Music Article

On Top of His Game

The ''Wicked Game'' singer is enjoying his rising fame and looking forward to his first major tour

It had been the sort of week that most performers only dream about and that some who actually achieve the dream rapidly learn to despise. With the star-making machinery still whirring all around him, Chris Isaak — dressed down in a black T-shirt and brown leather vest, his James Dean hairdo less styled than usual — is sitting at an empty desk in his record company's offices, being asked if he enjoyed the mind-rattling siege of interviews and photo sessions, the noisy VH-1 camera crews, and all the other paraphernalia of sudden attention that materialize when a record label recognizes it has a bona fide hot property on its hands. It does not take him long to respond.

''Just imagine that somebody was knocking at your door every 15 minutes all night long and they were bringing you birthday cakes stuffed with money,'' Isaak says, smiling and leaning forward as he fiddles with some blue modeling clay he found on the desk. ''At what point would you stop answering the door? You just go, 'For me? For me?' Yeah, it's a lot of attention at once, but it's nice. It's really nice.''

It's also quite astonishing. The promotional blitz is on behalf of Isaak's album Heart Shaped World, a collection of lonely love songs that had universally been given up for dead more than a year and a half ago. Critics had fallen in love with the anguished cry of Isaak's Roy Orbison-like voice; video channels and fashion magazines had swooned over his smoldering looks; and even so, the album, Isaak's third, had tumbled from sight and sunk like a stone. Then, last September, it was suddenly revived by something rare in pop: a grass-roots movement.

With no prompting from Isaak's record label, Reprise, an Atlanta Top 40 radio station discovered ''Wicked Game,'' perhaps the album's darkest mood piece. WAPW's music director had heard the song's otherworldly opening guitar line (played by Isaak's longtime sidekick, James Calvin Wilsey) on the soundtrack to David Lynch's Wild at Heart and been struck by the quivering riff. He sought out its source and started airing it. ''Wicked Game'' quickly became WAPW's most-requested song; word spread, and by November, Reprise had so many requests from stations around the country that it released the track as a single. By last week, ''Wicked Game'' had climbed to No. 6 on the singles chart; on the album chart, Heart Shaped World was No. 16 and rising.

''I'm just glad it's a song I like,'' Isaak says, sounding genuinely humbled by all this. ''What if I would have made some kind of disco-boogie song and that would have been the hit? I would have been on talk shows the rest of my life going, 'Look, I don't do the disco boogie anymore. Please don't ask me.'''

Offstage, Isaak, 34, is a far cry from the brooding romantic suggested by his music, his videos, and the melodramatic poses he adopts in photos. He attributes the darkness of his love songs to the breakup of a love affair he had when he was growing up in a blue-collar family in Stockton, Calif. ''It's something I still think about all the time,'' he says, his voice growing flat and distant. ''I still have hope, though. I know there's somebody out there as crazy as I am, and, man, wait till we meet up. We're gonna set the woods on fire. I'm tellin' you, there's gonna be a path of unexplained pet deaths. Insurance rates are gonna climb!''

The fruits of Isaak's rebirth are still pouring in. He's about to go on his first major tour; he plans to spend most of the summer at home in San Francisco, recording a new album. He will surely get more acting assignments (he has a small part as a leader of a SWAT team in The Silence of the Lambs). And to crown his week of glory, Reprise staged a gaudy, sold-out gig at L.A.'s Wiltern Theater. Sean Penn was there. So were Eric Roberts, k.d. lang, Dwight Yoakam, and, standing discreetly in a side aisle, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa. There were lots of young girls, whose screaming Isaak may have to get used to. Afterward came The Hollywood Party, where, amid more dazzling stars, Isaak (decked out in his shiny brocade stage suit) got his first gold record while the waiters passed around goat cheese quesadillas and a Hawaiian band played in the background. It was a lot to handle, but then, as Isaak had said the night before while he molded his modeling clay into an E.T.-like creature from space, ''I used to tar-paper roofs for a living. So, as far as I'm concerned, this is a pretty fun job.''

Originally posted Mar 08, 1991 Published in issue #56 Mar 08, 1991 Order article reprints