Friday, October 15, 2010
Motor Got Hot and Wouldn't Do No More (Take Two)
“The Promised Land!”
Many years prior I had read about it in Ramparts magazine. A writer-- Michael Lydon-- had gone there for a promised interview. He was sent packing. According to the article, the owner of the park, the great Chuck Berry, had met him for a moment, changed his mind about doing an interview, told him “Standing in the sun ain’t my shot,” refunded the guy’s money, and left.
I knew that article because I was insane. A “Mad Lad.” I was obsessed with Chuck Berry. I had first seen him on television, without much interest, and then live, in an empty hall, and then on records that I played again and again, a revelation every time.
I spent hours at the library searching through magazines and books for anything that I could find about the man. This was before the internet. I’d search old Billboards by hand. My eyes are still quick to spot a five letter word starting with “Ch”-- especially if it's in proximity to another five letter word that begins with "B."
When I drove to Wentzville I was hoping to find the quasi-commercial establishment described in Ramparts, where I recalled some mention of a hot dog and Coke. I was hoping for a “House of Blue Lights,” with “friers,” with “broilers,” with hamburgers sizzling “on an open grill,” and where, perhaps, (if I had the money,) I could get a “T-bone steak a la carty.”
I was hoping to see Chuck Berry walk past, tall and lanky in purple pants and a green paisley sports coat, silver bolo tie, white belt and white leather shoes.
In my heart of hearts I was hoping he’d recognize me as a long lost, genetically inferior child; or that he’d adopt me; or that, at the very least, he’d invite me into his studio to play guitar with me, elicit my advice about future recordings, and maybe show me how to do a few of the licks I was having trouble with.
Or, at worst, refund my money and show me the door.
But when I got to Wentzville no one was very sure what Berry Park was or where to find it. I remember at a gas station near the interstate one attendant consulted another.
"The rock singer's place?"
He pointed vaguely. "Down that road a couple miles, I think."
“Down the Road a Piece,” he might have said.
This probably wouldn’t happen now, but it was 1978, several years after Berry’s last hit record, and a few years before he’d become a national landmark despite—well it doesn’t matter.
After a couple more stops for directions (I remember a little general store with warm Coke and bags of feed and a man who drawled “The negro singer?” before pointing the way) I found it, across the road from a gun club.
There was a chain link fence and granite marker (a tombstone) with the words:
By the Family, For the People.
I was hoping I was one of the people, but the park didn't look very commercial. No Coca Cola in the offing. No friers. No broilers. No juke joint.
I remember a long, straight blacktop drive, and flat land, a house painted brick red, and further left, some low buildings.
But I was there, and some irrational part of me was still hoping I could hang out a while, meet Mr. Berry or at least see him.
So I pulled my old Fiat into the driveway and motorvated slowly maybe half the distance to the house before thinking: "This is not a commercial establishment."
That's when, as they say in Maybellene, “Motor got hot and wouldn’t do no more.”
It was, as I said, a Fiat; an old one; tired from a long journey; and it was at least 95 degrees and 90 percent humidity.
I turned the key again and again, panicking, beginning to drip sweat, battery fading, dignity disappearing, when finally a woman came out of the house.
"What do you want?" she asked, not too nicely.
I was quite lame.
"Is he here?"
"He's not," she said. I probably stood there looking dumb.
"You need to leave," she said. I tried starting the car again but that wasn't going to happen-- so I so I put my shoulder to the B-pillar and pushed it back out the driveway. I parked it (fittingly) next to the tombstone out front. I’m not sure how long I was out there, but only long enough to let the motor cool down. Then off to a KOA in the flat grasslands of Missouri where I set up my pup tent on the hot grass and slept off my shame.
Chuck Berry is my idol. I told him so when I was 14 or 15 and got to shake his hand. (When I was 53 I changed it to "hero." The man renders me dumb, both ways.)
I was a late comer to the music. I wasn’t even born when he first saw Maybelenne in the Coupe de Ville. My Chuck Berry was middle aged (40 something, going on 30 something), a guitar virtuoso and showman who traveled alone, making do with pickup musicians, still making good records and always making people laugh and dance.
His draw is mysterious. It’s like he dipped deeply into the Missouri and pulled up what makes America good and interesting. There’s blues. There’s country. There’s a bit of jazz. There’s experience. There’s black, white, Hispanic. There’s stubbornness and trouble. There's humour. There's youth. There’s family.
This blog is about Chuck Berry. Not his life story, which he has told and others have documented. This is just about one fan's appreciation.