Monday, September 12, 2011

Buyin' Danny's Guitar at a Broker's Shop (The Rhythm of "Bye Bye Johnny")

I remember that at a Chuck Berry concert in about the year 2000 he instructed a bass player on rhythm.  (It was a night of instruction.  He spent some time teaching the piano player the riff on "Wee Wee Hours." I learned a few things.)

He strummed it on the guitar: ba-bum, ba-bum, ba-bum, ba-bum. When the wide eyed the bass player started doing the same thing he got one of those big Chuck Berry stage smiles and Chuck returned his attention to the rest of us.

The bass player never changed that beat again all night.

It was a lesson in how to play Chuck Berry by Chuck Berry that I will never forget, and over the years I have paid more attention and heard that heartbeat rhythm in various songs-- but certainly not all of them.

And then the other day I was listening to the original mono version of “Bye Bye Johnny.”

“Bye Bye Johnny” has always been a favorite--- probably of everyone. I remember my same brother Danny singling it out as a favorite when he was learning to play guitar. Danny was (perhaps is) especially good at rhythm guitar. He first took up the instrument while living in a cave in southern Spain in a neighborhood of Gypsies and Flamenco dancers. He first bought a beautiful, cheap Spanish classical guitar. In those days (1968?) it cost the equivalent of $50. It would be worth $1000 today. (He’s still got it, but it’s got a Willie Nelson hole worn from his pick through the soundboard. Remember, he likes rhythm.) One day back in 1969 or 1970 Danny and I drove from Sacramento to Reno in search of an electric. His theory, probably true, was that musicians with gambling problems would leave good ones at the pawn shops in Reno.  He found an old Fender with a name I don’t recall—sort of Stratocaster shape, but obviously a lesser model of some sort. Someone had painted over the original glossy finish, but given its age—probably an early 1960s Fender-- it was probably a hellofa good guitar.

Anyway, it is fitting that on this pawn broker shop guitar Danny took to playing ‘Bye Bye Johnny.” He liked the squeaky guitar lick that Chuck Berry twisted between the cries of “Bye Bye,” but he also liked the rhythm that distinguished “Bye Bye Johnny” from “Johnny B. Goode.”  I remember him talking about that rhythm.

In those days my friends and I had a band—the worst band that ever played on stage—and my job was the drums. And during our practices Danny would inevitably appear and ask us to back him on “Bye Bye Johnny.” I flailed in my normal artless way. Being the world's stupidest budding musician, it never occurred to me to go listen closely to the original (which I’d heard hundreds of times without hearing). I somehow thought that would be cheating. So I pounded pointlessly while Danny strummed and sang.

So: the other day I’m reading my “Rothwell,” (we should all do it more often), and I notice that he distinguishes between two “Bye Bye Johnnies,” one in mono, and the other in stereo. I recall that my version of the Golden Decade was “electronically altered for stereo” and I want to hear what makes the mono version special. So I search them out on “The Complete 1950s Recordings” and play them.

And there it is—the beat Chuck Berry was teaching that Seattle bassist.

It’s not the bass, it’s not the guitar, it’s Odie Payne, the drummer, launching each half measure with two whacks on his snare drum. (Count “one and two and three and four” and then add some accent “And-one and two and-three and four.”) It’s the train that chugs through this song, and although you hear it on the stereo version, it’s up front driving the entire train in mono.  And it's hard to do on drums.  Your hands want to slap the two and four, not the "and one."

I always knew it was there—I just didn’t know what I knew. I knew this: that it drove me crazy when “The London Sessions” came out and Chuck was obviously playing “Bye Bye Johnny” and the crowd sang “Go Johnny Go!” I don’t know that I ever heard “Bye Bye Johnny” live so it struck me as an opportunity lost. He switched gracefully over, or tossed the lyrics, and the show ended. But there it is again—that chugging rhythm, this time on guitar, which the bassist picks up.  (The drummer plays it like I did.)

I think the beat means more to me after googling “Odie Payne” and finding that video of him in a tiny blues club and imagining the possibilities of meeting him there and figuring out that he’d drummed on “Bye Bye Johnny.” This year of blogging has benefits.

It’s a great song in every other way, too. The lyrics are full of the rich detail that makes Chuck Berry songs Chuck Berry songs: The Southern Trust, a brokerage shop. And that mom—gatherin’ crops, borrowing money, standing and waiving at the kitchen door, tears falling from happiness—this song is as good as it gets. If I were on Dick Clark I’d give the lyrics an 11 and the beat a 15. 

Out of ten.

P.S.  It only occured to me after realizing that Danny bought his guitar at a brokerage shop that I bought my first guitar-- a fake fender telecaster called a Copy Kat-- back in 1973 from my earnings picking honeydoo melons west of Sacramento.

In other words, money earned from gatherin' crops.  But I f*&%ed up and bought the guitar at a music store.  That's probably why I became a lawyer.

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