Thursday, March 18, 2010

Got a Chance, I Ought to Take It (Don't Bother Me, Leave Me 'Lone!)

In his book “Long Distance Information: The Recorded Legacy of Chuck Berry,” author Fred Rothwel tells a charming and typical story of bumping into his idol. He shows up at a west London theater hoping to get a ticket and is dejected to see a “sold out” sign. Then:

“[I]n the corner of my eye I spotted a long cherry red Mercedes hidden in the shadows of the flyover. The limo had dark glass but the side window was down and through it the familiar face of Chuck Berry could be seen busy videoing the façade, no doubt very pleased with the ‘Sold Out’ sign.”

Rothwell ponders what to do or say, (“I got my chance, I ought to take it”) when suddenly “the glass slid down noiselessly to reveal a smiling Mr. Berry. ‘How come you are in the right place at the right time?”’ he asked. I explained my lack of admission and muttered some banal and totally inadequate words of appreciation for the enjoyment his music had provided through the years, but all too soon the audience was over.

“I turned to walk away, then realized I hadn’t shaken my main man’s hand. Without a second’s thought to cause me to falter, I thrust my hand into the car’s dark interior and wished him well. My hand was enveloped in a huge grip, by the hand that had written the lyrics of Roll Over Beethoven, by the fingers that had fashioned those immortal introductory notes to Johnny B. Goode. I drove 40 miles home with a smile on my face.”

I love this story for two reasons. First, it captures the spirit of my own tiny and fleeting interactions with the man who’s been my hero for a lifetime (although Rothwell’s encounter seems downright soulful compared to any of my blink-like interactions); but secondly, and more importantly, because he appreciates the significance of the event—his hand “enveloped” by “the hand that had fashioned those immortal introductory notes…”.

Chuck Berry is no mere celebrity. He’s not just a rock star. He really is one of the immortals—a regular man, with more than a few flaws, I’m sure, who used his considerable talents and genius to fundamentally change everything.

And he walks among us. You can see him play, in a small room, for $30, every month in St. Louis—no small matter. Or you might find him in an airport, or at a restaurant, or under the “flyover.”

Google “I met Chuck Berry”-- and you’ll find examples everywhere of people meeting and interacting with Chuck Berry, at airports, backstage, from the foot of the stage, in cars, after shows. Here are a few:

Of course, since this is (almost) all about me, I have to tell about my own fleeting interactions with the man.

At South Lake Tahoe, in about 1971, I saw him leaning on the side of the stage during a break between sets. He was smoking a cigarette talking to a man who was considerably older than me. I was a skinny 15 year old with extremely long hair. I approached and stuck out my hand. He shook it. All I could manage was stupidity.

“You’re my idol,” I yelled, above the noise of the crowd or the opening act.

He nodded. I moved on—blessed like someone who has touched holiness, and a little embarrassed by my lack of anything useful to say.


Three years later I am in Monterey, California, at an outdoor concert. I’m at the foot of the stage. It’s a helluva show—luxuriously long, but restricted to blues, jams, and the big hits. I scribble a note that reads “Play Got it and Gone.” It’s a song from Bio, the album he’d just released. Chuck Berry leans down, takes the note, repeats “Got it and Gone,” and laughs. He plays more of the big hits.

Ah well. I tried!


The next time I am at the Seattle Paramount. It’s the late 1980s. I’m with my former wife. We are in the first row. My ex-wife is a rare dark face in a sea of pasty Seattle light ones. During a blues number Chuck Berry spies her, locks eyes, smiles, and does a little dance that appears intended just for her.

Okay, it’s not an interaction with me-- but I get my kicks where I can.


Ten or so years later I’m at the Seattle EMP, this time carting along my children. The show is a surprise. Berry’s been brought in to replace an ailing Jerry Lee Lewis. We get there early, and as we approach the gaudy museum, a black Lincoln Town Car exits an underground garage and pauses right in front of us. I know all about these Town Cars. I know this could be a Rothwell moment! I grab my kids’ hands and rush forward to see a familiar chin pushed forward beneath a captain’s hat, turning this way and that, trying to figure out which way to turn. “It’s Chuck Berry!” I tell my kids. They squeal. We lurch forward towards the car. It lurches away.

I remember my lame words at Lake Tahoe. I figure it’s probably just as well.


Then we’re inside at the foot of the stage, and Chuck Berry is singing “Wee Wee Hours.” It’s the first time I’ve seen him play it and I’m mouthing the words, entranced. He looks down, sees me moving my lips, and says to me, from stage: “You’re remembering someone, aren’t you?”

The truth is, at that particular point in my life, I was doing my darndest to forget someone—but that’s another story—and who cares? The real point is that my hero of 35 years took fleeting notice and spoke to me.

Later Gemma, then 6 or 7, speaks up loudly during “My Ding-a-Ling.” A light had gone off in her head. I’m not sure how or why. “He’s singing about his penis!” she says, loudly, in a gruff, matter of fact voice.  I still don't know how she knew that-- but it was funny.  If he heard it (and she had a great big voice) he ignored that one.


Then in 2009, my new youngest got his chance. He knew I was going off to St. Louis to see Chuck Berry at Blueberry Hill. One day I went to pick him up at preschool and he gave me a colorful drawing of a face with a guitar. He had somehow written “CHUCK” on it, but if I recall it was written completely backwards, as if in a mirror. I carried it to Blueberry Hill along with a photograph that I had taken at the Paramount a couple of decades prior. After the show, Chuck Berry set up a funky little metal folding chair in the stage doorway and a line of fans took turns meeting him. I didn’t rehearse any words. I was nearly as speechless as I was the first time I shook his hand. I’d thought for years that “idol” was a silly word, so I told him “Man, you’re my hero!” He signed my photograph, and then was taking the picture that Rafferty had drawn. “This is from a four year old boy in Seattle who likes your music,” I said. He was about to sign it, and then stopped.

“Oh, this is for me,” he said, with just a hint of a smile. And he put it down next to his chair.

I once again failed to thank him, or let him know how much he means to me—to us. I have no haiku to express that thought.

But I think he knows.

No comments: