Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Motor Got Hot and Wouldn't Do No More (My Visit to Berry Park)

In the spring and summer of 1978 I drove an ailing Fiat 128 across the country from Seattle to the East Coast and back. On the way home-- in hot summer-- I stopped in the small town of Wentzville, Missouri, and asked how to find Berry Park.

Many years prior I had read about it in Ramparts magazine. A writer had gone there for a promised interview. He was sent packing. According to the article the owner of the park, the great Chuck Berry, had met him for a moment, changed his mind about doing an interview, told him “Standing in the sun ain’t my shot,” refunded the guy’s money, and left.

And I'd actually been close one time before-- back in 1964, when my mother packed six kids into a 1963 Impala and drove us from Sacramento to Warrenton, Missouri to visit my oldest brother.  Another brother, Stevo, told me that "No Particular Place to Go" was a hit during that trip, and that it used to annoy my mother.  I wouldn't have known.  I was the littlest kid, and always stuck out in my own calabouse, way out in the kokomo, in a rearward facing back seat, half a mile from the car's little radio speaker.

Warrenton is just a few miles from the park.

I knew that Berry park and the Rampart's article because I was insane-- a “Mad Lad”-- obsessed with Chuck Berry since I had first seen him at a near empty hall in Sacramento 7 or 8 years prior to my Wentzville journey.   This was before the internet, and I had spent hours at the library searching through magazines and books for anything that I could find about the man.

My eyes are still quick to spot a five letter word starting with “C-h.”

When I drove to Wentzville I was hoping to find the commercial establishment described in Ramparts, where I recalled some mention of a cash register and a grill.  I was hoping for a “House of Blue Lights,” with “friers,” with “broilers,” with hamburgers sizzling “on an open grill,” and where, perhaps, (if I had the money,) I could get a “T-bone steak a la carty.”

I was hoping to see Chuck Berry walk past, tall and lanky in purple pants and a green paisley sports coat, silver bolo tie, white belt and white leather shoes.

In my heart of hearts I was hoping he’d recognize me as a long lost, genetically inferior child; or that he’d adopt me; or that, at the very least, he’d invite me into his studio to play guitar, elicit my advice about future recordings, and maybe show me a few licks.

But when I got to Wentzville no one was very sure what Berry Park was or where to find it. I remember at a gas station near the interstate one attendant consulted another.

"The rock singer's place?"

He pointed vaguely. "Down that road a couple miles, I think."

“Down the Road a Piece,” he might have said.

This wouldn’t happen now, I’m sure-- but this was 1978, a few years after Chuck Berry’s surprising 1972 last hit record, and a few years before he’d become a national landmark.

After a couple more stops for directions (I remember a little general store with warm Coke and bags of food and a man who drawled “The negro singer?” before pointing the way) I found: it across the road from a gun club.

The “Promised Land!”

There was a chain link fence and granite marker (a tombstone) with the words:

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

I was hoping I was one of the people, but the park didn't look very commercial.  No Coca Cola in the offing. No friers. No broilers. No juke box.

I remember a long, straight blacktop drive, and flat land, and a house painted red brick red, and further right, some low buildings. 

Some irrational part of me was still hoping I could hang out a while, meet Mr. Berry or at lest see him-- as so I pulled in the drive and motorvated slowly maybe half the distance to the house thinking:

"This is not a commercial establishment."

That's when the “motor got hot and wouldn’t do no more.”

It was, as I said, a Fiat; an old one; and it was something like 95 degrees and 90 percent humidity.

I turned the key again and again, panicking, beginning to drip sweat, my battery fading, my dignity disappearing, when finally a woman came out of the house 50 yards away.

"What do you want?" she asked.

I was lame.

"Is he here?" I asked.

"He's not," she said. I probably stood there looking dumb.

"You need to leave."

I tried starting the car again but that wasn't going to happen-- so I so I put the back of my shoulder to the B-pillar and pushed the little car back out the driveway. I parked it (fittingly) next to the tombstone. I’m not sure how long I was out there, but only long enough to let the motor cool down. 

Then off to a KOA in the flat grasslands of Missouri where I set up my pup tent on the hot grass and slept off my shame.

Chuck Berry is my idol. I told him so when I was 14 or 15. I was a late comer to the music. I wasn’t even born when Maybellene was out cruising and causing trouble. My Chuck Berry was a middle-aged guitar virtuoso and showman who traveled alone, making do with pickup musicians, still making good records, still making people laugh and dance, still selling out small halls and concert venues.

His draw is mysterious.  He dipped deeply into the Mississippi and pulled up what makes America good and interesting. There’s blues. There’s country. There’s a bit of jazz. There’s youth. There’s experience. There’s black, white, Hispanic. There's raunch.  There's humor.  There’s stubbornness and trouble. There’s family.

This blog is about Chuck Berry. Not his life story, which he has told and others have documented. This is just about one fan's appreciation.

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