Chris Isaak's bugs, drugs and rock'n'roll


By Jim Carnes

“Bad ideas are like bugs on the windshield of my mind,” Chris Isaak sings in “Insects” off his latest album, First Comes the Night.

Isaak, who performs Friday at the Grove at the Red Lion Inn, admits he’s had some bad ideas in his 30-year career as a singer, songwriter and actor. But he’s had a few good ones, too.

Perhaps his best idea was to choose music over boxing. “People look at my nose,” Isaak said in a recent telephone interview, “and they ask where that [ski jump] came from. I tell them: ‘The same place Bob Hope’s did—we were both boxers.’

“I think [Hope’s] nickname was Packy. Mine was Canvas Back, like my Dad’s,” he said. “When I asked why (I got the same name), he said, ‘Cause you’re always on the mat.’

“It didn’t take long to realize I was better at being a singer than a boxer.”

A Stockton native, Isaac remembers his roots. They keep him grounded, he says. He was born in Stockton’s St. Joseph’s Medical Center in June 1956, the son of Joe and Dorothy Isaak. His father, who died in 2012, was a forklift operator and his mother worked in a potato chip factory.

In high school, Isaak was head of the all-male cheer squad at Alonzo Stagg High School.

“I made up cheers. Cheering was my first time performing before an audience. I loved it, and not just the attention, but [there was] joy,” he said.

Isaak attended San Joaquin Delta College before transferring to the University of the Pacific, where he graduated in 1981 with degrees in English and Communication Arts.

“It was odd that I even graduated college,” Isaak said. “Friends asked me what I was going to do, and I said, ‘I’m going to be a singer and have a band.’ Just about everybody else I knew went into their father’s company or farming.”

Isaak moved to San Francisco and began his music career at 23. It was very different from his life before.

“I remember being broke and being in the city. I was going to sleep in my car until I got some work, but I met this girl who said I could crash at her place. I started to move in but the place was full of dope smokers, and some guy was slumped at the kitchen table with a needle in his arm. I said, ‘See you. I’m going back to my car.’”

Isaak sees two approaches to fame as a musician: “You can be a young hard-working person, or you can be a Romeo with a pocketful of needles.

“I didn’t go through school with a cassette recorder instead of a baseball bat for that,” he said. “I really, really like making music, so I keep myself together so I can continue to write and sing. I want to be around for a while (and a while longer),” he said, “and the drinks and partying seem to be the opposite of that. You see these people who get very famous very fast, but they don’t usually last. They don’t usually have a big body of work.”

Isaak’s three-decades-long career is built upon songs with themes of love, loss and heartbreak delivered in a roots-rock style that recalls Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves and Mose Allison.

“My influences are like the greatest American singers—the guys who started rock’n’roll,” Isaak said. You can hear those influences in such seminal songs as “Wicked Game,” “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing,” “Somebody’s Crying” and on such newer tunes as “Going Down in Flames” and “Baby What You Want Me To Do.”

Isaak will share his big and growing body of work Friday at the Grove at the Red Lion Woodlake Inn, at 500 Leisure Lane. The concert begins at7:30 p.m. (or so), with doors opening an hour earlier. Tickets are $35-$89. For more information, call (877) 987-6487 or visit

Our content is free, but not free to produce

If you value our local news, arts and entertainment coverage, become an SN&R supporter with a one-time or recurring donation. Help us keep our reporters at work, bringing you the stories that need to be told.


Stay Updated

For the latest local news, arts and entertainment, sign up for our newsletter.
We'll tell you the story behind the story.