The Drama You've Been Craving
Monday Mar. 19, 2001
Chris Isaak's Got A TV Show
But what's he gonna do with it?
By Michael Goldberg
If you've been to Chris Isaak's San Francisco apartment, as I have, or hung out with his mother, Dorothy, at the ranch-style house in Stockton where Isaak grew up, you too would find it a strange and surreal experience to watch the first episode of "The Chris Isaak Show," which premiered Monday, March 12.
The weekly hour-long Showtime series is fictional, but based (loosely, to be sure) on Isaak's real life. Some sets, such as his apartment and Bimbo's 360 Club, are duplications of the real thing; Isaak, his bandmates (drummer Kenney Dale Johnson, bassist Rowland Salley, saxophonist Johnny Reno and guitarist Hershel Yatovitz) and his mother play themselves.
"The Chris Isaak Show" draws lightly on such past pop-music sitcoms as "The Monkees," and of course the Beatles film "A Hard Day's Night," with nods to "I Love Lucy" (reference Desi Arnaz) and "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" (reference Rick Nelson). Of course this being 2001, and on Showtime, nudity and some lowbrow vulgarity make the show not ready for prime-time network television. And that's all right.
I can imagine Isaak sitting around with the guys in the band, going: "Let's see, we'll have a show with all of us in it, playing ourselves, basically doing nothing. Plus naked girls. They'll go for that. Me and naked girls, on TV! We're going straight to the top with this, baby!"
Plot? What's A Plot?
That Showtime went for the concept is something else. But they did, and they've apparently committed to 17 episodes. The first episode's plot was just short of invisible. Isaak has girl trouble; Isaak turns to a beautiful naked seer, his bandmates and even his therapist mom for advice; Isaak doesn't resolve his girl trouble. There are subplots, including one in which his management company is trying to secure Isaak a spot on a big TV special, and another in which a ex-girlfriend's martial-arts-expert current boyfriend is jealous of Isaak. Nothing major.
All this non-action lets Isaak get himself, his offbeat sense of humor and his winning personality (he can come across as sweet, non-threatening and wholesome, even when lying in bed straddled by a girlfriend in black bra and panties) in front of viewers for nearly an hour. The key to this show's success is, naturally, Isaak himself. He's hoping that you and I will like spending an hour each week with him, and I bet quite a few of us will.
"Your Boy's Gone, Rockin' Gone"
I first met Chris Isaak at the beginning of his professional career, right after he'd begun to work with the legendary hit-record maker (Lovin' Spoonful, Norman Greenbaum) Erik Jacobsen. I had heard some amazing demos by a band called Silvertone (after the Sears brand of cheap guitars) "Cold Dream" and "Blue Hotel" on college-radio station KUSF. That brought me to the now-defunct Berkeley Square, where I stood next to Jacobsen and watched Silvertone rock the half-empty club one weeknight in 1982.
Even then Isaak's life seemed to have a sitcom dimension to it. I mean, James Calvin Wilsey was the guy who did sound at the San Francisco punk club where Silvertone sometimes played. He started showing Isaak some guitar riffs, and before long Isaak asked him to be in the band.
Post-punk and new wave were in gear, but Isaak hearkened back to another time. There was a touch of Elvis (and of course Roy Orbison) in his voice, some Duane Eddy and Beatles in his sound. With the help of then-new guitarist Wilsey (replaced in the early '90s by Yatovitz), he ran reckless through the history of rock 'n' roll, taking from it the bits and pieces he needed to fashion something of his own.
From the start he had the songs. But over the years, first on Silvertone. then Chris Isaak and Heart Shaped World, he built, song by song, an amazing repertoire of ballads and rockers. When he finally broke through, it was with "Wicked Game," a song that condensed his artistic worldview to four minutes, 46 seconds of dreamy, timeless pop.
He was always funny, although you didn't get that from the records. From those, you got the loner, the boy with the broken heart, the victim of love, the guy on the end of a losing streak in the wicked game of love. Chris Isaak lived at the "Blue Hotel," where love never stayed for long.
Actually, in those days Isaak lived in a dark, cramped one-room garage apartment a block away from Ocean Beach, where he would go to surf. His bed was in the closet really! The room was mostly filled with two clothes racks, jammed with vintage gear he'd found in thrift shops: Hawaiian shirts, old gabardine suits, leather jackets, ties, vests ... and the records. Lots and lots of old records.
In person, Isaak made you laugh. He could be self-deprecating and was sometimes the butt of his own jokes. Or he'd make use of his bandmates. On stage, in front of a hometown crowd in a small club like the Nightbreak on Haight Street or the South of Market hotspot Club Nine, he would preface songs such as "Wild Love" with long, semi-improvised hipster tales.
With "The Chris Isaak Show," Isaak has three months in which he can do something really special, make an impact, perhaps create the first truly surreal sitcom or just give us a racy, ultimately forgettable TV series. The first episode gave us a little of both. Somehow, the scene where Isaak sits before the naked seer, seeking help with his love life, took us somewhere new. It was funny and strange and engaging. It was offbeat the way Isaak really can be offbeat. I mean, once, back in 1985, I asked him what he'd do if he was successful, and he told me he might buy one of those curved, silver, '50s-style trailers. Not the answer you'd get from most rock-star hopefuls.
Few musicians, no matter how successful, get the chance to star in a TV series, let alone one based on their own life. Now the question I have is, what will Chris Isaak make of the opportunity?
Michael Goldberg is the president of insiderone.net. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.
© 2001 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.