Saturday, December 5, 2009

Someone Opened Up The Closet Door And Out Jumped-- Something Unexpected!

The other gift from Dietmar was a disk of live recordings of Chuck Berry straying from the Great 28 at concerts in Europe. (Sie Dietmar's note below in the comments section.)  Some of the songs weren’t too unsual. He plays “Wee Wee Hours.” And “House Lights?” He plays that one to end a lot of shows. But there are songs on this record that I’ve never heard him play, like the late 1970s number, “A Deuce,” and Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom.”

(Picture by Alan White at

One of the saddest “rarities” heard in this collection is “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” He struggles through a verse or two and tells the audience “I haven’t played that one in about 14 years.”  How could he have ignored THAT song-- a landmark in music-- for 14 years!?!?!

Eight or ten years ago I took my daughter to see Paul McCartney. At one point he played the song “Getting Better” from “Sergeant Pepper.” He told the audience “You know, we recorded this, and then I never played it again for 30 years.” It was a revelation to me. Here, you and I had heard it thousands of times, but it had only been played enough to get the track down.

I remember passing Chuck Berry a note asking him to play “Got it and Gone” at a concert in Monterey, California in the summer of 1974. He just chuckled. For him that song probably existed as notes scribbled in a studio somewhere and an hour or two of recording time. For me it was a minor anthem, ingrained in the molecular stucture of my brain, and I wanted him to play it so that the audience would know he didn’t stop creating music in 1965.

But “Brown Eyed Handsome Man?” It’s amazing he doesn’t throw it out there more often.

Or “Promised Land.”

Or “Thirty Days.”

These aren’t minor album fillers—these are classics. And he has a regular band now.

And what about later day classics? “Tulane?” “Have Mercy Judge?” (Why play “Every Day I have the Blues” when you’ve got a significant blues of your own that you NEVER play live?)

This collection also has a live version of “Havana Moon.” Who’s ever heard that one live?

Its existence here, live, tells me something: that around the time of “Rockit” Chuck Berry really did make an effort to play his new stuff. There’s a youtube video of him playing “House Lights” on one of the late night TV shows. “Rockit” also had a strange (and I think sort of wonderful) version of “Havana Moon.” (There are those who disagree! But I value weirdness.) I guess the song “A Deuce” (which I didn’t like; sorry) comes from the neon “Chuck Berry” album. But it seems moderately significant that he played these songs live.

But he should do more of it. When you’ve recorded 300 or so songs, there’s no reason to stick to 15 or 20 of them.

I’ve sometimes compared Chuck Berry to Bob Dylan. They are obviously the two great pilars of American rock and roll. Dylan understands. In his book he wrote about his own crisis in the mid 1980s.

“I had written and recorded so many songs, but it wasn’t like I was playing many of them. I think I was only up to the task of about twenty or so.”

Later he writes: “Benmont Tench, one of the musicians in Petty’s band, would always be asking me, almost pleadingly, about including different numbers in the show. “Chimes of Freedom”—can we try that? Or what about “My Back Pages”? Or “Spanish Harlem Incident”? And I’d always be making some lame excuse.”

I’m sure Chuck Berry isn’t making any lame excuses. But he’s squeezing 55 years of musicial genius into 15 or 20 songs.

He should open the floodgates and let out 55 years of wisdom.

It wouldn’t be easy. I assume he’d need to learn the lyrics. Although, I’m not sure of that. I wouldn’t be surprised if he knows more of them then you’d expect. He seems to have a talent for spoken poetry.

But boy, it would be nice.

I was a little appalled at Blueberry Hill to hear “My Ding-a-Ling” when I knew it would cost me another, better song. And I was surprised to hear people complain after the show because they hadn’t heard “Johnny B. Goode.” I’ve heard that one three hundred thousand times. I still like hearing it. I still like “School Day,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

But how about “No Money Down?”

I’d like to see Chuck Berry devote some of his Blueberry Hill shows to the unusual—to the wonderful songs that he’s left behind. To the ballads he loves to sing. To the newer songs that we hear ABOUT but never get to hear.

I don’t think it’s an impossible dream, even if it’s an unlikely one. Maybe he could pay the band to rehearse a few new numbers and then he could just wing it, as usual.   Or maybe the band could surprise him-- "Hey, we're ready to play "Cottage for Sale."  Or "My Dream."

I think people would love it. I think he’d sell tickets. I think he’d get attention. I think he could set up a chair on stage and attract an audience he hasn’t seen in years.

And  they'd be awed.


CBII said...

Peter you'd be amazed at some of the stuff we've played during sound checks. We did bit's and pieces of "A Cottage for Sale" in Sao Paulo or Porta Algere Brazil during one of them and No Money Down has been played several times at BlueBerry Hill.

I agree, he has such a deep bench of music it would be cool to break out "Back to Memphis", "Dear Dad" or "Tulane" just for kicks. There's still time, maybe a little push from the band as you suggest is all it would take. Lyric's on paper just to familiarize ones self. Hum...

Anonymous said...

CBII-- "Oh What a Thrill" it would be! (I recommend giant cue cards.) Peter

Peter said...

Here, again, is a letter from Dietmar. I used the word "bootleg" in the original article-- by which I simply meant an unauthorized recording of the live concert (i.e., every one of those shakey home videos we see of CB performing around the world!) Anyway, here's Dietmar:

Hi, Peter!

I just read what you wrote about the CDs. Sounds like you enjoyed them.

Since you are a lawyer, you might understand that I want to state clearly that neither of the CDs I sent was a bootleg or anything illegal.

The Monkey CD is a private collection of cover versions I did not collect by myself but received from a fellow collector. Copying such a collection for private, non-commercial use is legal in this country. In fact we pay a certain tax on every blank CD-R we purchase. This tax is then distributed to musicians, composers, authors and the like.

The live CD is again a private collection of segments from private audience tapes I received from other collectors. Again this is not a "bootleg" which implies that this collection would be available commercially.

I thought to enter a corresponding comment to your blog postings, but since my comments never make it to you or the blog, maybe you could set the record straight. I don't want t anyone to have the impression I would create or sell bootlegs, because I do not.

Kind regards

-- Dietmar Rudolph