Chris Isaak: 'I almost died for sure'— on surfing, Sun Records and Congress


Chris Isaak almost drowned while surfing, once. He’s been riding waves off the coast of San Francisco for decades. But one day, he went out alone when the water walls were 20-footers.

“And I’m paddling out, and I got hit by a double. One big wave hit me and held me down. And then as I got to the top, before I could take a breath, the next one came and pushed me down,” he tells me.

“I remember blood coming out of my mouth, because I bit my cheek so hard trying not to breath underwater,” he says. “I almost died for sure.”

Isaak — who performs at 9 p.m. Saturday at Mandalay Bay Beach — is a clean-living singer-surfer. When I ask why he’s never been caught in a scandal, he largely attributes this to lifestyle choices.

“I don’t drink, and I don’t do drugs and stuff. I think that helps keep you out of the press, because a lot of times when people get in trouble, they make really stupid mistakes while they’re drunk.”

But then again, he jokes he’s avoided being scandalized because people have low standards for rock star misbehavior.

“If I was a senator, they’d say, ‘Oh my God, he texted a message of himself with his shirt off!’ But if you’re a rock and roll musician, people go, ‘So what?’ That’s why I’d rather be a rock musician.”

Speaking of politicians, out of the blue, he starts telling me he’s upset about the prosecution of Roger Clemens, for allegedly lying to Congress about steroids.

“Congress is going after this baseball player because he lied about steroid use,” he says. “What’s wrong with this picture? This country is falling apart at the seams — and that’s what our Congress is spending our money on?

“They go, ‘The issue is they (baseball people) lied.’ I go, ‘Gee, Congress, really? You had to go out of your own chambers to find a liar?’ The whole place is filled with liars in there. Give me a break.

“What’s next — they blow the lid off of big-time wrestling?" he says and laughs.

But what’s mostly on Isaak’s mind is music. He and his band have recorded classic Sun Records-era songs in Sun Studio in Memphis and at his house. They re-recorded songs by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash.

“We did all these songs we’ve been playing our whole careers at sound check,” he says. “We did it without any computer — no overdub tricks.”

He’s not kidding when he says he adhered to one-take methods from the 1950s.

“It’s usually four guys in a room, or five guys in a room. And everybody plays at one time. And that’s what we did.

“Everybody kept saying, ‘Well, I’ll put on headphones for my part.’ I said, ‘No. No headphones. No overdubs. When I’m singing good, you better be playing good, because that’s the one I’m keeping,” he says and laughs again.

He’s putting those 35 songs or so — including some Isaak originals recorded in the same Sun way — on his next album and box set.

And he’s singing some of those tunes on tour.

My question to Isaak: On stage, which old Sun song gets you the most jazzed to play?

“My favorite song has always been that song, ‘I Forgot to Remember to Forget,’” he says. “So I do Elvis’ doing ‘I Forgot to Remember to Forget.’ Then I’ll do something like ‘It’s Now Or Never,’ or ‘Fools Rush In.’

“We do ‘Walk the Line,’ or ‘Ring of Fire,’ or ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ But then … oddball stuff like ‘Miss Pearl,’ or ‘Don’t You Think It’s Time?’”

This is when I remind Isaak that “Ring of Fire,” co-written by June Carter Cash, has very naughty undertones.

“If you see us live, we’ll throw ‘Ring of Fire’ in. It’s a ball!”