Part of it is obviously some genetic accident or defect—an inborn predilection for certain sounds and rhythms and rhymes. Some people like the sound of an old car motor. Some people are probably drawn to the squawk of a goose. Some people like the sound of Sarah Palin speaking. I’m called by a double string electric guitar lick, strong bass, and echoing drums, and some fine piano rippling in the distance. I heard it and I knew—and that was 40 years ago.
Which suggests that another part of it is simple timing—pure luck, a simple twist of fate. There’s a moment in life—the teenage years-- when we are ready to be swept away by whatever bit of music or art that we really see or hear. I got lucky. I first saw Chuck Berry live when I was about 14 years old. Everything about the performance got me. It happened to be a sad sort of show, a meager crowd, a lame backup band, with Chuck Berry looking sad himself, alone at the mike stand singing blues when we first walked in the door, his brow furrowed, his guitar raw and loud. It was music at its most basic and powerful, amped up by circumstance. In the next 45 minutes or so he kicked into gear, played his hits, did his splits, joked with the other guitarist on stage (who, when given the chance to solo, plucked a single note—true musical shrinkage—causing Berry to laugh and shrug and cajole.) He got the crowd to its feet where it stayed and left them there as he cut out early supposedly to a show in Los Angeles. But it was the blues that got me—some of the first I had ever heard live (the other came from B. B. King, around the same time)—blues played by a man alone with his guitar, on the road, looking at a fading audience.
The writer Michael Lydon compared Chuck Berry to Chaplin—a clown who can bring tears. In Chuck Berry’s case there’s a certain artifice to the laughter (and sometimes to the blues). Even on his worst days he will get the crowd jumping and laughing and singing along. It’s a talent he was born with and a skill that he has honed to perfection. I saw him at his grumpiest at the EMP in Seattle, but at some point, after the scolding and instruction, after the sad solo versions of Ding-a-Ling and South of the Border, he amped it up and ran the crowd ragged. He was 75 at the time. But the sad part of Chuck Berry is built in—part of his own genetic makeup, and probably exacerbated by circumstances he himself has caused. He has made himself more alone by his own actions, personal and professional. But it doesn't hurt his art. He’s often at his very best when waxing nostalgic. (“Wee Wee Hours.” “Memphis.” “Oh Louisiana.”) Sometimes it’s sweet. (“Time Was.” “Oh Baby Doll.”) It’s never the hard blues of Muddy Waters (the closest he ever got with one of his own numbers was “Have Mercy Judge,” perhaps because he was singing about what he knew—the same judge and some stony mansion. That was real blues.) What Chuck Berry specializes in is more of an ache—the ache of loss, and memory, and aloneness. “In a wee little room, I sit alone and think of you.” Watch him sing “Cottage for Sale.” This is Chuck Berry’s blues, the blues I have no doubt that he feels at his very core.
(Then again, is there a single Chuck Berry song that takes ownership of any part of that aloneness? Is it always the other party’s fault. “Her mom did not agree, and tore apart our happy home.” “You ain’t done nothing darlin’, but ruin a happy home.” “She put me in shame and in sorrow.” Is there an apology anywhere?)
So anyway, long story short, at 14 I found something real—real exuberance, and real blues, and I spent the next five years listening hard and often going to see him again and again—at Tahoe, at a couple of jam packed “Rock and Roll Revival” concerts, at Monterey. He was at his musical prime, and except for the “Revival” shows where he split the bill with a dozen acts, the concerts were long and luxurious. (The revival shows had their own reward; playing last after well-received groupls like Bill Hailey and the Comets and dynamite acts like Bo Diddley, he nonetheless blew the crowd away.) At Lake Tahoe he played longer than I could stand (the promoter tells me he was kept there by security to fulfill a contract that called for two sets!). We left before it was over. At Monterey he played for hours and we were at the foot of the stage. By the time I was 17 or 18 I was thoroughly and irretrievably infected. The sounds had worked their way into my brainstem. I don’t even listen to albums anymore. I don’t have to. It’s there. When I have lost consciousness some day, (I hope many years from now), and doctors are trying to determine brain death, they will hook me to an ECG and find a backbeat. I can’t lose it.