The Best of Chris Isaak
Stylish, Orbison-esque crooner hits the Moody
By Margaret Moser, 1:15PM, Wed. Sep. 4
“I’m writing on a moving bus and it’s hitting every pothole!” Getting email from Chris Isaak is enough to make even a seasoned writer giddy. The native Californian shot to fame in 1990 with his Roy Orbison-like croon on “Wicked Game” snaking through David Lynch’s film Wild at Heart. He performs tonight at the Moody Theater.
With two hugely popular video versions of the song on MTV back when it counted, not to mention his longtime band Silvertone and matinee-idol good looks, Isaak went on to create a distinct repertoire through nine studio albums that included hits like “Baby Did a Bad Thing” from Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut and “Somebody’s Crying.”
His current tour is different for two reasons. Isaak’s calling this his “Best of” tour because for the first time in over 25 years of recording, he’s released a greatest hits collection. And for the first time in many a moon, he won’t be accompanied by his sidekick and drummer Kenney Dale Johnson, who’s completing treatment for cancer. Isaak recently closed a California performance with a shout-out to Johnson, a former Austinite who drummed for Steam Heat.
“Goodnight, I’m Kenney Dale Johnson,” he waved farewell to the crowd, and exited the stage with his band Silvertone. That lineup includes bassist Rowland Salley, guitarist Hershel Yatovitz, pianist Scott Plunkett, and percussionist Rafael Padilla. Catch them all downtown this evening.
Austin Chronicle: For Austinites who haven’t seen your website update, what can you tell me about our friend Kenney?
Chris Isaak: He got cancer, but it looks like this story has a happy ending. He is beating it, and he is expected to make a full recovery. I am so sure of this that I would be willing to lend him money. Seriously, he looks great. You would never know he has been in a street fight with cancer. And as expected from the tough Texan, he is kickin’ ass. He came out and played some of the show with us when we got near his house on tour, and as usual, he was swinging and singing great.
He hasn’t lost weight or hair. Hell, he may be a little tired out, but I can’t see it and he is still the baddest cat in the room. You gotta remember, Kenney isn’t a normal man. He is bigger and tougher, somewhat closer to a bull or a large lion. He has had a tough run of luck, but he is winning and that’s all I want for Christmas.
AC: Kenney’s been more than just your drummer, you two have a vibe somewhere between classic Jagger-Richards and a comedy team, like when you were on Showtime. Is it tough to be up there without your buddy?
CI: I have spent more time with Kenney than anyone in the world, and I still love the guy. That says a lot. When you have seen somebody day in and day out, tired, up, down, broke, and on top. If you still think the world of that person after seeing the whole book, then you got a real friend. I think most people will never really understand Kenney. They see a big, tough looking rock drummer from Texas and think he’s all about beer, parties, and fishing.
Kenney reads five newspapers a day, can tell you what is going on in Prague theater, and knows how to tune up a Buick. He is one of the brightest guys I have ever met and one of the funniest. I think everybody really misses just having him on the long bus rides to make his jokes and comments. The good news is we have a great guy filling in, Curt Bisquera, who played with everyone from Johnny Cash to Mick Jagger and who is damn funny in his own right. And Curt loves Kenney, so it’s not competition, it’s a buddy filling in for a buddy.
AC: What’s the payback for having waited so long to do a “Best of”?
CI: You really get to pick the best stuff! Although I did think it would be really cool for someone to have a first album and title it “best of.” Now that would be gutsy!
AC: Like the kid in Almost Famous asks, do you have to be in love to write a love song? Is writing love songs different from writing other songs?
CI: I think anything except a love song is usually a novelty song. I love songs about cars. I like “Thunder Road” by Robert Mitchum (who, by the way, can really sing), but I think the big thing we are all looking for is love in this world.
That’s what drives us, and what keeps us up late at night looking at the ceiling in the dark. You can write love songs without being in love, but it’s going to show through that it isn’t right. All the loves songs I ever wrote were just about things that happened in my life. I just made sure they rhymed.
AC: Any acting in the future?
CI: I’m supposed to put myself on tape today. (I am trying to see if one of the guys in the band will read the other part!) Somebody wants me to play a kind of a rough character who is in a love affair that ends badly. I’m not sure if I’m up for such a stretch, but there’s the wonderful challenge of being an ACTOR!
AC: Your costumes are always one of the pleasures of seeing you live. What are you wearing this tour?
CI: I brought out a bunch of suits, I switch ‘em around. For somebody who grew up wearing clothes from the Salvation Army, it’s my way of feeling big time! I have suits with rhinestones and colors that Liberace might have turned down for being too flamboyant.
I wear one suit at the end of the night that is covered in mirrors and weighs about 35 pounds. It looks like I’m a walking mirror ball! My brother Nick, who is out on tour with me now, says it’s important to have dazzle and have talent. He says there’s nothing I can do about the talent, but I can buy a flashy suit... so I did!
[Cue a rimshot from Kenney Dale Johnson.]