According to the notes on the video: Ingrid Berry, Herb Sadler, Keith Robinson (hiding in the shadows), Rusty Young, Michael 'Supe' Granda, Donnie Lee Clark and Jack Twesten,
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Friday, December 13, 2013
I’m at the airport and have time to write some less hurried notes about our excursion to St. Louis and Memphis. And I'll add some of the photos I didn't use last time.
I guess it’s an odd sort of holiday, unless, like me, your earliest and most powerful and formative musical memories are things like a Chuck Berry concert, a B. B. King show, Otis Redding’s Complete and Unbelievable Dictionary of Soul, or an early Paul Butterfield Blues Band record. It makes sense that a person who has obsessed over Chuck Berry for 40 plus years would find he likes the man’s lifelong hometown. To be honest, it took a while for it to grow on me. The first time I came here as an adult it was a quick in and out on a mileage ticket to see Chuck at Blueberry Hill. Who knew how influential that quick trip would be. I arrived on a freezing night in January, walked from the Metrolink train to my motel, then to Blueberry Hill. It was a night so cold you feared for your ears. But after that night I wrote up my experience and posted it on www.chuckberry.com, and that was that. It led to my blog. It led to a “book” where I tried to make sense of my longtime craziness. And it led to three return trips where, each time, I expanded my travels around St. Louis and learned more about the place. This time we became “regulars” at Beale on Broadway, where, every night and evening different conglomerations of the same musicians gather and produce startlingly great music. You can’t beat sitting a few feet from these folks as they make magic. The drinks are cheap and good. The food at B.B.’s Soups, Jazz and Blues across the street was good. You can walk back and forth between the two establishments letting each crew knock you out. What kid formed by his little collection of Chuck, Elmore, B. B. and T-bone records wouldn’t like that?
|Photo by Tara Mahadevan, Riverfront Times|
It’s possible to cross St. Louis and see nothing but railroad tracks empty lots and warehouses. Take another route and you find acres of mansions and street after street of cool restaurants, parks and shops. The food seems as good as the music. On our last day we had incredible sandwiches and a greek salad at The Blues City Deli- a tiny place in Soulard packed with people and good food whose walls are covered with colorful blues photos, posters and artwork. You get in line at the front door (or outside it) and move towards great salami, roast beef, ham, provolone and onions, all jammed into good bread. I’m still full, and hate the thought of having to grab some plain old airport food to carry onto the inhospitable plane that we’ll be boarding an an hour or so.
The Chuck show was, of course, the highlight. I forgot a couple of details. First, the way he skittered or tiptoed out with baby steps and a big grin to greet Joe Edwards after the introduction. It’s one of the many things I hope (ha ha) to be able to do when I’m 87. Of course, old age isn’t for cowards. He was having trouble with hiccups and breath and told us, early on, that it would be “one of the peculiarest shows you will ever see.” (It wasn’t. It was totally fun.)
I didn’t get to see the green paisley jacket I’d been hoping for but he wore a white shirt and I liked that. The red, blue and purple sparkles may be taking a long overdue vacation. When he pulls them out, 30 or 40 years from now, they’ll be like old friends.
Several times he made new (for me) rhymes during familiar songs. They seemed ad lib to me-- a poetic mind filling in quickly for a fading memory. It was fascinating and impressive. But when we laughed with pleasure at one such invention, he seemed hurt and we felt bad. “I hear you laughing. No man is perfect!” But of course we only laughed with pleasure from seeing and hearing a man who, though probably not perfect, is certainly great. Great in that more serious use of the word. Great like Beethoven and Twain. Who cares about perfect?
I also felt bad when I requested “No Money Down.” He chose to play it but had a mental block and didn’t play or sing. The band and Ingrid did a great job on it, but Chuck looked upset with himself that the song wasn’t coming to him.
But you know what felt good? I blurted out my request for "No Money down" so loudly and quickly that no one had a chance to yell those cursed words “My Ding-a-Ling.” It was the first time in my trips here that two precious minutes weren’t wasted on Turtle Creek. Another thing in my life to be thankful for! And Rebecca, who looked very good up there shaking it next to my idol. He shook her hand!
And it was good to see Karen and Judy, who we thank again for their charitable work welcoming the faithful to Blueberry Hill. When they lead, we follow, gratefully.
I called it my last Chuck Berry show. Likely it was. But I always say that. The truth is, you never can tell.
Thanks Chuck Berry.
Thursday, December 12, 2013
It was a fun night. Sometimes it was so much fun Chuck seemed to think we were laughing at him. "I hear you talking and laughing. But no man is perfect!"
But never, Mr. Berry. Everybody loved every moment.
It began, as ever, with "Roll Over Beethoven," followed by a long, beautiful version of "Wee Wee Hours" and a short half version of "Maybellene." Then a long rock and roll instrumental in G, where Chuck and his band hit the St. Louis groove that I became more familiar with on this trip. "That was pretty good!" he said, with considerable understatement.
Someone yelled "We love you, Chuck!"
"Thank you girls," he said. "I know a girl when I hear one!"
There was a moment in the set where Chuck Berry tried to show us all his hearing aid. "This one's gone," he said, pointing to his right ear. "If you spend 52 years in front of a drummer you pay a penalty!"
"I didn't say 'a penny,'" he added. "I've paid this one plenty!"
But that hearing aid obviously helps. There were some flubbed notes, but on "Wee Wee Hours" and a couple of the instrumentals, Chuck was killing it. So was the band.
He did "School Days (Ring Ring Goes the Bell)," but forgot to let us sing "Hail! Hail!"
He launched into a short one about no poem as lovely as a tree and admitted "We've never played this one before." The band members agreed.
When he asked what Chuck Berry songs we wanted to hear I used my position in the front row to lobby for one I've never heard him play. "No Money Down!" I yelled. I hold a perfect record on that one. I still haven't heard Chuck play it-- he stood there listening while Ingrid and the band did a great job on the song. That made me feel a little bad, but I was consoled by a high five from the rhythm guitarist. Anyway, it was a great Chuck Berry song that ought to be played more!
To get himself back on track Chuck launched into another rocker instrumental, and once again, they killed it. Then he asked Bob Lohr what to play. "How about Johnny B. Goode?" And they rocked that one, too, with some lyrics I've never heard but that I liked: "a little boy who looked a lot like me!"
Ingrid did a slow blues next. "You know what I'm talking about ladies, don't you. I work hard every day taking care of castle keep."
And then a wonderful version of "Reelin' and Rockin'," with the vocal highlight coming from bass player Jimmy Marsala. At a quarter to 12 Chuck began singing "I didn't know if I was...". And when he paused for just a breath Jimmy filled the void with "going to Hell!" Charles was laughing so hard he was unable to play guitar for at least four bars.
A band called Palace opened. We heard their soundcheck and knew they were good, but during the first few numbers the sound equipment faltered badly and they had to stop mid-song two or three times. One of their singers-- a very pretty young woman-- told stories and jokes and answered silly questions from the audience while BBH's sound man figured out the problem, and then they went back to work with a shortened by triumphant set of rhythmic pop that mixed bits of Brian Wilson, Queen and The Beatles. The crowd loved them, so did I, and so did Charles Berry, Jr., who applauded their professionalism afterwards.
All in all, a wonderful night. We topped it off by staying up way past our bedtimes to see a bit of Roland Johnson's set downtown at The Beale. I guess I'll pay tomorrow. Tonight, I'm just pleased we came back to St. Louis one more time.
(Unbelievable! Just lost all the pictures I was trying to show you. It was taking forever, so I'll do a selection!)
Friday, November 8, 2013
On this last tour I could see him getting tired from 10,000 miles away.
Would a promoter wake his or her aged grandmother at 2:30 every morning to head to the airport and everything that entails? After a couple hours in a hotel (where rest never comes anyway?) Chuck Berry's more than a road warrior-- he's done 8000 or so one nighters-- but he's 87!
I've done a bit of business travel- a week or so at a time in a handful of cities in my own country. Even that much much can be deadly. The security lines, the shoe removal, the uncomfortable seats, the delays, the corporate food, the public restrooms, the hotel with just a hint of odor, the stumbling drunks in the hall, the endless cable stations: click, click, click, click, click...
But at least when I travel I get to sleep until 6 or 7 am.
Chuck Berry has had decades of one nighters. Early in his career he drove broken down busses and nice running Cadillacs. Later in his career he flew home after the shows. But he's paid dues enough that some accommodation should be made towards sanity. The man's a legend. Treat him like one.
If he's got a nice hotel room, let him use it. Let him sleep till morning. Take him on a tour of the city. Meet the mayor. (The mayor will be thrilled. It'll be Chuck Berry day.) Fly mid day. Or schedule an extra day to recover.
The crowds who fill venues in far off corners starved for Chuck Berry will certainly wait another day to see him and hear him. The smart ones are only there to say thank you to a man they love. They'll wait their turns.
And if he's able to get some rest between shows he'll seem and sound more like Chuck Berry.
From what I can tell, he gave it his all on the Fall 2013 tour. He did a "scoot" in Oslo. He played ondespite constant hiccups and not enough air.
But as he once told a deranged promoter after a two hour show: "Look. I love those people. But I'm not going to let them kill me."
Chuck Berry, if you're out there, it's time to take it easy. Stop traveling for us. Put out that record we've been hearing about for so many years. Spend time with your kids and their kids. If you want to play, hitch a ride to Blueberry Hill.
We'll come to you.
(Read the Bob Baldori interview about not killing himself HERE.)
Thursday, July 4, 2013
(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.)
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.
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
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.
Monday, July 1, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.