by Ryan McDonald
Long enough ago to predate cell phones, Chris Isaak got a 4 a.m. call from a woman, who said she was coming over. Isaak agreed, but regretted it almost as soon as he hung up, and turned to music to try to capture what he was feeling. Before the woman arrived, he had the basics of “Wicked Game,” the smash hit that would define his career. Years later, Issac would say in an interview that the song is about “what happens when you have strong attraction to people that aren’t necessarily good for you. And I think it hit a nerve because I think a lot of us have strong attractions to people that aren’t necessarily good for us.”
It’s telling that “Wicked Game” is still often presumed to be about pining for someone who doesn’t love you back. Isaak is a singer who you can listen to closely and yet easily lose track of the words he is saying, lost as you are in lush feeling and the plunges of evoked memory. His work has the rare quality of being both dreamy and cinematic, enabling the listener to feel like they know all about a place they’ve never been.
“I think when I write music I’m picturing a scene, and it’s like I’m watching it while I write,” Isaak said in an email.
Chris Isaak, who performs at BeachLife Ranch September 24 received the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance last year. Photo courtesy CAA
Perhaps not coincidentally, Isaak’s music has often appeared in films. “Wicked Game” did not chart until more than a year-and-a-half had passed from its release; it caught on after repeated plays from an Atlanta radio station, whose music director was struck by an instrumental version of the song that appeared in David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart.” Other auteurs to have used Isaak’s music include Clint Eastwood and Stanley Kubrick.
Isaak himself has cobbled together a respectable acting career. Along with teaming with Lynch again for “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me,” he played himself in “The Chris Isaak Show,” which ran for three seasons on Showtime in the early aughts. The show was an occasionally surreal collision of life and art that featured drummer Kenney Dale Johnson, bassist Rowland Salley, and guitarist Hershel Yatovitz, members of Isaak’s actual band who will be on stage with him at BeachLife Ranch. Their lives sometimes intersect in ways that feel closer to a teenage garage band than a collection of seasoned professionals, but Isaak is notably devoted to his bandmates; last fall, when he received the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achivement Award for Performance, he tried telling a joke about a plan to buy a plot of land where band members could live together, but was too teary at the prospect to nail it. Some of the show’s storylines were inspired by Isaak’s “real life,” and as himself, Isaak emerges as the sort of protagonist who often populates his songs: a straight man bumping up against a world that doesn’t make sense.
With his pompadour hairstyle and a sequin-heavy wardrobe, Isaak can sometimes seem to belong to another era. He grew up in Stockton, California, and picked through “junk stores and second-hand shops” to find records when he was growing up. His only force of discernment was limited means.
“Big band, Mexican pop, novelty records…I listened to tons of music. I could get a stack of records for 50 cents!” Isaak said.
In 2011, he released Beyond the Sun, an album almost entirely of covers of songs made famous by Sun Records artists. The songs — “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash, “Great Balls of Fire,” Jerry Lee Lewis, and “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” by Elvis Presley — were right in Isaak’s sweet spot. And though I’m not sure it can ever get old being compared to Roy Orbison, for me what is thrilling about Isaak’s music is its exploratory, unpredictable edges.
Consider 1995’s Forever Blue. The album’s title track somnolently evokes Chet Baker; on “Go Walking Down There,” he sounds like Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the Gun Club as he explodes with alienation; and on “Goin’ Nowhere,” he channels John Fogerty, another Californian who so deeply embodies the country blues that he is often mistaken for a Southerner.
So who is the real Chris Isaak? The moody genius who summons tone poems awash in tremolo from a graveyard of loves past? The quirky professional who appears in David Lynch films but stands at arch remove from celebrity? The enthused antiquarian, preserving precious heritage in greased hair and a velvet suit?
Image matters for Chris Isaak, but not in the way of vanity. In his book “Mystery Train,” Greil Marcus — coiner of the term “Old, Weird America,” a category to which Isaak surely belongs — notes that “the best popular artists never stop trying to understand the impact of their work on their audiences.” This dance between challenging your audience and learning from them applies as much to an artist at risk of getting slotted into the throwback circuit as it does one whose body of work can sometimes be overshadowed by a single, astonishing song.
When Isaak hits the stage at BeachLife, he knows what people will want to hear, even those who don’t immediately recognize him. He usually performs with his name written on his guitar in blocky letters, or pressed onto one of his quietly perfect costumes. As an affectation, it is closer to a schoolboy writing “Elvis” on a desk than Woody Guthrie giving warning to fascists. But to continue doing so for all these years is the mark of someone who believes so intently in the power of music as to uphold superstition. He once explained the long-standing habit by saying, “When I started out no one knew who I was.” Now they do.
Chris Isaak plays BeachLife Ranch September 24