Saturday, January 16, 2010
Rockit-- (A Prodigal Son Returns Thirty Years Later)
By then my interests had changed quite a bit. At record stores I was mostly buying serious jazz records—Ben Webster, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis. I still loved the blues, but didn’t necessarily buy it on records. I saw B. B. King play at a couple of big local clubs. An Elmore James disciple named J.B. Hutto was based in Seattle for a time and I saw him play at a couple of smaller taverns. The only blues record I can definitely remember buying in those years was by Clifton Chenier, the Zydeco king, who passed through town at least once or twice. As for Chuck Berry—I’m sure I saw him once or twice on late night talk shows, but that’s about it. I doubt he passed through Seattle during those parts of 1977-1980 that I was there, because I would have gone to see him, I’m sure. And maybe that was part of the difference. From 1970 through 1974 I saw him five different times. From 1975 until 1982, not at all. (That 1982-- or maybe 1980-- show was at a Lake Tahoe Casino. It’s probably worth a post of its own. It was a good performance that I didn’t write home about. At the time I equated Chuck Berry with crowds of shaggy hippies and teenagers. At the casino he came out dressed to kill in a white suit. He was backed by a good band. We sat at comfortable, horseshoe shaped tables with white linen. We were served. We were surrounded by people who were the appropriate age to be Chuck Berry fans—people who probably grew up to the original hits. The performance was somewhat rehearsed. Except for the rehearsal—probably required by the club—this show probably came closer to the roots of Chuck Berry than anything I’d seen to date. I’m sure at the Cosmopolitan Club he played to adults. I’m sure many or most of his performances over the years were in a polished club-like setting. But it was too elegant for me at the time. We walked out disappointed, and since I was the Chuck Berry fan, I was somewhat embarrassed. That’s not what his shows are “usually” like I told the people I was with—all family members. But I didn’t know what his shows were “usually” like. I knew what a few of them were like during the early 1970s. As usual, my reaction to the show says more about me than Chuck Berry.)
So I buy “Rockit” and return it. But the record is a stubborn one. It’s probably ATCO. Unlike most of those other 1970s records from Chess, it keeps finding its way into stores. They issue a CD version. And then, years later, they reissue the CD.
Moreover, the reviews are good. A hundred times I read on the internet that Chuck Berry’s last studio album, “Rockit,” is “surprisingly good.” I feel my own shame. I can’t remember if it was good or bad. Maybe I was just in a bad mood when I bought it.
So finally, having started this blog, I realize I have to buy it again. And it’s available on line in a 25th anniversary edition.
And guess what—it’s good.
Here’s a record Chuck Berry made on his own, at home at Berry Park, with Johnnie Johnson at the keys and Chuck Berry doing his own guitars. There’s no Esmond Edwards doing whatever it was that Esmond Edwards did to Chuck Berry records. (Mostly, it would seem, he provided a bad vibe in the studio.) There isn’t any song I’d consider a “great” Chuck Berry song, but there are lots of really good Chuck Berry songs; and unlike the 1975 album, they are ALL Chuck Berry songs. A couple of them rise above the others, at least for me.
But before I talk about the songs, lets talk about the sound. Chuck Berry probably produced this record; the story is that he mailed it in to ATCO. And he captured the sound of Chuck Berry much better than the muted, mushy mix of the 1975 album, where extraneous and distorted guitars were squeezed in over an airless mix.
Chuck Berry music has got to sound live. There’s got to be atmosphere. Some of the old stuff was recorded in bathrooms at Chess to get the sound of guitars bouncing off tile.
Here he adds just enough reverb to his voice and guitar to give the sound a spacious feel. (I wish the drums and bass had the same thing.) And in the background, Johnnie Johnson’s piano, with both hands miked so that you can hear his left hand rhythm work as well as his right side tinkling. The sound of this record may not stand with the best stuff, but it’s good, and miles above “Chuck Berry” and the Mercury recordings.
Two things Chuck Berry probably didn’t feel he could talk about much or very directly in the 1950s: the law, and the old Jim Crow south (I’ve always thought he got a few sly licks in on “Promised Land.” On this record he must feel a bit liberated, and talks about both subjects often—though always in a comical way.
“Wuden’t Me” is a story about a man in the south.
Old boy he ran a little stop sign in the south
And he got in deeper trouble with his mouth
They wouldn't let him phone or make a bail
Just let him sit there in that Delford County jail
He winds up escaping and chased by “grand dragon” hounds into the cab of a truck driven by a KKK member. (And all of this before Mr. Berry started working with Daryl Davis!)
The song “I Never Thought” also goes down south and includes trouble with the law.
I asked a policeman the time, he swung and crowned me with his stock
I managed to walk away so glad it weren't twelve o'clock
You know I never thought a thing like that would ever really come to be
'Cause I don't bother nobody and don't nobody bother me
More cop trouble in “Move It.” It starts with a ’53 Ford breaking down on the highway.
Couldn't see nothing wrong, line of cars long
Traffic bogged down, trying to drive around
Officer Lamar, walking towards the car:
"Move it! Come along move it!
You can't stop it here, now move it! Move it!"
In the song “California” my humble and blighted home town finally makes its way into the long list of geographic locations sung about by Chuck Berry. (He had previously described Sacramento in his Autobiography as a city of geriatrics. I think he might have remembered that first concert that I saw him perform at, with a ghostly crowd of four or five hundred people in a cavernous hall.)
“House Lights” isn’t a song as much as show closing device. It’s one of many such novelties that Chuck Berry has tried to record over the years: “Goodnight Sweethearts” used to close the shows I saw in the early 1970s. “My Tambourine” was not-very-listenable version of “My Ding-a-Ling.” “House Lights” stands proud in such company.
The album has a remake of “Havana Moon” that gets high marks for me for weirdness. I always loved Havana Moon, but it was one of the songs that never gets played much live. I like that he tried to revive it. This version, with its weird background vocals, (all Berry), reminds me of his original version of “I Just Want To Make Love To You” or even “Almost Grown.” As a kid I never wanted the background singing mucking up my Chuck Berry songs, but I’m almost grown myself, and have changed my mind. I like it. And I like that he tried to bring back a great song with new chords and a new sound. (I tell you, he’s Bob Dylan’s big brother.)
The album ends with a poem, “Pass Away,” of surpassing weirdness and wonder. I don’t want to listen to it often, but it’s a window into Chuck Berry that I love to hear once in a while. I remember someone—probably his son—remarking somewhere that “he’s got hundreds” of these. Another mark that he’s doing all this out of love, since the commercial value has got to be small. I sure wish he’d substitute some of his poems for his ding-a-ling at some of his live shows. People would like it.
And a bonus on “Pass Away” is the slide guitar in the background—a nearly note for note for one of his 1950s slide guitar songs, and very similar to what he plays at the end of “Hail! Hail!” That’s another thing I’d like to see him pull out of his bag of tricks live.
I guess I’m becoming sort of demanding! But there’s so much there, and yet so much emphasis is put on the same 15 or 20 songs.