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.