Saturday, August 14, 2010

Joint was Rocking

The second time I saw Chuck Berry in person was at The Sanctuary, (or maybe the Fun House,) a tiny rock club in South Lake Tahoe. The place was built out of a former grocery store in the Bijou neighborhood, just across Highway 50 from the lake. Modest would be an understatement-- but that's one of the joys about being a Chuck Berry fan. He has played stadiums, to be sure; but you're much more likely to see him up close and personal in a small or medium sized venue like The Sanctuary. Anyway, the former grocery store is still there. The Sanctuary was a lively place during its short life as a rock hall. Santana was the "house band" for a while before the release of his/its first album. And personal history, too: My brother Stevo's band had opened there for Sly and the Family Stone. Sly’s drummer caught Stevo bonking on his drum set between shows. The drummer wasn’t pleased.

I'm guessing that Chuck Berry played there in 1971, but I could be off by a year or two. (See the article I just posted; it was evidently July 4, 1971).  (Decades later, when the internet was new, I saw a poster for the show for sale on line. I tried to buy it, but alas, never heard back from the seller. That was before pay-pal! I've searched in vain for it since that time.)

By 1971 I was a confirmed Chuck Berry addict, and had probably added the album “Back Home” to my little "collection."

The title “Back Home” referred to Berry’s return to Chess records after a short but moderately profitable stint at Mercury (Berry credited the short change of labels with revitalizing his finances. The contract gave him something like $150,000 for five albums). I always thought the record also marked his return to form.

Most of the Mercury records don’t count with me. The old thumping, blaring urgency of the original Chess records was nowhere to be heard at Mercury. The records sound tinny and cheap. There’s a collection of remakes of the greatest hits that don't cut it at all. There are some reasonably interesting new songs like “Ma Dear Ma Dear” and "Back to Memphis," but they, too, are tarnished a bit by bad sound. There’s the wonderfully titled but, for me, endlessly boring “Concerto in B. Goode.” (Every half decade I try it again, and every time I turn it off.) There’s one interesting live album—“Live at the Fillmore.” It’s heavy on blues, but-- well, wish it sounded better.

When he went back to Chess Berry made a string of good records, including his one late career hit “The Chuck Berry London Sessions,” which included, alas, his only real Ding-a-Ling.

But “Back Home,” recorded in 1970, was always my favorite among the later records. It even looked good, with it's sincere, sepia toned cover shot, the funny ones on the back, and unusually fine liner notes by Michael Lydon (who also wrote an interesting piece about Berry for Ramparts magazine. It is reprinted in his book Rock Folk.)

"Back Home" also included one of Chuck Berry's last best songs, “Tulane,” near namesake to my firstborn child, (and true namesake of this website.) Tulane is the true hero of the song, but the voice in "Tulane" is a "Johnny," but this one is going to be behind bars, not in lights.

Johnny and Tulane opened a novelty shop
Down beneath the counter was the cream of the crop
Everything was kicking and business was good
Till one day low and behold an officer stood
Johnny jumped the counter but he stumbled and fell
Tulane made it over, Johnny fell to the yell
Go head on, Tulane
He can’t catch up with you
Go Tulane
He ain’t man enough for you
Run! Tulane, he’s lagging behind
Go head on, Tulane, Go head on!

(Words and music by Chuck Berry)

And on and on, in a staccato harmony of two Chuck Berry vocals, (incessant!) harmonica, rippling piano and Chuck Berry’s guitar at its finely nuanced best. (The guitar work has a very different tone from Berry's earlier work. In the liner notes Lydon writes about guitar licks with the "the bitingly fine quality of etched steel." The description is right on.) By the time things wind down, it’s time for the blues, with Johnny doing time and singing “Lord, have mercy on my little Tulane. She’s too alive to try to live alone!”

Anyway, I heard about the Lake Tahoe show by accident when someone passed through Lake Tahoe and Sacramento and mentioned in an aside that “Hey, you like Chuck Berry. He’s going to be there this weekend.” That was all it took. I rode up on the Greyhound with a girl from my school and her friend.

This time—unlike the sad Sacramento show where I first saw him-- the joint was rocking and the place was packed. I have no idea who backed up Chuck Berry, but they were up to the job. (There was a slight miscue when the drummer, a thin black man with an afro, a little cap, and goatee stepped onto the stage. Half the crowd cheered, thinking it was Chuck Berry.)

People complain about Chuck Berry doing short shows. Those people weren’t at this one. He played two sets, and the show was so long that I left before it was over.

During the break between sets I spotted Chuck Berry sitting near the side of the stage, smoking a cigaret and chatting with someone. I was a shy kid, but I got brave, pushed forward, held out my hand, and blurted: “You’re my idol!” He nodded and shook my hand, and I left him to his conversation. Ah well!

No comments: