that all these decades later, it was a thrill to be able to get Loney to sing on the title track. Prophet explains that although “Temple Beautiful” had already been decided on as the album title, the name was hard to work into a song since nothing easily rhymes with “Temple Beautiful,” but that once Roy Loney came in and put down some vocals, it no longer mattered whether anything rhymed or not.

“Museum of Broken Hearts”

I think of “Museum of Broken Hearts” as the album’s basement track. Lowest pulse, fewest bpms, flattest melody, most subdued characters–this song has it all.

The Museum of Broken Hearts is a public sanctuary where the concentrated droplets of human emotion meet the cold marble of civic institutionalism.

It’s a reminder that the name of a city, San Francisco for example, can be invoked simultaneously to refer to its architecture (the cold, hard skeleton) and its populace (the warm flowing blood and guts). The Museum of Broken Hearts is the coral reef where the one becomes the other.

What else need be said? This is where everybody ends up, after their hearts are turned to stone. The most you can hope for is a sympathetic curator.

No San Francisco locales are explicitly referenced in the song, but the Museum of Broken Hearts feels a lot like the Columbarium to me.

“Museum of Broken Hearts” is the album’s foggy August morning song, a quintessential piece of any San Francisco puzzle.

The Columbarium

The Columbarium

“Willie Mays is up at Bat”

Now we’re hitting the meat of the lineup. This is the San Francisco of Carol Doda and Laffing Sal; hardhats and cabbies; tattoo parlors full of jarheads and sailors (does anyone remember all the active military bases that existed into the 1990s?).

This is the Don’t-Call-It-Frisco of Herb Caen and “Streets of San Francisco”-era Karl Malden, establishment figures observing the social upheaval of the 60s and 70s from the sanctuary of noontime martinis at Hanno’s. This is the San Francisco that stopped whatever it was doing (even Laffing Sal on her lonesome vigil at the moribund Playland amusement park way out at Ocean Beach) and held its collective breath every time Willie Mays came up to bat. All he had to do was touch his cap and they would cheer. Meanwhile, Jim Jones is up to no good on Geary Street, brushing elbows with a young Bill Graham, while “Bugs (Bunny) and Daffy Duck were hitchhiking up the coast to Pismo Beach. “

A change is coming to the Karl Malden/Herb Caen San Francisco. The Acid Tests have begun. The Bugs and Daffy generation of teenagers who screamed for the Beatles on Ed Sullivan are thumbing their way to the City as we speak; Bill Graham and Jim Jones are getting ready for them over on Geary St. Exciting times await the city. The stage has been set.

This song word-paints a panorama of San Francisco from Bay to breakers, capturing a snapshot of one of the last lazy days before Everything Changed. We hear and see Willie Mays come up to bat; we hear and see the crowd at Candlestick Park; we hear and see the church bells ring; we hear and see Laffing Sal, now abandoned at Ocean Beach and crying as much as laughing. We hear and feel that particular crisp, flag-snapping San Francisco breeze, when the waters look unfriendly and the international orange smells even more damp and rusty than usual.

CHORUS:

It’s three on, two out, under the lights.

Nobody knows who’ll make it home tonight.

“Three on, two out, under the lights” becomes an immortal baseball lyric even before the ink dries, and it only takes eight syllables to get there.  “Nobody knows who’ll make it home tonight” is a triple entendre about baseball, getting lucky, and (with a callback to “Castro Halloween”) the inherent risks of life in the big city in the era of night ball. Put these two lines together, and the verse is a quintessentially 20th Century American Gothic haiku (count the syllables) about stranger danger and the national pastime.

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4 comments for “TEMPLE BEAUTIFUL: A San Francisco Masterpiece

  1. May 25, 2013 at 11:17 am

    Great job Dave! You really covered it all down to the last detail…and so does Chuck apparently…And let’s give Stephanie, his wife, some huge credit too. She is a very talented singer/musician herself! Red man carried a picture of a pigeon?! My brother was working or the Mitchell bros when all that nasty history went down. We covered this during our beer chat…can’t remember? Glad I got the Albion bar/ ‘I Felt Like Jesus’/ “passing of the torch” cleared up a bit…I’m gonna have to find this on vinyl (I don’t buy mp3 files or CDs) and investigate Chuck’s take on the city I’ve lived in for over 27 years. Chuck should give a link to your pages here!

    • May 27, 2013 at 11:56 am

      Thanks, Thomas. if there’s anyone who could appreciate the side(s) of San Francisco covered here, it’s you. It would be very cool if you could get “Temple Beautiful” in vinyl.
      Oh, and Chuck did link to this article on his Chuck Prophet Official facebook page. He said he was touched…

  2. October 22, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    Dave…what a beautiful tribute to
    “Temple Beautiful”…
    As a music and soul peer of both you and Chuck Prophet, among a host of other Temple residents…I can truly say I am proud to call you guys my peers and San Franicsco my second home.
    Your article and Chucks album are both beautiful tributes to this
    “Temple Beautiful”.
    ~Donna Jean Foster ( Castro)

  3. February 11, 2017 at 4:22 am

    Can’t believe that I’ve just come across this review tonight. Great review, David. Hope you write a review for the new disc, “Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins”.

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