Sunday, February 13, 2011
40 Years Ago This Evening
There was music coming through the auditorium doors.
“Has the show started?” we asked the lady in the booth. She was grumpy even though there was no one to bother her except us. The lobby was empty.
“He’s on stage now,” she said, counting our money.
“Who’s on stage? Chuck Berry’s on stage?”
“He started about five minutes ago.”
This was vaguely alarming news. The other acts were a local rock band called Slo Loris and a child singer named Little Deon. Chuck Berry was supposed to be on top, the headliner.
We pushed open the auditorium door and there he was, seemingly alone on stage, him and his guitar, at a mike stand, playing the blues.
I was transfixed. The room was nearly empty—a few hundred people in the front rows, and a few more along the side balconies. And Chuck Berry was there, tall, lean, jeans and an orange shirt, hair slicked back, eyes half closed, high cheekbones tilted at the mike, singing something sad and woeful. His guitar was a cherry red Gibson, and he bent the notes two or more at a time, loud and raw, thundering and blistering between his mournful, slightly scratchy voice.
You’re so unhappy
You always cry
The man you love
Treats you so unkind
When things go wrong
Go wrong with you
It hurts me too.
He pushed through another 45 minutes or so, getting the small crowd up on its feet for most of the show, playing hits I only sort of recognized that day—a song about Boston, Pittsburgh, PA, and the heart of Texas, a couple of “Beatles” songs about Rock and Roll Music and Beethoven rolling over. When Chuck was finally grinning he tried to get the local guitarist to solo and the guy just smiled humbly and plunked a single note. (He probably regrets that now.) Chuck laughed, but it didn’t matter. All he really needed was his guitar and a crowd. He finished with Johnny B. Goode, bowing as he backed off stage, still playing his guitar held upright in front of himself like a religious relic of some sort—and then he was gone, the band still rumbling away, and finally a story from the emcee that there’d been a mix up and Chuck Berry had to get to LA for another show. We watched the other acts for a few minutes, but it was all downhill after Chuck Berry. When Little Dion, perhaps ten years old, sang “It’s a Man’s World,” we left.
But I was infected and doomed. What I saw and heard had worked its way deep into my bones. God only knows why these things happen. There were 400 people in the auditorium. Most probably went home happy to have seen a good show. I went home changed.
(This looks like the Chuck Berry I saw that day, alone at the mike, only happier. Same jeans! Has to be about the same year.)
It was one of my first introductions to the blues. (The other was equally profound—a “young” B. B. King playing outdoors at the California State Fair. We considered both him and Chuck Berry—young men in their mid forties—to be “old” in those days.) Chuck Berry played many of his hits, I’m sure. I remember bits and pieces of then unfamiliar songs. But it was blues that I remembered—this great man, singing to an empty hall, his guitar blasting and bending like a car horn undergoing the dopler effect.
The next day I rode my bike to the local discount store (“Rasco Tempo a Division of Gamble Skogmo, Inc.”) (I’m not making that up) and found a black and gold double album—Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade—for $6 or $7. That day everything changed for me. I played it front to back three or four times. I couldn’t believe my fortune. One song after another—Maybelenne, Wee Wee Hours, Johnny B. Goode, and on and on, all seemingly perfect, with crackling lyrics, pounding drums and blazing guitar. The only ones I didn’t like so much were the few with backing vocals or too many horns. I liked it stripped down—drums, bass and guitar, and Berry’s own vocals. Maybe a saxophone in the background. Within a few weeks I had that record memorized—and before long I was chasing down the influences, like T-Bone Walker and Elmore James.
I’d only seen him twice before, on television, backed by television bands with dorky horn arrangements. My brother Stevo had told me about Chuck Berry, who was “better than Elvis.” The first time was on the Mike Douglas show, where, it seems, he was a regular guest. I watched him on a little black and white set, interested, not hooked.
Another time, maybe a few months later, I was woken up by music in the next room. My brothers were watching Dick Cavett or some other late night show, and there he was again, this time in color. I watched, not mesmerized, but something in that music must have woken me from deep sleep.
Stevo was worth listening to. He was a self taught drummer who played in a string of local Sacramento rock bands in the mid 1960s through the early 1970s. I never got to hear him on stage, but the entire neighborhood heard Stevo thumping hour after hour in his bedroom. My mom bought him a full set of blue, sparkling Pearls in an effort to keep him out of trouble. The set cost $849 back when $849 was about a cazillion. There were two tom toms on top, and beautiful chrome hardware. Stevo would let me sneak into his room to play them, and once his disreputable friend Dee taught me a simple boom-cha, boom-boom-cha beat. Dee was in the same bands as Stevo. They played in Battles of the Bands at our local shopping centers and at the Cottage Park youth center. Stevo’s group once opened for Sly and the Family Stone at a little rock hall at South Lake Tahoe (where I’d later see Chuck Berry and shake his hand). Stevo snuck on stage before a show and started pounding Sly’s drummer’s set—something Sly’s drummer didn’t appreciate. Stevo was good. And when he talked about rock and roll, or blues, (or any sort of pop culture,) he always seemed to have good, interesting thoughts. So when he said “better than Elvis,” I listened.
Not that I cared much about Elvis. I still have trouble caring about Elvis. I was too young to care about Elvis. By the time I was listening to music, Elvis was nearly done making it. This was before he went to Vegas, and at the tail end of a lame string of movies.
But I was curious about this guy who was supposed to be better, though less well known-- Chuck Berry.
For me, for reasons I don’t know, “Chuck” has always meant blond hair and freckles. So I imagined Chuck Berry as an angry sort, with a tall blond pompadour.
Then they announce him on Mike Douglas. I decide to watch. The TV is black and white. There are crazy daisies. And Chuck isn’t blond, or angry.
I watch but I am not changed in any way.
And then, maybe a year later, Stevo again, holding forth again on Chuck Berry after a trip to Winterland or the Filmore Auditorium in San Francisco.
Stevo is still inexplicable to me. He was short, stocky and Irish in a half Irish family where the men tended to be tall and (in our youth) lean. He was one of the first people in Sacramento to have long hair—always an inch or so longer than the Beatles. He got beat up for it. He was tough as nails. He walked home from a car crash on a badly broken foot. Another crash left a circular gash in his cheek. He drank too much. He honored my mom, but joked with my dad. As he got older they’d drink themselves into insanity and run amok inside our house. He went to jail frequently— all for stuff that wouldn’t get you in trouble now. A year or two before he died he became increasingly paranoid and irrational. I remember him punching me from behind, convinced I’d said something, which I hadn’t. He could also be incredibly sweet. He got me drunk once and let me sleep it off on his couch, and I heard him and his drunkard friend talking gently about me. Another time he listened to my tape of a blues type song about drinking and asked who it was. “That’s me,” I said. He feigned disbelief. “I’ll be your drummer,” he told me. I’d followed him into drumming, and had a beginner’s set of Ludwigs that he could have used. I was incredibly honored. But within a week or two Stevo was gone—killed by a passing car after a bouncer pushed him into the street.
He was, in some ways, a dummy. On a trip to Europe he evidently could not fathom that people in other countries spoke other languages. But he was a genius, too—a philosopher of pop culture, sports, and politics, all of which he understood in a deep, instinctual way.
The thing he understood better than anyone I knew was pop culture—and specifically music and old movies.
It doesn’t sound like much now, but in the 1960s it was unusual to hear a young, long haired rock and roll musician defending Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. I remember, vaguely, Stevo explaining that Jackie Gleason was a great actor. He talked about Sammy Davis Junior’s talent at a time when all I could see was the tap dancing friend of Richard Nixon. Thundering south at night on Interstate 5 or Highway 99 Stevo held forth on song after song on some 50,000 watt rock and roll radio show.
We are all dummies. We’re not all as smart as Stevo.
“You know, he’s not really a bluesman.” He was describing a show he’d seen in San Francisco. “I mean, there are the real blues guys—Muddy Waters, B. B. King, Bobby Bland-- and he’s not one of them. But he comes from that tradition. I bet that’s how he started—playing blues and standards in little clubs. And at this show he played nothing but the blues, and it worked. I mean, he’s not really a bluesman, but he knows that music.”
I was probably 14 years old. I didn’t really know what a “bluesman” was, but I was listening, storing away this information from a good authority.
(Stevo's genius was confirmed by Chuck Berry himself, who told the Brittish newspaper The Independent: "My music, it is very simple stuff. I wanted to play blues. But I wasn't blue enough. I wasn't like Muddy Waters, people who really had it hard. In our house, we had food on the table. So I concentrated on this fun and frolic." For the full interview, see below.)
And then I hear the announcement. Chuck Berry, tonight, at the Memorial Auditorium.
The Sacramento Memorial Auditorium reeks of old rock and roll shows. It was built in 1927 of brick and ceramic tile. The stage is wrapped in gold. It’s essentially a barn, used for all the big events of small town life—boxing, wrestling, opera, graduations-- but has seen dozens of rock and roll legends. My sisters and brothers saw James Brown there in the middle 1960s. Also the Rolling Stones on their first tour through Sacramento. Chuck Berry played there throughout his heyday in the 50s, and came back several times in the 70s, either alone, or with the Rock and Roll Revival. I saw my first Rock and Roll concert there—Sonny and Cher, with backup bands that included The New Breed and a group of kids in wig hats called The Golliwogs. They later became Credence Clearwater Revival.
And I saw Chuck Berry there, sad and lonely looking, singing the blues to a crowd of three or four hundred people. I don’t remember many of the songs he played. I didn’t know them then. I don’t really remember the details.
But what I do remember is being mesmerized by the sight and sound of this lone and lonesome looking gunslinger of a man, “Better than Elvis,” singing blues and joyful rock and roll and blistering us with his red Gibson guitar before taking off for some more rewarding show in another town.
The next day, I bought one of his records. And everything changed.
# # #
Flash forward 30 years. In the interim I have seen Chuck Berry 6 times. I’ve purchased just about all of his records and compilations. I’ve searched out all the interviews. I’ve read his autobiography. I’ve let him go now and then, only to return.
I’m a single dad and lawyer, raising kids and trying cases, too pooped to pop, to old to stroll, a life of monkey business.
It’s May of 2001. I open the newspaper and see in a small advertisement or article that Chuck Berry will fill in for an ailing Jerry Lee Lewis at the EMP in Seattle. It’s a last minute change. He’s playing that night!
The spark is reignited. I get tickets for myself and my two little girls. This will be the second of three “last time I see Chuck Berry” concerts that I’ve attended so far. He just keeps going.
The EMP is a rock and roll museum built by Mercer Island billionaire Paul Allen. The building itself was designed by Frank Gehry. It’s not his best work, but perhaps only because of its location in the colorful civic jumble of Seattle Center. The building is all curves and colors, inspired by the painted bodies of solid body electric guitars. It would have looked good set in the middle of Seattle staid downtown but it’s lost in the chaos of the Center. And there is something fundamentally wrong about putting rock and roll (or any form of music) into a museum. It belongs in garages, clubs and guilded civic centers.
But this day I learn that the EMP has a “club”— a great little music hall called the Sky Church where real music can come alive.
We get there early and see a black town car leaving the EMP’s underground garage. The driver’s got a captain’s hat, and he’s leaning forward trying to figure out which way to go. “That’s Chuck Berry!” I tell my kids. The girls shriek (they’re properly indoctrinated) and we lurch towards the car, but no chance-- Chuck is determined to get somewhere. Anyway, what the heck would I say?
He’s with another man who through darkened glass looks to me to be almost as old as Chuck himself ( who is close to 75 that day). I wonder who it could be. Some old friend helping him do what he used to do alone—pack a toothbrush and a guitar and head out to one of the hundreds of one-nighters he’s done over the past half century. The car scoots away. We watch. I’m half way thinking how I can follow it. I’m guessing that Somewhere in Seattle, some restaurant is about to be visited by great Chuck Berry. I try to imagine being in that place when the two walk in.
There is a scene in the movie “Chuck Berry- Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll” where Chuck Berry walks through an airport in his red sports coat and bolo tie, carrying his guitar, talking about how each one lasts six months (“Deductible, you know? Tools!”). Heads turn. There are little waves and moments of recognition. Once on board the plane the flight attendants ask for and receive a tight lipped kiss. (The guy next to him just seems to wonder what the fuss is about.)
It’s fascinating to me: a landmark of history and culture who walks among us, doing ordinary (and sometimes pretty extraordinary) things.
Guitarist Joe Perry described meeting him in an airport. “I was walking through the airport, and someone said, ‘It's Chuck Berry over there.’ Well, I had to go over and shake his hand. But he was tongue-tied. Then he was gone.”
I’ve seen him after a show in a Cadillac convertible, towel around his neck, young blond at his side, waving a quick goodbye and then taking off through the crowd. “Hey Chuck!” He must hear it all day, every day.
But we can’t follow the Town Car today. We have tickets. The show starts in an hour. We want good spots. We get inside and set anchor near the stage. My younger daughter is only tall enough to see people’s butts, so she spends most of her time on my shoulders or in my arms. It’s a small room, wider than it is deep. Everyone within sight is a fanatic. They’re talking about shows they’ve seen and are reciting various bits of urban legend. “He’s paid in cash before the show.” “Different band every night.” I can’t even respond to this because I figure I am the biggest fan there. That’s just the way it is. I know more than all of them put together. (You can tell me about a lot of things, but you probably can’t tell me much about Chuck Berry, or General Motors Trucks, model years 1973-1986. Those subjects are mine.)
When it’s finally time for the show Chuck comes out in a captain’s cap, a glittering shirt and a grumpy mood. Call it foul. The first thing he does when he gets on stage is pull all the plugs from his amp and guitar. A cool 22 year old is sent out to get the wires right while Chuck taps a very large foot. This, we agree in my section of the audience, is pressure. The kid does it though, and the fanatics all mumble knowingly about the contract. The second thing Chuck does is kick a dumbstruck guitarist from stage before the band plays a single note. “It’s in the contract,” he says. “Drums, bass and piano. That’s it.” I feel terrible for the guitarist. He didn’t write the contract—he’s just a victim of it. The band is actually a good fit—a bunch of old rockers and artists who’ve played together for decades, but Chuck’s evidently in no mood. He reduces the bass player to three notes and a set rhythm: “ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump” and it stays that way for the rest of the night; he plays a good chunk of the show without accompaniment—silly songs like South of the Border and My Ding a Ling; and when he gets to Wee Wee Hours, the grown up flip side to “Maybellene,” he instructs the pianist on just how to play it, sliding the chords up from E to G, and then from A to C.
This isn’t the Chuck Berry I remember but that’s okay—it’s an interesting Chuck Berry. And he’s playing his first song—the one he originally brought to Chess Records, the one that came in second to Maybelenne. I’m doing my best to absorb the moment and the music lesson.
In the wee wee hours
That’s when I think of you.
In the wee wee hours
That’s when I think of you.
You say, but yet I wonder,
If your love was ever true.
In 7 prior concerts I’d never seen Chuck Berry play it. A suitably sad and nostalgic song for a night that felt a little different. I mouth the words as he sings.
In a wee little room
I sit alone and think of you
In a wee little room
I sit alone and think of you
And wonder if you still remember
All the things we used to do.
At some point during the song Chuck Berry looks down at me with tired eyes, sees I’m mouthing the words, watches me, then says: “You’re remembering somebody, aren’t you?”
Actually, no. Mainly I’m trying to absorb the music lesson and the moment. But I’m pleased he’s singled me out—that he’s noticed me in a crowd.
We’ve met before. I shook his hand while he sat near the stage at Lake Tahoe, smoking a cigarette and talking with someone. I was about 15. I blurted: “You’re my idol!”
A few years later I passed him a note suggesting that he play one of his newer songs. He laughed and shook his head.
And a dozen years before the EMP show I’d seen him at Seattle’s Paramount Theater. This time he didn’t notice me, but he did notice the mother of the two little girls I took to the EMP show. We were in the front row. It was my first “last time I see Chuck Berry” concert. My ex wife is African, and was a rare black face in a sea of lighter ones. Chuck noticed her in the front row, lit up, and did a little back and fourth dance for her during another blues number.
It’s a conversation of non-sequiturs that takes place one line every decade or so.
When Chuck plays “My Ding-a-Ling” I’ve got my seven year old on my shoulders, a few feet from his knees. She listens a while, then blurts: “He’s singing about his penis!” Even this doesn’t get a smile out of him on this crabby evening.
He’s grumpy. I never saw it during a show until this particular day, 40 or 50 years into his professional music career—but I heard the stories. Cash in a bag before going on stage. Playing out of tune. Carl Perkins, who toured England with Berry in 1964 said that Chuck turned cold after his early 19602 prison sentence on trumped up charges of violating the Mann Act. (The judge was a racist fool who slept during the trial. Berry writes about it in his autobiography.) Chuck kicked one sympathetic writer out of Berry Park in the late 1960s. He argued with Keith Richards during the filming of “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.” (Chuck was right, though.)
I remember talking with my brother-in-law, a smart man knowledgeable about music, who said: “He doesn’t give a shit. He doesn’t care anymore. Don’t get me wrong-- he was great. But he should quit. He doesn’t even tune his guitar!”
It’s a sentiment I’ve heard and read a lot. Keith Richards says it in Chuck Berry- Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. As for the guitar—there’s a funny story posted somewhere about the musicians in his current band distracting him before a show while another sneaks off to snatch and tune the untouchable Gibson.
And maybe they’re all right—maybe he doesn’t care.
But he keeps doing it— playing for people, playing songs they need to hear, working them into at least a small frenzy before he lets go and heads back to the car.
At the EMP he doesn’t seem to care much about anything except the contract-- until, like magic, he perks up, the songs take life and flight, and the notes start flowing. He’s like a surfer who has suddenly caught the big wave. The guitar strings snap, the old licks come alive, he’s grinning, he’s crackling, he laughs and makes faces. The crowd goes crazy, jumping and screaming for this 74 year old in a captain’s hat, inventor of rock guitar and rock poetry, grumpy genius, occasional felon, and father of us all. It don’t take or last but a few minutes, but it’s good while it lasts.
And then, before we know it it’s Johnny B. Goode, the guitar notes as full throated and loud as the horn on an old Ford as he backs off stage, bowing, still playing, driving us wild with an energy and sound that hasn’t faded at all in 40 years, doing it better at 74 than the younger folk on stage, and ready to disappear into the night with his old man companion, his towel, and the black Town Car.
The truth is so obvious. He cares a lot.