Chris Isaak seems to be stuck in a . time warp. It’s not just his ’50s pompadour or the ’64 Chevy Nova he tools around in. His two-story house in San Francisco is crammed with furniture from thrift-shop buying sprees, and his bedroom is a replica, he says, of “the room I had when I was 13″—right down to the two mounted deer heads on the wall and a photo collage of naked a women on the ceiling. “So when I go into that room,” he says, “I feel very comfortable.”
Nor is he planning to move out of these unpretentious digs anytime soon. Never mind that Isaak, 44, has more than half a dozen original albums (including 1989’s platinum-selling Heart Shaped World) and an acclaimed new Showtime comedy series, The Chris Isaak Show. “The one thing I noticed,” he says, “is the bigger the house you get, the longer you have to walk to the bathroom.”
“He is not trendy and does what he wants to,” says director David Lynch, who cast the singer as an FBI agent in 1992’s movie spinoff Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, “and he has a voice, in my opinion, right along with Elvis and Roy Orbison.”
Actually, as the star of his own TV show, he seems more like Jerry Seinfeld. The cable series has Isaak playing himself, a rock-band musician to whom quirky things happen. His real-life encounters with a stalker and a comely neighbor who used to dance nude in her window have both inspired plots.
Also like Seinfeld, Isaak is an executive producer, which gave him the clout to cast his mother in a one-shot cameo as his shrink. It helps that Dorothy Isaak, 70, a former potato-chip-factory worker, really is a psychotherapist (now retired).
And talkative too. Though Isaak is taciturn about his love life, Mom has no qualms about dishing. Her son, she says, recently showed up at San Francisco’s Vintage Fashion Expo with a young Eurasian woman. Informed of that sighting, Isaak looks stunned. “Who told you that?” he says. “It was not a date!”
Mother and son also disagree about whether Chris will ever settle down and marry. “He’s leery,” says Dorothy. “There’s a real high divorce rate in rock and roll.”
“That’s her view!” he says. “Some people can make marriage work—Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.”
Or Dorothy and Joe Isaak, who celebrated their 50th anniversary last January. Not that they or Chris and brothers Nick, now 49 and a San Joaquin County official, and Jeff, 47, an artist, had an easy time of it in Stockton. Even with both parents working (Joe, 72 and retired, was a forklift operator), money was scarce, and the family bought clothing from thrift shops, where Isaak honed his funky fashion sense.
Even his first guitar, which he got at 13, was secondhand. Teaching himself how to play, he wrote his own songs, influenced by Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Connie Francis. But he didn’t put his schooling aside. Working his way through the University of the Pacific in the late ’70s, Isaak found a cheap place to live for a month—a small bedroom above a funeral parlor. His job was to show mourners to the various “slumber rooms,” whose occupants, he notes, “were not really slumbering. You can play a French horn in their ear and they will not wake up; they are dead.”
The same could not be said of the raucous San Francisco club crowds for whom Isaak and his three-man band Silvertone began performing in the early ’80s. “You looked down and people were shooting up [heroin],” he recalls. But the band played on. Their debut album, Silvertone, was released in 1985. Isaak’s cult appeal has since gone mainstream; his 1999 hit single “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” was featured in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
For the past few years, Isaak has had his eye on his own series and pitched it to Showtime. But it was his droll banter with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show that convinced Showtime programming chief Jerry Offsay. “He was a riot,” he says, “and a way into the world of rock and roll for us.”
It’s a world that Isaak, who still plays to sell-out crowds, seems in no hurry to abandon. “My career is like an airplane taking off—slowly, gradually coming up,” he muses. “It’s taking forever, but the wonderful thing in life is to struggle and achieve and to feel yourself making headway.”
Michael A. Lipton
Frank Swertlow in San Francisco