Chris Isaak, Retro Romeo
"You look like that person who's the rock star," says Mr. Tabuchi. Isaak smiles. "You always gotta comb your hair in this town," he says later. "You never know who'll see you."
With sales of his album Heart Shaped World approaching 1.5 million, Isaak, 34, may have to start combing his hair everywhere he goes. With his sad tenor and sexy stage presence, Isaak is drawing comparisons to Roy Orbison and Elvis, and Madonna and Springsteen are calling for concert tickets.
To the Bay Area locals who've been fans for years, the acclaim is long overdue. But even Isaak admits to a little surprise that the song that put him over the top was the haunting, moody "Wicked Game." "It's kind of slow and sad," he says. "It doesn't have a lot of pyrotechnics to it, like a lot of the stuff you hear on the radio that sounds like McHale's Navy"
In fact, Warner Brothers had pretty much written off Heart Shaped World after the album was released in 1989 to little attention. Then Twin Peaks director David Lynch included an instrumental version of "Wicked Game" on the sound track of his 1990 film, Wild at Heart, and Atlanta radio programmer Lee Chesnut began playing Isaak's vocal on his Top 40 station. Listeners started calling in to request it, other stations picked it up and, two years after its release, "Wicked Game" was suddenly a hit.
Now Isaak has a second single ("Don't Make Me Dream About You") on its way up the charts, and he has even tried some acting (he had a bit part as a SWAT-team commander in Silence of the Lambs). "It's different," he says of his newfound fame. "It's weird."
Particularly for someone who once considered going to work with his father, Joe, driving a fork lift at the Stockton Box Company. The youngest of three boys, Isaak learned to play the guitar by watching his brother Nick. "This sounds kinda goofy, but my family actually sang together a lot," he remembers. "If not for my brother, I wouldn't be a musician."
By 13, Chris was writing his own songs—"horrible songs," he says. "I still have them in my closet." But while other teens were trying to imitate the likes of Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, Isaak was tuned into Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Slim Whitman and later found his greatest inspiration in Elvis's early Sun Session recordings. His mom loved to shop in thrift stores, and Chris came home from those excursions with stacks of LPs. "Anything that had a cool cover, I bought," he says.
After earning a degree in English and communications at the University of the Pacific, Isaak moved from Stockton to San Francisco—where he now keeps a small house—formed a three-piece rockabilly band, and began looking for gigs. "My idea of what nightclubs were like was based on old movies," he says. "I thought there'd be a star on the door and someone would come back and say, 'We're ready for you, Mr. Isaak.' " Wrong! In one early dive, "I remember looking down and seeing guys in the front row shooting up. It was all hookers and deadbeats and a couple of sailors. I was terrified."
Now, taking a few days off, Isaak the Star is home with Mom and Dad, planning his next tour (Dorothy helps design her son's outlandish stage costumes out of old curtains and auto upholstery she culls on her shopping forays) and showing off his boyhood bedroom. There's a portrait of Douglas MacArthur on the wall above a ceramic naked-woman pencil holder, a Charlie McCarthy doll, two mounted deer heads, a wolf head, a bunch of high school debating trophies, a huge 1930s radio and a rifle that doesn't work. "Everything's from junk stores," he says, as though he has to explain. On the ceiling is a collage of hundreds of naked women, pasted there during his hormone-racked teens. Since Isaak doesn't drink, smoke or do drugs, the collage may be his only vice. "They used to call him Mr. Clean in the nightclubs," says his brother Jeff. "Before it was fashionable to be that way."
But while his career keeps him on the road almost constantly—and precludes his having any serious romantic involvements Isaak says he has no regrets. "I've been able to eat Chinese food five nights a week, had fancy clothes in real bright colors, and I didn't have to lift heavy things," he says. And if he's now compared to Orbison and Elvis, well, fine, says Isaak, although "it's like comparing a speedboat to the Queen Mary."
Still, he reserves the right to change his mind later on. "When you get older, you get the right to embellish," he says. "By the time I'm 50, I'll be able to say I was in Roy Orbison's band, and when I'm 75, I'll be able to say I am Eddie Cochran."
DIRK MATHISON in Stockton