Chuck Berry's featured in the current Rolling Stone-- but he's not on the cover. That only happened for real one time. On May 9, 1969, Chuck Berry stopped at U.C. Berkeley’s Student Union building to give a speech. According to the write up by Greil Marcus he told the crowd:
“The speech—ecch; the questions, ahhh,” and opened the floor for questions.
It is fitting that it was a "people's" interview that wound up in the June 14, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone. (I've got a tattered, yellowed copy that I picked up 30 years ago at a used bookstore). Issue 35 also features a story called “American Revolution 1969: The Battle of People’s Park.”
People’s Park was a scraggly bit of dirt owned by the University of California that helped turn Berkeley into a miniature war zone in the late 1960s. The "people" had claimed the lot as a populist playground and installed a few swings and sand boxes. Then Governor Ronald Reagan (imagine a tall, handsome, suave version of Dick Cheney) fought to defend the realm. Truckloads of National Guard roamed the city. The local sheriffs fired shotguns. There was tear gas. People were killed. I saw parts of this as a kid without any understanding why the sad little “park” could engender such events.
Chuck must have liked being interviewed by the people, because it turns out to be one of the best available from a man who's supposedly stingy with information, covering everything from his first visit to Chess and his early recording sessions to his first duck walk. He talks about the difficulties of performing in the south early in his career. He identifies his early influences—T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, Carl Hogan and Nat King Cole (“because I am so moody, and Nat same moody music.”) He describes the record he made with Bo Diddley, “Two Great Guitars,” as “sausage."
There's an interesting but minor inconsistency. In his autobiography Chuck Berry complains that "somebody, somewhere" said that Chuck sat in with Muddy Waters the night the two first met at a blues club in Chicago and says "it has always hurt me when a writer replaces truth with ficticious dramatic statements to increase interest in his story." He says in his Autobiography: "I was a stranger to Muddy and in no way was I about to ask my godfather if I could sit in and play. He didn't know me from Adam on that eve and Satan himself could not have tempted me to contaminate the father's fruit of the blues, as pure as he picked it."
But the devil got into the details in Berkeley, and it turns out that Chuck himself put the fiction into the drama. He told the crowd that he first went to Chess Records "in May of 1955, after a previous night of visiting one of Muddy Waters' dates, which was around the corner, on the south side of Chicago... and I played a song with him, it was a great thrill, him having let me do so, and he said I sould go to Leonard-- whoever Leonard was."
Exactly what happened that night, two score and 14 years ago isn't as important as what happened in the 55 years since. We know that our forefathers met, and that Muddy sent Chuck to Leonard Chess. The rest is cultural history.
But back to the interview. One of my favorite parts is where Chuck talks honestly about the compromises of travelling solo, without a band:
“When I go out, for the last eight years, I have been performing as what is known as a “single”—I go there, and there is a house band or a local band, that performs with me. I never know who it is, or seldom know who it is, and we have usually an hour or half an hour, or no hour, to rehearse. On the last eight years of trips, I have tried to keep my music quite simple, so that I could preach it in two or three minutes. A lot of the songs are alike. A lot of the songs are on the familiar blues track, in order that I can go to a show, at rehearsal, and in a short time, can take the thing and do a performance.”
That forced simplicity is probably the thing that kept us coming back for more Chuck Berry all these years—music at its most fundamental. And I maintain that the lack of a band (and subsequent lack of fixed arrangements) kept the performances alive and real, show after show, for most of 55 years. Every show is the same but different, every performance unique.
But it was also a bit sad to lose songs that didn’t fit the two minute rehearsal mold—songs like “Havana Moon,” “No Money Down,” “Downbound Train,” and others. Credit Keith Richards for reviving some of these lesser played gems in the movie “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.” And happily, Chuck now has a band-- one ready to adapt to the constant improvisation-- that is helping him end his career in style.