Friday, January 15, 2010

Pooped, Too Little Pop

As I drift towards the end of this blog I have to do one of the hardest things. I have to describe falling out of love with Chuck Berry's music back in the mid-to-late 1970s.  At least for a while.

I first became a follower in 1970. From 1970 until 1974 I bought as much of the old stuff as I could find, and all of the new stuff.  It helped that I got so see him live five times during that period, and that each show was great.

But by the end of that decade, I was pretty much done with Chuck Berry. In 1980 I moved to Africa and found a whole new world of music in West African Highlife and Soukous from the country then called Zaire. When I got back home that new interest stuck, and I let an entire decade of music slip past without even listening. When the telephone poles around me were plastered an inch thick with fading 8 ½ by 11 posters for groups like Nirvana, Mudhoney and Pearl Jam, all playing at local clubs downtown, I was reviewing Jamaican and African records and seeing concerts by Tabu Ley Rocherau, Mbilia Belle, and Sonny Okossuns. I didn’t feel cheated, I promise you.

Except for a few late nights when he would show up on shows like Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, It was a vacation from Chuck Berry that would last until 1986, when the book appeared, and the movie “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!”

Things first started to fade for me when I finally got to hear the 1975 album “Chuck Berry”-- a blackish blue record with neon letters (called “Chuck Berry ‘75” in Europe).

I actually bought my copy in Europe, although it must have been a U.S. import. I was going to school in Italy in 1975, and visiting a friend in Paris when I found the record for sale at an expensive, all night store on the Champs Elysee.

We were heading out looking for a late night bottle of wine. (No 7/11s in Paris in those days.) We drank the cheapest, rottenest wine available, but the only place open that night was a fancy chrome place called “Le Drugstore” that sold everything from wine to women’s clothing. It was supposedly modeled on the American notion of a drugstore, but a different America than I had ever seen at that point. (My version of the American drugstore was considerably less chic—fluorescent lights, gum, band-aids, laxatives and asbestos ceilings. French pharmacies seemed infinitely more interesting to me as a teenager because French Pharmacies always found an excuse to put a huge poster of refined and lithesome naked girl in the window in an effort to advertise products I could never identify.)

“Le Drugstore” was a gaudy, expensive place with lots of chrome, glass and unfrosted light bulbs. (It’s still there: From my point of view there was no rhyme or reason to it, and the wine was so expensive that we ended up with something awful—a weird bottle of rose, or something like that, purchased at five or ten times what we’d normally pay because it was the least expensive bottle in the place. (No plastic wine bottles at “Le Drugstore.”) But while we were there I went to the record counter saw it: a new Chuck Berry record, with neon lettering up front, and a picture of Chuck Berry and his daughter on the back!

So I bought it. I paid a small fortune—two or three times what it would have cost me in the states, and probably 30 times what we usually spent for a bottle of wine.

But I had to have it. Right then and there-- even though I had no place to play it.

My only musical device at the time was a $12 black and chrome plastic cassette deck (probably purchased at a large American drugstore electronics counter) with a single 1.5 inch speaker-- and it was a 15 hour train ride away from Paris.

So I carried my new Chuck Berry album, unheard, from country to country, until I finally got back home to the U.S.A.

Then I played it, and thought: (drab, listless raspberry sound).

It just didn’t do it for me.

It still doesn’t.

But I’ve still got it, direct from Paris, 35 years old, bent and tattered, grooves worn flat despite the disappointment. I’ve played it once or twice recently and it crackles with wear and tear. I must have listened more than I remember.

Understand, I was born and raised on later day Chuck Berry records. They weren’t as jam packed with classics as the older stuff, but they always had their moments. “Back Home” had “Have Mercy Judge” and “Tulane.” “San Francisco Dues” had “Oh Louisiana.” “Bio” had “Bio.” “London Sessions” had vitality and life, his cursed “Ding-a-Ling,” great guitar playing and a world class rendition of “Mean Old World.”

This one? Didn’t have much.

I remember wondering the day I bought it where the Chuck Berry songs were. It looked like some sort of oldies album—nothing but covers. I like to hear Chuck Berry interpret other people’s work. “Time Was,” “House of Blue Lights,” “Cottage for Sale,” “I’m Through With Love,” “Love in ¾ Time”—these are some of my favorite things.

But generally speaking, my favorite Chuck Berry songs are Chuck Berry songs—and there aren’t many on the album called “Chuck Berry.” (Even some of the “Chuck Berry” songs aren’t “Chuck Berry” songs. “Don’t You Lie to Me” is credited to Berry,” but here’s a version from 1940 that sounds eerily familiar!)

(I found this version by "Los Fritos" by accident.  I don't know who "Los Fritos" are, but I like the name, y la musica es muy buena.)

But back to 1975: There is something flat about the sound on “Chuck Berry.” Los Fritos sound a lot more alive to me. 

It doesn’t have the “tinny” sound I hated on the Mercury LPs, but it’s a bit clinical. There’s something a little dead in the mix.

What surprises me now is to learn who some of the musicians were: Elliot Randall, Wilber Bascomb and Ernie Hayes are all well known session musicians. You’d never know it from listening. The drums are too crisp and contained. The bass is too electric. The extra guitars, mostly played by session musician Elliott Randall, (and probably added after the fact,) are too busy, or have too much distortion and wah-wah. Once I’d I googled these folks I wanted to learn more and got out Fred Rothwell’s book. I like his suggestion. When the songs are rereleased, subtract that extra guitar.

The music on “Back Home” sounds live and exciting. The music on “London Sessions” is good hard rock. “Bio” has a happy sort of shuffling feel.

This stuff sounds muted, as if the life was squeezed out of it during a remix. My advice: Turn up the reverb, turn off the wah-wah, simplify it, and maybe you'll find what's hidden there.

A couple of songs have some of Chuck Berry’s wildest singing ever. Not that wild singing really suits him.  It tells me that maybe it wasn’t working in the studio, either, so he tried to rev things up with crazy vocals that sound like he was trying to channel Little Richard.

It makes it interesting, anyway.

My favorite song on the album was Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do?” Even now I’d put it on my own Chuck Berry Blues compilation. It's a little sleepy, though, and I like Jimmy Reed’s version wayyy better.  Jimmy's version makes sense of hidin' and peepin'.  This one makes sense of yawnin' ans sleepin'.

But I like it.

It’s also nice that Chuck sings a couple of old Chess songs like “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and “My Babe.”  Willie Dixon and Walter Jacobs were friends and co-workers of Chuck Berry; cool that he sang their songs, and interesting that he recorded “Love to You” for a second time. He must have liked it. 

But the first version was probably better.

Ultimately I think that the reason this record didn’t do it for me back in 1975 and doesn't really do it for me now is that there isn’t any really good reason for it to exist. Chuck Berry usually records lots of Chuck Berry songs. Here he didn’t. And he certainly didn’t record one of his great ones, or even a great cover.
The result, I think, is like a very odd live set, with Chuck Berry and some uninspired session musicians (on a few songs it’s local musicians from St. Louis; they do better, in my book) playing a mix of oldies, R & B, novelty and folk songs. If I take it that way—a very odd live set—I can enjoy it as a curiosity.

And I definitely like to hear Chuck Berry play piano—it’s a distinct style that you know is born of a simple love for music. It reminds me of stuff my brother Stevo, a drummer, used to do while standing at my mother’s baby grand.  And it's got a definte bounce.

Some people say Chuck Berry only plays for the money—but that piano tinkling is proof that isn’t true. It’s obviously a skill developed in his spare time, for love, not money.

(Although, I have to say, Mr. Berry, I’d pay big bucks to hear you do it live!)

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