Wednesday, May 20, 2009

(Not) Too Pooped to Pop

Some of us were born too late for the digital age. If you go to youtube you’ll probably find something like a hundred films showing Chuck Berry in his musical prime. One of my favorites is this version of “Carol.” When I said you can’t play guitar like Chuck Berry, I wasn’t kidding. This is the song that he famously took Keith Richards to school on in the film “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll!” after Keith suggested Chuck couldn’t play lead and rhythm at the same time. “Well, I did it,” said Chuck. Indeed he did. Chuck Berry can be many things, but in this 1972 clip from London, he is Chuck Berry guitar virtuoso. (The best parts are when the band quiets down and it's just Chuck Berry and his guitar. Watch.)

But youtube is more likely to give you a wiggly, lo fi cell phone video shot of Chuck Berry in his 80s, playing at some bar, with bad sound, (drunken) conversation (from the audience, not the stage,) and whole bars of missed notes on the guitar.

I think the reason people are filming and posting these events is that Chuck Berry shows are still real—even when Chuck’s fingers aren’t working.

Chuck Berry was never fastidious about his fingering. Even at his best if he missed a note he didn’t care because it was irrelevant to what he was doing.

But when I saw him in at Blueberry Hill in January 2009, he seemed to watch his fingers in disbelief. They didn’t do what he wanted. He started most songs without a guitar introduction—something almost unthinkable in olden times. His best guitar bits during that set were the funky rhythm chords like the one shown below. He thumped on his guitar like it was a talking drum-- more Bo Diddley than the Chuck Berry up above singing his refined and growling “Carol.” When he did play lead at BBHill there was something almost punk about it. He played like some of the people who’ve copped from him—thrashing, loud, careless and strong. If I’d pulled out my cell phone and tried to record it I’m sure it would have sounded as "bad" as what I sometimes see on youtube.

Which goes to show: you have to be there.

I have seen Chuck Berry live about 10 times. I’ve seen the guitar virtuouso and the great showman/dancer. But I liked the Blueberry Hill show as much as any show I’ve seen.

And that’s because he was enjoying himself—surrounded by fans, and by musicians who really care about him. (It’s a family affair. His son, Chuck Berry, Jr., backs him on guitar, has his back when fans jump on stage, and reminds him of the lyrics when the 82 year old brain loses track of a line. His daughter Ingrid is often on stage singing backup or blowing her harmonica.) It's thrilling and real—an 82 year old founding father who doesn’t need the money doing it in a small bar simply for the love.

My favorite song that night was a Ray Charles number called “Love in ¾ Time.” I didn’t know it and hoped it was a new Chuck Berry song. Three months later, someone recorded it.

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