"Wicked Game" was a 1990 Chris Isaak hit about obsessive love. And all these years later his songs about love still draw a crowd. Tracy Smith talks with Chris Isaak -- FOR THE RECORD:
On a bone-chilling day in San Francisco a few weeks back, hundreds of people stood in the cold just to see local boy Chris Isaak run through a sound check. The show was still hours away, but Isaak was at his mellow, melancholy best:
I know somebody and they cry for you.
They lie awake at night and dream of you.
I bet you never even know they do,
But somebody's crying.
For more than 30 years, the 59-year-old singer has been making hits and breaking hearts, crooning about bad breakups and lost love with a signature sound that's part rock, part Elvis, and almost all seductive.
You ever love someone so much you thought
Your little heart was gonna break in two?
I didn't think so.
You ever tried with all your heart and soul
To get your lover back to you?
I wanna hope so.
You ever pray with all your heart and soul
just to watch her walk away?
Why are so many of his songs about heartache? "That's what brings out the most emotion in this world: Love, or lack of," Isaak said. "When your heart's broken, I think that's about as most emotional as it gets."
Isaak says his haunting 1990 single, "Wicked Game," came to him in a flash.
Bring your love baby, I could bring my shame.
Bring the drugs baby, I could bring my pain.
I got my heart right here, I got my scars right here,
Bring the cups baby, I could bring the drink.
"It was very fast I wrote that song."
How fast? "Between the time I talked to a certain woman and hung up the phone, and the time she rang the front doorbell in the middle of the night, I had written that song. It was very fast."
The song was his first big hit, and made him an instant sex symbol. But the steamy music video that went with it, shot on location in Hawaii with model Helena Christensen, was even hotter than it looked.
"Behind us, people thought that was smoke added in the back projection or something like that. And that's actually, we're standing about 30 feet from the water on a lava flow, and it was flowing into the ocean behind us and boiling up 'cause steam.
"I mean, we coulda got killed. We could've got killed. It was blowing up big, like, chunks of molten lava. Every once in a while [whooo] just outta the, like, into the air. And everybody go, like, 'Heads up!'"
"So you risked your life for that video," said Smith.
"Yeah. And I learned something: Just because there's a camera running doesn't mean you won't get killed!"
Truth is, not much scares him anymore.
Chris Isaak grew up on the tough side of Stockton, California, the youngest of three boys. Dad drove a forklift; mom was a factory worker who stretched every paycheck by shopping at the local thrift store.
"It wasn't like we were going for fun; it's where we got our clothes and everything," he said.
Isaak's grandparents grew up in town; his great-grandparents were there. "Usually in a town when you have somebody's great-grandparents there, they own the town. In my town, we managed to stay broke for generation after generation!"
In college Isaak was an amateur boxer, and made amateur music with a guitar his big brother, Nick, taught him to play.
"He said, 'Teach me that,'" recalled Nick. "And I taught him everything I knew. Took 15 minutes!"
And those lessons stuck. Isaak has been touring since the '80s, and plays every show like it's his last. He's taken a break now and then for the occasional movie and TV role, including his own cable TV show.
Smith asked, "How close was the Showtime Chris Isaak to the real Chris Isaak?"
"How close is Bullwinkle to a real moose?" he laughed.