Thursday, July 4, 2013

If You Get Too Close, Prologue and Chapter 1

(When I was 14 I saw Chuck Berry perform a set in a nearly empty auditorium in Sacramento, California.  He's been with me ever since.  This blog turned into a book about my imaginary life with a cultural giant.  You can read it below.)


When I was twenty-two I drove an ailing Fiat east from Seattle, across the Rocky Mountains and the northern states, as far north as Montreal, down through New England and New York, then west, to a small town in Missouri called Wentzville. I kept a journal throughout the trip, but there’s only a short note about this stop: 

“My car almost kicked the bucket in St. Louis. The brakes went out and it began stalling in the 92 degree heat. Then, somewhat mysteriously, the brakes came back, and I managed to make it all the way to Mecca.”

Reading this 33 years later, I worry about the 22 year old who believed in the spontaneous regeneration of Italian brakes, and I wonder about the absence of detail. There was a story to tell, and I ignored it. Maybe I was still hot with shame. Maybe I already knew that I would never forget my sad visit to “Mecca.”

I remember asking at a gas station how to find it. “The rock singer’s place?” The attendant was young, and ill-informed. (He wrote a verse for you, fool!) But he talked me part of the way there.

I asked again at a store piled high with checkered feed bags and wooden cases of warm, bottled Coca Cola.

“The negro singer?” drawled the proprietor. (I write politely here. He said negro with an “a.”) He pointed his hand with disinterest.

I found it across from a gun club— a granite tombstone, with “Welcome” at the top.

Berry Park
Founded August 15, 1957
By the Family
For the People

It didn’t look like a park— no rides, no customers, no hamburgers sizzling on an open grill, no little cutie to take my hat. There was a chain link fence, a long, asphalt driveway, and at the end, a few low buildings painted brick red. 

What I had read about, years prior, was a place where you could sip a cold drink by the pool, get a hot dog, (or maybe a steak a la “carty”, if you had the cash,) and perhaps see the man himself wander by with a rake or a shovel.

What I hoped for, in the hidden recesses of my being, was more: a place where I could check that nonexistent hat, sip that cold drink, and be recognized by the man himself as a long lost, genetically inferior but much loved child. The part of me that still believed in the spontaneous resurrection of faulty brakes wanted to be welcomed into the bosom of my true home.

There is a rational part of me, too, so what I got instead of hope was a growing sense of foreboding and criminal trespass— the open, obvious understanding that, despite the word “Welcome,” (years later it would be masked for a time by an angry piece of gray duct tape,) this was not a public place open to strangers— it was the private estate of a private man.

But my story has nothing to do with rationality. It is a story of gentle madness, of harmless obsession, a lifelong relationship with a person I’ve hardly met and do not know.

So I eased on my brakes and I pulled in the drive.

I remember idling up the asphalt. 

I remember thinking “This is not a commercial establishment.”

I remember that my Fiat got hot and wouldn’t do no more.

The little Fiat sputtered and died maybe 100 yards up the driveway.

A woman came out of one of the buildings another 50 yards away. In my mind there is the creak and bang of a screen door, and a shotgun, like an old western when an unwelcome stranger shows up. But that’s not what happened. She just stood, arms folded, watching me.

“What do you want?” she asked. She had to raise her voice.

I got out of my car. I had no answer.

“Is he here?” I asked, stupidly.

“He’s not.”

I stood there.

“You need to leave.”

I sat obediently and turned the key. The starter whined uselessly, slower and slower. The woman held her post.

I did the only thing I could. I pushed the car backward out the driveway toward the road. I found a little shade by the gravestone. I waited for the heat of the motor to go down. Eventually the car started and I drove until I found a roadside campground somewhere to the west on I-70. I set up my tent in the dwindling sun and lay there, hungry and humiliated.

Such was my first trip to Berry Park.

Chapter One - My Imaginary Friend

I’m driving along in my automobile with my daughter Gemma. She is 17, a beauty, poet, a budding piano player. She’s telling me something important about her own life— something to do with friends. I begin to respond. I tell her that I never had many as a kid or as a grownup—that I’ve always been satisfied with family and a few good friends. I’m already appalled by my own conversation, which so often comes back to me, me, me, one of the only subjects I know. But I continue. I begin repeating a recent theory of mine, that perhaps life happened that way for me because of the outlandishly alcoholic home I grew up in—that I wasn’t comfortable inviting many people into it. It gets quiet. Gemma’s losing patience. She’s heard this before. As we drive in momentary silence my mind clicks and rolls like a slot machine and the idea tumbles out like a small fortune in heavy coins. 

“Maybe Chuck Berry is my imaginary friend!” I say, as if I’ve discovered something important. Gemma rolls her eyes violently and our conversation crashes to a halt. My daughter has little use for my prehistoric rocker. Like her older sister Jade and their little brother Rafferty, she has had enough. 

But I’m on to something— right? My mind is abuzz as we drive in irritated silence.

That night, in bed, I tell my wife, Rebecca. 

She laughs, hard.

I explain to her that I’m not confused or delusional. I know he’s not my friend. I don’t talk to him in the sandbox. I know I don’t know that I’ve made the proper clinical diagnosis.

But isn’t that the explanation?

Because almost all of my life this public person has been an important part of my private life. Gemma and Jade have grown up to stories about the man. Rafferty once believed “Chuck Berry?” was the answer to almost every question. Who’s singing, Rafferty? Do you know who wrote that song, Rafferty? 

Who is the President of The United States, Rafferty?

Rebecca comes home to stories about people in England, France or Sweden whom I’ve never met. 

“Jan sent me a CD today!” I tell her. She has to work to find context.

“The guy in Iowa?” 


But she is no longer listening. And who can blame her? 

In my youth there had been a charm to it. My idol was somewhat obscure, his last big hit seven years old. Kids my age hardly knew him. My high school acquaintances followed the latest trends, but not me. I worshipped rock and roll’s first true poet and guitarist. His early recordings were as fresh in 1971— are as fresh today— as they were in the mid-1950s. My early fixation showed a sort of precociousness.

But I’m a grandfather now, with joint pain and whitening hair. Precociousness is no more. 

I can still justify my admiration. In early 2012, Chuck Berry was honored with the Pen New England Award for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence. Pen New England is America’s oldest literary society. The jury included Salman Rushdie, Paul Simon and Bono. Caroline Kennedy spoke at the ceremony. Bob Dylan sent his regards. Keith Richards sat in the front row. Chuck, alleging deafness in one ear, couldn’t hear the remarks of presenter Paul Simon (Chuck called him “the announcer”) and told him so. Afterwards, in lieu of an acceptance speech, Chuck grabbed Elvis Costello’s guitar and surprised the organizers with a ragged, solo “Johnny B. Goode.” It was all sweet and spectacular, and well deserved, one of dozens of such honors he has received. So my admiration is understandable. He is a legend among legends— a giant not just of rock and roll, but of American art and culture. 

But my problem is not as simple as admiration. 

I edit myself constantly— even with family— so that I might appear less mentally suspect. One day on Facebook Peter from Sweden posts an old magazine spread showing the young Chuck Berry and his family posing in front of a 1950s style hi-fi. Berry’s son, Charles, posts a comment. “They still have that Silvertone console!” he writes. I’m thrilled by this potent bit of trivia. I react like an old CIA analyst to some tidbit from the Kremlin. “They” means that “they”— Chuck Berry and Themetta, his wife of more than 60 years— are still a couple who jointly own furniture and appliances. Their child perceives them as “they.” I like that. I am happy because— forgive me— in some more theoretical and perhaps less strictly factual sense, I, too, am his child, right? Glad to know dad and mom are together! I am equally moved by the fact that “they” still have that Silvertone! I’ve got my camera and drums from 1971, and the guitar I bought in 1975, and a scrap of metal that I picked up on Greenback Lane when I was 15. I keep things, and so, I learn, does Chuck! I’ve learned online that in addition to the 1950s hi-fi, he has his 1980 Caddy, his psychedelic sport coat, various guitars and the dates of all his concert appearances! I know from the movies that he has kept his old, disintegrating bus, charred scraps of personal history, and that in 1986 he had at least three well-preserved, tarpaulin covered 1970s Cadillacs in storage. He keeps what is important. I want to tell Rebecca about the hi-fi— but I don’t. Later I want to tell her again, but I don’t again. My self control is the product of fear. I imagine calling her, explaining the magazine spread, and then telling her that my internet friend Charles, whom I don’t really know, has said thus and such about an old hi-fi. She would feign interest through glazed eyes. She would think to herself “Who is this man that I married and who fathered my child?” I remain silent, but look again the next day, and smile.

A day or two after my “eureka” moment I do some internet research on imaginary friendship and discover a professor of psychology who studies the subject in a serious way. "I'm beginning to think it never goes away," she tells the Seattle Post Intelligencer. "It morphs into a different form." She and her colleagues interviewed 50 novelists about their characters and found that the characters took “a life of their own.”

That’s not exactly how it is with me. After all, my imaginary friend already has a life of his own. But it’s close. She found that “many of these authors developed personal relationships with the characters in their novels and had imagined conversations with them.” 

I don’t have very many imagined conversations with Chuck Berry, although it does happen. It’s difficult to manage in a convincing way. To make it work I have to invent situations that put me in a position to actually talk to the man. That’s harder than it sounds. Just try. To up the level of difficulty try to figure out a reason why Chuck Berry might want to talk back, once you’ve put yourself in a position to utter inanities. (I eventually solved these problems. It took inspiration, and a measure of luck. Remind me to tell you about it.) 

And to be honest, I’ve never been sure that I want to get to know the real Chuck Berry. He’s rumored to be difficult, to have quirks, to be short at times. If he were nasty to me it might compound my neuroses. There’s a YouTube video in which former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman says that he loved Chuck Berry until he met him. (I’m sure I don’t want to meet Bill Wyman.) Unlike Wyman’s, my encounters with the real Chuck Berry, though brief and reasonably shallow, have been wonderful. He has been attentive and kind. But who knows? Really getting to know the man might spoil it for me. 

But there’s no doubt that I’ve constructed an ongoing “personal” relationship with him—or with an imagined facsimile. Indeed, everyone who really knows me has to live with Chuck Berry to some degree. They do draw lines. “I’m tired of your stupid Chuck Berry!” Gemma has told me more than once. Rebecca refused for nearly a decade to watch “the Chuck Berry movie.” Others, like Jade, just nod and wait for me to stop. But they can’t avoid him entirely. My stories keep coming. I keep plucking the same notes on the guitar. I keep writing my blog and watching YouTube clips.

Of course, people who are not like family simply don’t know. I don’t tell them. At best, cornered by circumstance, I might admit that “I’m a big Chuck Berry fan,” as if that explained it.

But it doesn’t.  Being a “big Chuck Berry fan” doesn’t explain the dreams.

I dream about him regularly. In one recent dream I drove him around in my car. He was old, quiet, and a little sad, and wore his captain’s hat. He looked straight ahead through dark glasses. We parked and I told two women in a ticket booth that Chuck Berry was in my car. They were reasonably excited. He got out of the car to sit by himself on a bench near dark water. He returned to my car and was just about to answer my question about his version of the blues “turnaround” when Rafferty jumped into the bed and woke me. I narrowly avoided telling him that he’d interrupted an important conversation with Chuck Berry.

In another dream I watched from a balcony as members of my extended family came off the golf course with Chuck Berry. I remember my sister-in-law Liz, my brother Paul, and my sisters Ann and Maggie, all happy. Chuck, though, must have had a bad round. He was scowling from under one of those stupid golfer caps with a tuft of yarn on top as he pushed open the door of the men’s locker room and disappeared. (I felt left out up there on the balcony, though happy that my brothers and sisters were getting along so well with “dad.”) Oddly, this was not my only reverie about Chuck Berry as athlete. In 1977 or 1978, soon after I moved to Seattle and my brother Paul introduced me to the NBA, I dreamed that Chuck Berry had been an early professional basketball player. In my dream I watched grainy, black and white dream footage of the journeyman Berry executing a layup. “I never knew that about him!” I dreamt.

After looking at some of her research I find the psychology professor’s university e-mail address, send her a detailed outline of my psychosis, and ask if I am on the right track with the diagnosis of “imaginary friend.” She doesn’t respond, but later I find a description of a talk she gave where someone wrote that she was “exploring whether there is a similar kind of imaginary companionship at work in teenagers who idolize a movie or music star and imagine conversations with that person.” 

I take that as a yes. 

(This is part of a 33 chapter book on Chuck Berry.  It's free!  You can continue reading HERE!)


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Chapter 2 - A Gift from Stevo

My brother Stevo is the one who first told me about Chuck Berry. It came in two conversations— lectures really, because there was no give and take. And I doubt that he was talking to me. We weren’t close then. He was older. My guess is that he was talking to Danny, who was closer to Stevo’s age, and that I was sitting nearby, listening.

If I were to guess again, I would say we were in a car, Danny at the wheel of his 1958 Chevy sedan, Stevo riding shotgun, pontificating with lots of hand motion and no eye contact. I was likely in back. But that is only a feeling, because this first lecture is disembodied in my memory, just Stevo’s words describing an old rocker who was “better than Elvis.” This was no recommendation. The Elvis I knew made bad movies and sappy ballads.

Though I have no visual of Stevo talking—only that vague sense of a moving car— I recall exactly the visual I formed of this Chuck Berry fellow. For me “Chuck” meant blond, with freckles. Chuck was the catcher on my little league team. Chuck was the actor who played “The Rifleman” on TV. So the mental image I formed was a 1950s rocker, tall and a bit menacing, with Connors’ high cheek bones—David Bowie with a blond pompadour. He wore a checkered shirt and played an acoustic guitar.

Then one day I was listening to the beginning of The Mike Douglas Show, a daytime talk show and after school favorite of mine. I liked Mike. He seemed genuinely nice, and took time to talk to the musicians who appeared on his show.

This time I have actual memories. It is before my parents separate. I am in the swanky, suburban rambler that we occupy from the time I am nine until I am fourteen. I am listening to the chatter of a small black and white television when the announcer says that Chuck Berry will be on today’s show. That gets my attention.

It is October 22, 1970. Four decades later I learn the date from a reference book and, through the miracle of YouTube, I watch again.

Mike Douglas sits with Cher and Sonny. He says: “In the rock era of the fifties he was an innovator, with tunes like “Maybellene,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Johnny B. Goode. Here is Mr. Chuck Berry!” Sonny and Cher applaud without enthusiasm.

Chuck is standing on a series of risers that look like giant building blocks about four feet tall and three feet square. He’s crowded by the mike stand. One misstep and he’s an innovator with a limp.

He’s wearing yellow pegged slacks that tighten about three inches above his shoes and show skinny ankles. He’s got the purple paisley shirt I’ll see in hundreds of pictures and at a couple of performances over the next 20 years or so. His upturned pencil mustache is mimicking Salvador Dali or Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. He has giant sideburns and slicked back hair. He has the high cheek bones I envisioned, and he might have freckles, but the pompadour is not blond.

The guitar intro is flawless. When he starts to sing he recoils from the volume, but someone adjusts it and he settles into a grim, nearly joyless performance of “Johnny B. Goode.” No wonder I wasn’t overly impressed. The band plays a lifeless arrangement with bass and drums that are too neat and horns that are dorky. (A comment posted on YouTube says : “Man, that band is really dragging Chuck down. That bass player flat sucks!”) During the instrumental break Chuck has to climb down from the riser without tripping over his guitar cord and killing himself, all the while picking a complicated solo. You can see his relief when he finally gets to the stage where he can dance and do his “scoot.” With his too-short pants he looks a bit like what Michael Jackson will look like 10 or 11 years later at the Motown 25th anniversary show except that these pants are totally uncool.

I watch, interested, but unchanged.

Why I remember that show I’m not sure. I had no real stake in Chuck Berry then. The obsession didn’t hit until four months later, in winter. It is a testament to whatever Stevo told me about the man that I filed away fragments of this event as lifelong memories. It’s as if Stevo’s words were an injection of live virus for which I had no antibodies.

A few months later, in December, on the other side of the same split level rambler, I’m awakened by loud music and voices. This has to be just days or weeks before our life at that house will end— days or weeks before we will leave my father and move to an old Victorian farm house on the edge of town. It can’t happen too soon. The house and our life in it have become disturbing. There’s too much craziness. Even the dark paneling on this side of the house—the side where I sleep— is nightmarish. In my young mind the dark waves of wood grain are like shrieking ghosts, the incarnation of what scares me about our life in this place.

This night Stevo and Danny are in the sunken, paneled room where my father usually watches television. It’s around midnight. Danny and Stevo are watching the Dick Cavett show at high volume. They are laughing and talking. I sleep in the next room, but as Chuck says, no use of me complaining, my objection’s overruled. I get up and walk to the den, bleary with interrupted sleep.

I remember colored stage lights and glinting chrome. “Who is this?” I ask.

“Chuck Berry,” says Stevo. He’s not lecturing now, he’s annoyed at my interruption.

It’s a color television and a more exciting performance than I saw on Mike Douglas. I watch, but I’m too groggy to be affected. I go back to bed and to sleep.

And then, (because all of this happens over a fall, and a winter), maybe a few months later, Stevo again holds forth on Chuck Berry. I know this is later because we have left the suburban rambler. We are living in changed and changing circumstances— released from a five year nightmare of alcohol and insanity in the suburbs. The drunken howling is no more. The scary paneling is behind me. My mother, my sister Ann and I have moved, just weeks prior, to a dream world: a yellow Victorian in Orangevale, with a three story tower, a rock garden, small pastures and barns.

Stevo must be visiting. He has his own apartment—one of the dozens he occupied in those years. We are in the living room. Stevo is by the door. He moves from the door to the piano, waving his hands, lecturing again.

Stevo is short, stocky and Irish in a half Irish family where the men tended to be tall and (in our youth) lean. He’s got a mustache and goatee. He wears his brown hair pushed back, a bit like the man he’s talking about. It’s continuation of the same lecture he started months before: Chuck Berry 101. He’s describing a show he attended at the Fillmore in San Francisco, a show that was mostly blues.

“He’s not really a blues guy,” says Stevo, “not like Muddy Waters, or B. B. King, or Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland.” Stevo, at age 20 or 21, has been toughened by fights and car crashes and stints in jail. His face is scarred. There is a round half circle punched into his cheek by the steel rim of a steering wheel hub.

“You can tell he came up playing in blues clubs,” he tells us. “He knows that stuff. He’s good at it, too.”

Stevo probably knows nothing about Chuck Berry’s actual and specific history—how he started in North St. Louis and East St. Louis, playing blues and bits of country music at places like The Crank Club and the Cosmopolitan— but he’d seen Chuck Berry play a bluesy set and had processed it through his tremendous stores of pop culture knowledge and is here to testify, to teach, to bear witness. He leans over my mother’s old baby grand piano and picks out bit of two or three fingered boogie-woogie.

“He ain’t a bluesman, but he can play it! He’s good at it!”

I’m 14 years old. I don’t know what a bluesman is, or who Bobby “Blue” Bland is, or that the boogie-woogie music Stevo is playing is what formed the backbone to so many of Chuck Berry’s early rock ‘n’ roll hits. But Stevo’s words have altered me, and within weeks or months I will feel raw, slow guitar pouring bent blue notes through the doors of an old civic auditorium, and when I push those doors open, my life will change forever.

(This is part of a 33 Chapter "book" on my imaginary life with Chuck Berry.  You can keep reading HERE!)


Monday, July 1, 2013

Chapter 3 - Infection

(Wherein our hero sees his hero Chuck Berry for the first time live.   This is the third chapter of a "book" you can read online here for free.)

I hear about it on the car radio. It’s February 13, 1971. I’m fourteen. I am with my mom. Maybe Stevo told her about Chuck Berry, too, or maybe she’s concerned about the recent upheaval in our lives, because she encourages me.

“You should go,” she says.

My parents have just separated. My father, who is 70, and weakened in mind and body by decades of alcoholism, has been exiled to a nice apartment where a home health attendant named Jose takes care of him and urges us to take him back. “It’s wrong to leave him this way” Jose tells me when I visit. Daddy is on the bed, drunk. Jose wears starched white and looks at me sternly. He probably left his own father in a village a thousand miles away. I’m stung but remain strong. I figure my dad left me, opting instead for gallons of Old Crow that he mixes with tall, tinkling bottles of Diet Rite Cola.

Only Ann, my mom and I live at the Orangevale house, but an earthquake in Los Angeles has brought my oldest sister, Rooney, home for a visit. (She doesn’t know, but she will never go back to her husband, or to Los Angeles.) I ask her to take me to the show. I’m too young to drive. Ann, who is two years older than me, comes, too. We arrive downtown late but have no trouble parking next to the concert hall. That should tell us something about the size of the crowd we will encounter.

The show is at the Memorial Auditorium, a beautiful old place, built of brick and terra cotta, set among trees and green grass in the center of downtown Sacramento. The place reeks of wrestling, boxing, bad opera and old rock and roll shows.

We get to the lobby ticket window a few minutes after the scheduled start of a three act show. A local group called Slo Loris is supposed to be opening. A kid named Little Dion is the second act. We aren’t in a hurry because we only want to see Chuck Berry, and the ticket lady isn’t in a hurry because she is not the sort to be in a hurry. But while she counts our change blues guitar leaks through the auditorium doors.

“Has the show started?” we ask. She’s grumpy even though nobody’s there to bother her except us. The lobby is empty.

“He started about five minutes ago” she says, without looking up.

“Who started? Chuck Berry?”

“Five minutes ago.”

This is alarming news. Chuck Berry is supposed to be on top, the headliner. He’s the reason we came. We push open the auditorium door and there he is, seemingly alone on stage, just him and his guitar, playing the blues.

That is the moment of infection. If it had happened differently— if I had entered the sort of jam-packed crowd that Chuck Berry usually played in those days, with thousands of people dancing and clapping; if we had been forced to find places for ourselves in some far corner and crane our necks— if had happened differently, I think that my life would have turned out differently. No dreams. No blog. No transcontinental journeys. No obsession.

But the huge room is empty—a few hundred people in the front rows, and a few hundred more along the sides and balconies. We walk straight to the seventh or eighth row. There’s no need to sit down. There’s no one behind us. And the sheer emptiness allows me— forces me—to focus all of my imagination on this man.

And there is Chuck Berry, tall, lean, wearing jeans and an orange shirt, hair slicked back, eyes half closed, high cheekbones tilted at the mike, singing something slow and sad and woeful.

He isn’t the man I saw on television. This is someone thoroughly real, alone in a third rate town, backed by a local band, playing to a crowd that hardly qualifies as such. I’m clobbered by the melancholy of it.

His guitar is a cherry red Gibson. It sparkles under the lights. He bends powerful clusters of notes, two or more at a time. It’s loud and raw. His voice is mournful and a bit scratchy. It is one of my first introductions to the blues.

Forty years later old posters on the internet will tell me that Chuck Berry played at the Memorial Auditorium at least twice before I saw him there. On August 24, 1957, nine days after founding Berry Park, he costarred there with his idol, Louis Jordan, and singer “Sugar Pie” De Santo. Louis Jordan wasn’t just a musical hero for Berry. Jordan’s guitarist, Carl Hogan, gave Berry the outlines of Berry’s signature guitar intro— the four bar lick that opens “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and about half of Berry’s live songs. De Santo—a tiny, beautiful woman with a big voice and stage presence— has endured about as long as Berry. I was thrilled to see a recent video of her singing the blues at a festival on the streets of San Francisco.

Berry played another show at the Memorial Auditorium just a few months later, on his 31st birthday, October 18, 1957. It was quite a lineup. Chuck co-starred with Fats Domino, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, The Everly Brothers, The Crickets, Eddie Cochran, The Drifters and Frankie Lymon. You have to figure it was a somewhat different crowd than the Louis Jordan/Chuck Berry show a few months prior.

In his autobiography Chuck is unkind to Sacramento. (He’s not alone in this.) Describing the 1957 tours he says “It seemed that all the senior citizens were in Sacramento, all the parents were in Fresno, and San Francisco was oriented to natives and beatniks.” I find it hard to believe that many senior citizens showed up at the rhythm and blues review in August, or the rock and roll bash that fall. My wild guess is that Chuck was not so fondly remembering my first Chuck Berry show, on February 13, 1971— a sad sort of show played to a nearly empty hall that felt, that night, like a senior center, or maybe a hospice.

So when we walk into that empty hall, he’s playing the blues. Who knows what the song is. Perhaps it’s the Tampa Red / Elmore James classic “It Hurts Me Too.”

When things go wrong
Go wrong with you
It hurts me too.

Maybe it’s Little Walter’s “Mean Old World.” Or maybe it’s Chuck’s own “Wee Wee Hours.”

One last song
For a fading memory

But he knows he’s alone here, in an empty hall, in a drab town, with a mediocre band of young local musicians. They’re scared, but they’re trying. And so does Chuck Berry. He pushes through a full set, clowning, dancing, doing splits and the duck walk, getting the small crowd up on its feet for most of the show.

He tries to get the local guitarist to solo. The guy smiles humbly and plunks a single note. (He probably still regrets that impotence.) Chuck laughs and gestures “Why?” But it’s the kid’s loss. All Chuck Berry needs is his guitar, an amplifier, and a crowd, however sparse. He plays songs I know only somewhat, by cultural osmosis: they’re rocking in Boston, and Philadelphia, PA. He plays a couple of songs I think of as Beatle songs and suddenly realize probably are not. He finishes with “Johnny B. Goode,” bowing as he backs off stage, still playing a guitar held upright in front of himself like a religious offering— and then he’s gone, like a cool breeze, the band still rumbling away, and finally a story from the emcee about a mix-up in schedules and another show that night in Los Angeles. If there’s another show, Chuck Berry probably booked it from a back stage phone when he saw the receipts for that night in Sacramento. We figure he just wants to get out of our geriatric cow town as quickly as possible with whatever small bit of cash it has yielded.

We watch the other acts for as long as we can stand it, but it’s a steep downhill slide. The band that backed him returns for some acid rock. When the diminutive Little Dion, perhaps ten years old and dressed in colored tights and a floppy hat, launches into “It’s a Man’s World,” we leave.

(This is part of a book length piece on my imaginary life with one of America's cultural icons.  You can keep reading Here! or find the beginning of it HERE.

11/13/12 5:58
7/1/13 11:52

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Chapter 4 - Why He Matters, Part One: Chuck Berry as Songwriter

One night I challenge my wife Rebecca to name someone with more cultural impact than Chuck Berry. 

“Shakespeare,” she says.

She gets me, first time.

“Okay, but he’s the only one!” I stammer, less confident.

I am quick to acknowledge other musical geniuses—greater ones: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk.

There are many better singers. There are better guitar players (though not many who could be called more important or more influential). I’m not sure there are better entertainers—just different ones. Few songwriters can match him.

But Chuck Berry’s importance goes beyond the music, or the songs, or the poetry, or the performance. He is one of the big daddies of modern history. In the pantheon of important and great Americans I think he matches all but two. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln are alone at the top. But when you accept that an artist can be as important as a military leader, or a politician, or an industrialist, or an inventor—and I certainly do—then he is up there with the most important. Compare Chuck Berry to the self important— to murderers for hire like Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney. See who actually matters. Some men are distinguished only by the slaughter and heartache they cause, or what they stole. Chuck Berry changed a culture.

He didn’t do it alone, and though his art and his career moves were carefully calculated, he didn’t exactly do it on purpose; but he was part of a movement that delivered us from days of old to a new and different and in many ways a better place. And there is something unique about his individual role. He wasn’t just a singer, or a star, or a guitarist, or performer, or poet, or songwriter, or businessman, or felon, or genius, or icon—he was all of that. It is no accident that he was born and stayed at the very heart of the country and continent, on a river that has symbolized the soul of that country from the time of Twain until the time of Dylan. Nor is it mere coincidence or happenstance that in his fourth recording session he told Tchaikovsky the news and then, in the 60 years that followed, lived up to the boast.

He might deny his importance. He once told a reporter “I ain’t no big shit.” But he is a big shit— a popular artist who achieved uncommon results in the vernacular. Our Dante. Our Shakespeare. A man who does everything Mark Twain did, but backwards, with a guitar. And like both Twain and Shakespeare, he did it as much to earn a living as to make art.

It starts, of course, with the songs— dozens and dozens and dozens of them. Hundreds, actually. Written, Chuck Berry will tell you, for commercial purposes. “I was writing commercially then,” he says of “Johnny B. Goode.” In the film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll he says “Half the young people go to school so I wrote about school… Half the young people have cars and I wrote about cars. And mostly all the people, if they are not now, they’ll soon be in love—and those that have loved and are out of love remember love, so write about love. So I wrote about all three.”

The vast majority of Chuck Berry songs are “good” songs. (There are definitely some clunkers.) But then there are the great ones— the two minute ditties with the fast folk poetry and searing 10 second guitar breaks, the songs recorded at Chess Records between 1955 and 1964, with Johnnie Johnson, Otis Spann, or Lafayette Leake on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, and Ebby Hardy, Fred Below, or Odie Payne on drums—those songs—“Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day,” “Memphis,” “Nadine,” “No Money Down,” “Maybellene,” and more— those songs come as close to perfection as we human beings get. They have it all: energy, poetry, youth, sass, nostalgia, family, fantasy, comedy, rhythm, rhyme and blues.

The poet Cornelius Eady, who wrote a poem entitled Chuck Berry about Chuck Berry, wrote in an e-mail that “John Lennon once called CB one of America's great poets, and I have heard (and read) little to dis sway me of that notion."

Consider “Johnny B. Goode,” recorded by hundreds of different groups and individuals, played by hundreds of thousands of small time singers, guitarists, and bands, in millions of performances, a song that was sent out to the galaxy on both Voyager spacecraft to represent humanity’s better angels to other worlds. “This is a present from a small, distant world,” wrote President Jimmy Carter to whatever distant life form first spins “Johnny B. Goode” on that ultimate, intergalactic gold record, “a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” (The joke, on Saturday Night Live, is that the first radio message received from aliens in outer space says “Send more Chuck Berry!”) It’s a song so overplayed and omnipresent that it should be cliché, but Chuck’s original version, recorded in 1958, never grows old. And no wonder— it has everything: ringing guitar, pounding bass, Lafayette Leake’s rippling piano, great drums, inventiveness, a perfect title (the economy of turning “be” into an initial), a timeless story, and vivid imagery: the log cabin “made of earth and wood,” the gunny sack, the tree, the railroad track, the great name envisioned in lights. (He wrote it after seeing his own name on the marquee of a theater in New Orleans.) It is pure and perfect poetry, the best all around rock and roll song ever recorded, and probably the greatest American song of all time—that famous “Great American Novel” crystallized in two minutes and 42 seconds of perfect sound.

But wait—there’s more! The ode to broken homes called “Memphis, Tennessee!” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” rock and roll’s first manifestation of black pride. There’s the angst and excitement of young love in “Carol” and “Little Queenie.” There’s the sexual frustration of “No Particular Place to Go,” and the sexual riot of his live version of “Reelin’ and Rockin’.” There’s the youthful frustration of “Almost Grown,” the youthful fantasy of “You Never Can Tell,” the youthful energy of “School Day.” There’s the geography and history of “Promised Land,” the insane, unstoppable energy of “Let it Rock!” the crushed spirit of “Oh, Louisiana,” the hard blues of “Have Mercy Judge,” and the charming innocence of “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

New York Times writer Verlyn Klinkenborg called “Memphis” a “short story,” and found herself haunted by “the metrical precision of the lyrics, its emotional realism and, of course, the revelation in the penultimate line. You know the one: that this is a father’s mournful love song to his daughter, Marie, who is only 6 years old.”

“What I really find myself listening to,” wrote Klinkenborg, “is Chuck Berry the sociologist of incredible economy. It’s the open-ended plea to that disembodied personage, ‘Long-distance information.’ It’s the household where uncles write messages on the wall. It’s the geographical precision of Marie’s home, ‘high up on a ridge, just a half a mile from the Mississippi bridge.’ Undercutting it all is the very hopelessness of the singer’s plea.”

“Too Much Monkey Business,” almost a protest song, is the certain inspiration for Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and a probable inspiration for the Stones’ “Satisfaction.” In his autobiography Berry said he wrote it to describe “the kinds of hassles a person encounters in every day life” and says he “would have needed over a hundred verses to portray the major areas that bug people the most.”

It begins with Chuck’s lead guitar ringing exactly like a bell.

Deedlee-dee, deedlee dee,
deedlee-dee, deedlee-dee,
deedlee dee, deedlee-dee,

Then Willie Dixon’s jazzy acoustic bass, answered by Chuck‘s chords and Johnnie Johnson’s rippling piano. The song doesn’t have the boogie-woogie rhythm guitar work that Chuck Berry became so famous for (almost none of the early songs have it); the roots here are jazzier, with strummed chords. The sound is incredibly light and clear, like a flat rock skipping over wind dimpled water on a bright day. It swings. But when the band jolts to a stop to make room for the lyrics, it’s pure rock and roll.

Running to and fro
Hard working at the mill
Never fail in the mail here come a rotten bill

Chuck’s 29 when he sings that first verse, but his voice sounds older. Unlike “School Day” or “Oh Baby Doll,” this isn’t teenage stuff—it’s real world frustration, “16 Tons” with a backbeat. He doesn’t use the fine diction his mother insisted upon here—“business” is pronounced “bidness,” or just “bi’ness,” “here” is “hiya.”

Salesman talking to me
Tryin’ to run me up a creek
Says you can buy it go and try it
You can pay me next week—Ahh!

This is where Mick Jagger, an accomplished Berry scholar, first hears absence of Satisfaction:

Man comes on to tell me
How white my shirts can be,
But he can’t be a man cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me.
I can’t get no

And it’s a radical song. In 1956 Chuck Berry sings:

Blond hair, good lookin’
Trying to get me hooked
Wants me to marry, settle down,
Get home, write a book. Hmmf!

In 1956 it’s against the law in many states, and frowned on in all of the others, for Chuck Berry to marry a blonde—especially, it seems, in 1958 Missouri, where what passed for the law routinely stopped, prosecuted, and once imprisoned the man for dalliances with any female not black. How dare he sing these words? Of course, maybe it’s not Chuck— but we know it is: it’s Chuck rounding third and heading for a once forbidden place he admits had always tantalized him; and somehow, in a way, predicting his own future, since in just two months (according to his Autobiography) he’d meet the good looking blonde who would share much of his life and ultimately help him write his book. (Maybe the book is off by a few months. Maybe he’d already met her.)

That same day he recorded “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” whose first hero is “arrested on charges of unemployment.” Another radical song! It ends with another hero smacking the game winning home run. It so happens I was born a month after that song was recorded. My wife, Rebecca, once bought me an old LIFE magazine from the week that I was born. It’s a pretty scary document. There’s an ad for Heinz that tells how to make “Baked Fish in Ketchup Sauce.” There’s a Cadillac ad that would have got Chuck’s attention. In another a bunch of women hold up enormous panties that would make Bridget Jones’ boyfriend laugh. A dozen or so ads for Bourbon explain my father’s taste in tragedy. But the only brown eyed man in the whole magazine is Willie Mays, who, an ad for Wheaties explains, hit 51 homers the year prior. That makes me happy. I’ve always compared Willie and Chuck. Willie was described as a five tool player, who could hit, hit with power, field, throw and run. Chuck can write, write with poetry, sing, perform, and play. As a kid I saw Willie Mays in San Francisco, and I always figured it was Willie who was rounding third and heading for home in Chuck’s song of black pride.

If you want to appreciate Chuck Berry the singer, try to spit out the first line of “No Money Down”— “Well Mister I want a yellow convertible”— in the space allotted. (Pronounce it “convoitable.”) The syllables just keep coming, like circus clowns from a broken down old ragged Ford. Cars are, of course, everywhere in Chuck Berry songs, from the sleek “Flight DeVille” to the beaters in “Dear Dad,” “Come On,” and “Move It.” In “You Can’t Catch Me” Flat Top “comes movin’ up with me, then goes waving goodbye, in a little old souped-up jitney.” Pierre and the Mademoiselle also owned “a souped-up jitney, ‘twas a cherry red ’53.” Nadine and Maybellene are last seen in Cadillacs— a coffee colored one for coffee colored Nadine. Girls disappearing in Cadillacs are a big reason why the hero of “No Money Down” has to get out of his “broken down old ragged Ford” and into a “yellow convertible four door De Ville,” but it’s twice the Caddy.

I want air conditioning
I want automatic heat
I want a full Murphy bed
In my back seat
I want short wave radio
I want TV and a phone
You know I got to talk to my baby
When I’m riding alone…

“Let it Rock” is a grown up work song. I’m pretty sure it’s one of Chuck Berry’s own favorites. I don’t recall a show where he didn’t sing it, and with plenty of room for guitar, it always gets him going.

In The Heat Of The Day Down In Mobile, Alabama
Working on the railroad with the steel driving hammer
Got to make some money to buy some brand new shoes
Tryin' to find somebody to take away these blues
She don't love me, hear ‘em singing in the sun
Payday's coming and my work is all done

This isn’t “Johnny B. Goode.” No one’s going to make a motion picture. It’s a song about energy, motion and an unstoppable force.

Everybody's scrambling, running around
Picking up their money, tearing the teepee down
Foreman wants to panic, 'bout to go insane
Trying to get the workers out the way of the train
Engineer blows the whistle loud and long
Can't stop the train, gotta let it roll on

Another wild one is “Promised Land”—the same sort of motion, but this time across the country by bus, train and plane to California. The song starts with an abbreviated Carl Hogan guitar intro and then rolls unstoppably, like the train in “Let it Rock,” the only pause being a T-bone steak “a la carty” high over Albuquerque. It’s never seemed like a coincidence that “Promised Land,” written a matter of months after the terrorist bombing of a church killed three little girls, talks about “trouble that turned into a struggle in downtown Birmingham.” Nor is it coincidence that the “Po’ boy” wants to get “across Mississippi clean.” Chuck Berry was nearly lynched in Mississippi by drunken frat boys who feigned outrage when he returned the kiss of a white girl who jumped on stage. Guess who got arrested.

In 2011, I would learn more about history and more about the lyrics of Promised Land. I was watching a television show celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders—a racially mixed group of young people who attempted to integrate commercial busses in 1961. A group of them are attacked in the Rock Hill bus station. The police who are supposed to protect the riders vanish.

No wonder the Po’ Boy’s Greyhound chooses to “bypass Rock Hill.”

And no wonder these songs grow larger and more powerful with time. It is like Chuck Berry dipped deeply into the Missouri or the Mississippi Rivers and pulled up what makes us who and what we are.

The untroubled vocals and sprightly guitar disguise something weightier and more important. This isn’t a silly trip on busses, trains and planes. This is the same Promised Land that Martin Luther King saw, but viewed through Chuck Berry’s unique perspective. Think how a ballet dancer’s art makes his partner look weightless. That’s what Chuck Berry does with his humor and his guitar. Don’t be fooled.

Rebecca was right, Shakespeare has more significance. But not many others.

(This is part of a book length piece.  It continues below.)

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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Chapter 5 - The Golden Decade

The day after that first Chuck Berry show I hop on my bike and ride half a mile to a drab discount store called Rasco Tempo, where I buy my first Chuck Berry record.

It’s a small miracle that Rasco Tempo has any Chuck Berry at all. He is not exactly top of the pops. He has just played to a crowd of hundreds in a downtown hall that seats thousands. And Rasco Tempo isn’t downtown. It’s in Citrus Heights, a small, bleak patch of suburban Texas transplanted to the outskirts of suburban Sacramento. (We live across the invisible line in Orangevale, a patch of Oklahoma.)

Rasco Tempo (“a Division of Gamble-Skogmo, Inc.”) is where I pass bored hours looking at models and hardware, but I shall learn over the coming year that Rasco Tempo’s record bins, though small, hide interesting treasures. I will buy a great Jimmy Reed record there soon, and one day I will find, for .66 cents, “Best of the Biggest,” with two songs each by Howlin’ Wolf, Ray Charles, Elmore James, B. B. King and Bobby Blue Bland.

But this day I find a double album called “Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade.” The outer packaging is a bit ugly. There is a gold record on the front, surrounded by black, with black lettering that looks like the rub-on decals from the hobby shop. I hold it and know that I am embarking on a new sort of musical journey— one that clearly doesn’t benefit from the slick and expensive marketing that the Beatles and Rolling Stones enjoy. The gold isn’t rich looking—it’s drab, faded, and nearly colorless, like Rasco Tempo itself.

The back cover has a nicer esthetic— pure white, with gold lettering that lists the 24 songs. It looks a little like The Beatles white album, though its original release actually predated the Beatles record.

When I get it home and tear off the plastic wrapper I find four black and white photographs inside that capture my attention for several years. Three are from recording sessions. In the biggest Chuck Berry is at the mike, singing, and strumming the guitar with just his thumb. The strings are vibrating. He’s in a white shirt and thin black tie. He looks his true age at the time—probably mid-to late 30s. There’s an authenticity to this and the next two shots that mesmerizes me. He’s a working musician, with no frills. (We are in that age after Woodstock where almost every rock and roll and soul star wears clothing with fringe, brocade, leather, and glitter.) In the next shot the tie is off and the guitar is a fatter one. He’s sitting down. He looks ageless. Actually, he looks about 50, although I’m sure he’s in his 30s. He’s looking at music on a stand and gesturing, as if there’s a discussion about how the song should be played. In the next he’s young and lean and sucking hard on cigarette. There is bare insulation in rafters up above.

On the front cover are the misleading words “The ORIGINAL Two Albums.”

Not quite. “Golden Decade” included 24 songs released between 1955 and 1964. The songs originally had been scattered over six or seven albums and a bunch of singles. But they were originals, and thank goodness for that. And thank goodness for small lies. Without those words I might have bought one of the records then available on Mercury Records. If I had bought Chuck Berry’s greatest hits as re-recorded years after the fact for Mercury, my life would have unfolded differently. I would have listened, yawned, and lived to tell the story: “Yeah— I saw Chuck Berry once.”

I might have been normal.

But I got the real thing—the originals recorded for the Chess Record Company in Chicago between 1955 and 1965.

Chess Records was one of the great, small record companies that helped change world music in the late 1940s and the early1950s. It was run by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess. The company became famous by producing a string of hits for bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Howlin’ Wolf. A big single might sell 10,000 copies. But then Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry showed up. The Chess brothers recognized they had something new, and suddenly a company the company was pressing and selling hundreds of thousands of copies and producing top hits on the pop charts. The beautiful thing is that it was the same music, played by many of the same studio musicians, just tweaked a bit for a younger, and often whiter, generation of fans.

And at 14 I’m even younger! I come to this music 16 years late. “Maybellene” and “Wee Wee Hours” were recorded before I was even born.

I’m up in the tower room of our old house—a room with windows on four sides but nearly empty except for a bed, my drum set, and an old stereo. It’s where Stevo sleeps if he’s visiting. I put down the needle and feel mounting excitement as song after song blasts from the speakers, each wittier, wilder, raggedier, and better than the last: “Maybellene,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Nadine,” “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Thirty Days,” “Memphis,” “Almost Grown,” “School Days,” “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” “Bye Bye Johnny,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Rock and Roll Music.”

When I’m not dancing my head is between the speakers. The sound is full of rough edges and reverberation—the raw, energetic sound of creation. I used to describe it as sounding like it was recorded in a garbage can. It was a bad analogy, but not too bad. I’ve learned since that some of the vocals were recorded in the bathrooms at Chess to capture the prehistoric reverb of a ceramic tile bounce. Once electronic reverb was available Chess records were flooded with it. But this didn’t result in a spacey sound. The bass is deep. The piano is sharp. The drums are slamming. And there is an electric bite to Chuck and Muddy’s guitars that I’ve seldom heard elsewhere.

In other words—Chess records sound like live performance.

It helps that they were, essentially, live. Mistakes hardly mattered compared to the energy—and that energy could only result from a single, charged performance with all instruments blasting. (A little overdubbing of lead guitar doesn’t neutralize the vibrancy of the original jam.)

The sound may have been Leonard Chess’s peculiar genius. He knew what he wanted, and got it, even if he had to kick out the drummer and slam the bass drum himself. It also had a lot to do with Malcom Chisolm, a Chess recording engineer who sat almost anonymously at the center of cultural history and who worked on Chuck Berry’s records as late as the “Back Home” album in 1969, and maybe longer.

Berry’s short guitar solos take flight and tell stories as interesting as the lyrics—musical stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The guitar can ring like a bell, or cut like sharp teeth, or burn like fire depending on the urgency of the moment and the setting on the amp. The drums echo. There are maracas on “Maybellene,” horns on “Nadine,” background voices on “Almost Grown,” and behind all of it, a rippling, roaming piano that never stops.

As I listen I begin to see my first images and make my first feeble connections—the mother waving, doors flying back, police with billy clubs, Nadine’s long leg and nice behind. And I see context. The Beatles, though disbanded, are still a very big deal. I hadn’t known until the night before that two of “their” songs—“Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over Beethoven”— are Chuck Berry songs. But there’s more. As I listen I figure out that the song “Back in the U.S.A.” was the inspiration for “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” and when I hear “Ol’ Flattop” come “movin’ up quickly” in the song “You Can’t Catch Me”—a line recycled in The Beatles “Come Together”—I just about flip.

(Read the earlier chapters in "Pages," to the right, or follow the link to Chapter One.)


Friday, June 28, 2013

Chapter 6 - Daddy

It’s the summer of 2010. I call an archivist for the city of Sacramento. A manager at the Sacramento Convention Center has told me “She knows everything.” I tell her that I’m researching a Chuck Berry show at the Memorial Auditorium that I’d attended as a teenager. I think it happened in 1971. Can she find the date? She promises to look and get back to me. The next day I get an e-mail:

Dear Peter:

I did find that Chuck Berry played Memorial Auditorium on February 13, 1971. Also on November 24th 1971 there was a “50s Rock & Roll Revival” but the listing doesn’t mention who played. I can also tell you that 800 people attended the Berry concert and over 4,000 attended the rock & roll revival.
I attended both of those shows. The Rock & Roll Revival show was a roaring success, with a full house and at least a half a dozen acts. Chuck Berry ended it with a short, victorious set that topped even his friend Bo Diddley. But it is that first show, on February 13, 1971, that has always haunted me. Now, forty years after the fact, I make a startling connection.

I have always known that Chuck Berry is a father figure to me—albeit an odd one, and as different from my own father as could be. My father was born in 1901, 25 years before Berry. He was 55 when I was born. When I first saw Chuck Berry, my father was 70 and doing poorly. Chuck—the “father of rock ‘n’ roll”—was a mere 45.

The only song I ever heard my dad sing was a seafarer’s song called “Down Among the Dead Men,” which he sang in a descending bass that sounded like a fog horn as the seaman’s body sank “down, down, down, down—down among the dead men.” (It’s hard now not to hear a certain resemblance to “Downbound Train,” a traditional pub song that Chuck Berry covered and took as his own.) My dad was no longer thin by the time I knew him, his belly swollen by rib-eye steaks and whiskey. And where Chuck Berry, a non-drinker, was always sober, my dad rarely was.

I was the youngest of his children. When I was little he was, of course, my hero, and a worthy one—a nice, nice man, funny, a former athlete who knew a host of famous and not-so-famous ex- ball players. (They used to come to our house on his birthday and get drunk. We tended to leave.) He was well known in his home town Sacramento. When he was young someone sent a letter to him from across the state. Instead of an address, the sender glued a picture of my dad to the front of the envelope over the word “Sacramento.” He got the letter.

He had so many friends he couldn’t remember them all. I remember when some happy guy accosted him after church. My dad talked and joked and slapped his back for several minutes. As we walked away he asked my mom “Who was that guy?”

When I was small he still had his own business, installing lawns and selling grass and garden supplies near the highway. By then it was more of a hobby than anything else, or maybe a place to drink without interruption. Sometimes he took me along. There were huge piles of black peat, top soil and rice hulls. Rice hulls are the hard, paper light sleeves that wrap a grain of rice while it’s growing. My dad would add them to soil as a sort of mulch. They were slippery, and fun to sink into. There were still nice moments. I remember that we occasionally walked next door to the Shell station for a Bireley’s Orange.

At work, and most of the time until he finally retired, my dad wore white t-shirts and khaki work pants. When he retired he switched to polo shirts, slacks and cardigans.

Once, when I was six or seven, my dad stopped his pickup while backing out the driveway, and watched my mom wave goodbye to us with a happy smile.

“Pete, your mom is the most beautiful woman in the world,” he told me.

“No,” I told him. “The Virgin Mary is the most beautiful.” I clearly needed a rock and roller in my life, but daddy laughed and said I was probably right.

Within a year he was sharing a bedroom with me. I don’t know if that move represented a rough form of family planning or if it was motivated by his collapse into alcohol. Probably both. I remember in the bedroom we briefly shared watching him open a high cupboard. His back was to me. There was the “kssk-kssk-kssk” of a screw cap. He leaned back to swallow, then turned to smile and wipe his lips. I didn’t know it was odd to keep whisky in a bedroom closet, but I was learning.

Even in those early days he wasn’t always kind. He attended my first little league game and stood, glaring, hands in pockets, a few yards to my left as I played right field—a position he called “Left Out.” He barked some instructions, and then left. He never came back.

But I felt loved and cared for by him until the eve of my ninth birthday, when understanding hit like a freight train. We were moving. It was a considerable upgrade, from a small, stucco flat top to a split level rambler with a swimming pool. Our upward mobility was financed primarily by my mother’s real estate acumen. She had an eye for cheap lots that later sold at a profit.

For some reason my dad, my sister Ann and I were going to inaugurate the new house by spending a night there before everyone else. The rest of the family would move in the next day.

The house had two distinct sections. The main house, up front, was older, with plasterboard walls. The back wing, where I lived, was new, modern, and dark, with the dark wood paneling that would later frighten me, and dark, cork floors. That night we entered the house through a long, dark hallway in this newer section. My dad was startled by a sudden dip in the hallway floor. He dropped a bottle, which shattered into a thousand dangerous pieces.

That’s when childhood shattered. My father was suddenly an angry bully. He made me clean up the mess while he berated me. (For not cleaning fast enough? Cheerfully enough?) I remember the sour smell of the bourbon, the shards of glass, and my own irritation. I was angrier than he was. I talked back to him for the first time. “It’s not my fault! I didn’t break it!” Daddy stood over me, barking instructions. It was the man from the right field sidelines, fully engaged by his loss and trying to figure out how and when he’d sneak out to get more.

In the rest of our short time together—five more years—Daddy’s disintegration continued. He wasn’t usually mean but sometimes drinking made him that way. He mocked our weakness when my mother and a few of us kids struggled to pull him off the floor where he lay bleeding. I remember changing his wet underpants as he sat uselessly on the edge of his bed and drunkenly thanked me. One day he appeared in a doorway and, listing just a bit, told my sister Ann and me with a big, wry smile, that he was “a pioneer” and spoke “In’ian talk.” He kept it up for a week. We don’t know why.

Ambulances came to the house three or four times during his last years. Once, a priest performed the last rights. There was weeping until, like Lazarus, he woke on the gurney then charmed the attendants as they wheeled him out the door.

I was at the Orangevale house when the call finally came. It was my brother Paul. He’d rushed off that morning after a call from the hospital.

I’d seen Daddy the previous day. He was happy. He thought the hospital was a cruise ship. I remember him tugging at his sheets with stiff fingers as he told us about his journey.

“Is he okay?” I asked Paul. I remember almost smiling. Daddy had risen from the dead so many times we came to expect it.

The phone was quiet then Paul answered, “Peter, he died.”

Paul asked me not to share the news until he got home. I knew I couldn’t face anyone. I went outside into a small pasture where no one could see me cry.

I didn’t know until the archivist sent her e-mail that my father died just weeks after my first Chuck Berry show, at that time when I was immersed and lost inside Chuck Berry’s “The Golden Decade.”

No wonder.

And no wonder I grabbed on so hard.

(If you'd like to read the whole book, here's a link to Chapter One.)