Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Chuck Berry San Francisco Dues, 1971

My third Chuck Berry album, after “The Golden Decade” and “Back Home,” was 1971's "San Francisco Dues."   Author John Collis considers it Chuck Berry’s most cohesive album. I don’t. I think it has a patched together feel, with most songs recorded in 1971, and a couple of older ones (“Viva Rock & Roll” and “Lonely School Days”) thrown in as filler. As filler goes, they’re good—among the better songs on the album—but they hearken back to the teenage stuff that I thought Chuck Berry left behind when he recorded “Back Home.” Whatever else you think of it, (and I love it,) “Back Home” always struck me as a thoroughly grown up record, with a consistent, refined sound. Even “I’m a Rocker,” which was essentially a staid remake of “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” had a grown up feel that fit the tougher times Chuck Berry was facing in 1970 before his giant “come back” in 1972—“I may be down sometimes, but I come back to rock and roll.” So after “Back Home,” it didn’t really make sense to me that one of the better songs on “San Francisco Dues” was about “Lonely School Days.” (I didn’t know at the time that it was an older song, recorded years earlier.)

As for cohesiveness— for me the stickiest thing on this album is the nearly omnipresent wah-wah, which Collis describes as “quacking” like a duck at times. Bad idea.

The cover art comes from the same photo shoot as the "Back Home" photos.  He's wearing a jacket that showed up on a lot or late 1960s - early 1970s albums, and then again during some of my favorite scenes from the movie "Hail! Hail!"  Those clothes never die or get thrown away.

The newer songs on “San Francisco Dues” are a mixed bag. “Festival” is a little bit dippy—a long recitation of every band Chuck Berry could think of and make rhyme. “San Francisco Dues” itself was has a nice bluesy feel, but the hip lingo of 1967 was a already little dated the day it arrived (in 1971!):

Went on a little trip last night
And the boys was playin' some of them old Fillmore Blues
And every head was right on in there diggin'
Beautiful vibrations, had some heavy grooves
My chick was right on in there with me in heaven
Yes, we were payin' our San Francisco dues

A couple of the songs step it up a notch. “Let’s Do Our Thing Together” has a good beat and decent lyrics.

I'm not a blue-blood or a scholar
Just a hard-workin' boy
And after five long days
A body needs a little joy
Let's do our thing together
Go out and have a balling time
You know I dig you doing your thing
And I'll turn you on when I do mine

And though it’s a little silly, I also like the song “Bordeaux in my Pirough,” a blatant remake of “Jambalaya.” “Bound to Lose” is another semi-blues number, and one that seems to ring true.

Looks like I'll go on through my life
Bound in sorrow, I'm a loser
Right from the start
Now I've lost the only one I really loved
And I'm bound to this pain in my heart

Who among us knows what goes on in the heart or life of Chuck Berry. Not me.  He gives us his songs and his stage presence, not a confession. But some of his truest songs seem to reflect a life that bounces from the good times of “Let’s Do Our Thing Together” to the effect those good times might have had on his family life. There’s “Memphis, Tennessee.” There’s “Have Mercy Judge.”

My favorite song on this album, by far, is “Oh Louisiana,” an unusual Chuck Berry song that I think is up there among his very best. It’s a simple song full of longing and regret, and a shameful attempt to return. Why people don’t cover this one, I don’t know.

Oh, Louisiana, I stayed away from you too long
Oh, Louisiana, how can a true love go so wrong?
She put me in shame and in sorrow
And I come home tomorrow
Oh, Louisiana

Oh, Louisiana, yea, yea, Creole baby, Cajun queens
Quaint porches and windows, filet de gumbo, the basin beans
Your beautiful Delta and bayous in green
Oh, Louisiana

Oh, Louisiana, yea-e-e, yea, I'm flyin' on Delta 903
Right over St. Louis, high over Memphis, Tennessee
On southward to the sea, where I long to be
Oh, Louisiana

Oh, Louisiana, yea, yea, them Yankee nights are cold and long
Oh, Louisiana, she broke my heart and wrecked my home
She shamed me in sorrow, to face my tomorrow
Oh, take me back, oh, Louisiana

And ultimately, dacades later, my other favorite on the album turns out to be “My Dream (Poem),” a long poem spoken a bit sadly over Chuck Berry’s own plunking piano.

At my old upright piano,
With pure ivory keys,
I'll just plunk out some vibrations
Of whatever I please.
Sometimes it'll be classics,
Sometimes lullabies;
But mostly rock n' roll
That I'll surely improvise.
And with my favourite guitar,
I'll be just strummin' away
And bidding goodbye,
To another beautiful day.
A portrait of my angel,
That I love most of all -
I'll have painted from a snapshot
Onto my bedroom wall.
Where the suns warm rays,
And the moon's cold beam
Will cast her reflection,
As I lay there and dream.

You know, I can't deny
That it makes me so sad,
When I think that I've lost
All that I could have had.

It’s another song of loss, regret, and a little hope, and a true love lost, but never gone.

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