Recently a good version of the T.A.M.I. show came out on DVD, and public television has been using a chopped up version to request donations. (It’s better than legions of Irish dancers). At the end of the show all the stars come back on stage to dance with each other and the go-go girls and boys. It’s sort of sweet. And as I recall (having watched only once) there’s Chuck Berry, who opened the show, dancing a bit shyly behind the crowd.
The notion of Chuck Berry dancing shyly is a hard concept for me. He's a great dancer—inventor of the “scoot” and the “duck walk,” a guy who did splits well into advanced older age-- and he has that rare ability to make you laugh just by moving—a sort of musical Charlie Chaplin, or Bill Cosby. Check out his little guitarless dance while his hero T-Bone Walker plays “Every Day I have the Blues” at Montreux.
Or some of those early movies and television shows where he was forced to lip sync. To make it interesting, and since he didn’t have to play guitar, he moved his whole body during those performances. They make lip-synching interesting. (I can't embed this one, but it's worth clicking on the LINK.
But read his Autobiography (which you should do, despite the silly sections), and you find that he was shy in high school, where it took a car and a hit performance at the talent show to start getting the girls. That’s when some of the lyrics make sense.
The protagonist of “Little Queenie” knows he’s got to do something but spends most of the song thinking about just what exactly he’s gonna do
I got lumps in my throat
When I saw her comin down the aisle
I got the wiggles in my knees
When she looked at me and sweetly smiled
Well there she is again
Standin over by the record machine
Lookin' like a model
On the cover of a magazine
She's too cute
To be a minute over seventeen
Meanwhile I was thinkin'
She's in the mood
No need to break it
I got the chance. I oughta take it
If she can dance, we can make it
C'mon queenie: let's shake it!
Which sounds pretty good—until a verse or two later you find out that he’s still strategizing.
Meanwhile, I was stilllllll thinkin'
If it's a slow one
We'll omit it
If it's a rocker, that’ll get it
If it's good, she'll admit it
C'mon queenie, let's get with it!
Carol is pretty much the same. It starts out with a car ride, anticipation, and a description of the venue just like Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’,” or the “House of Blue Lights.”
Climb into my machine so we can cruise on out
I know a swingin' little joint where we can jump and shout
It's not too far back off the highway, not so long a ride
You park your car out in the open, you can walk inside
A little cutie takes your hat and you can thank her, ma'am
Every time you make the scene you find the joint is jammed
This sounds like Mr. Slick—some teenage Casanova-- until you get to the insecurities:
Oh Carol—don’t let him steal your heart away!
I’m gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day!
Chuck Berry somehow understood how scared teenagers are—all the chances they have to take every day, and all the new things they have to learn. Getting out on the dance floor means taking a risk.
Sounds so sweet
Had to take me a chance
Rose out of my seat
I just had to dance
Started moving my feet
While clapping my hands
And they kept on rockin”!
So tomorrow, I’m taking my Chuck Berry obsession to a new, healthier place by taking my guitar to a little spot on the edge of town where, for good or ill, I intend to climb on stage for the first time, plug in that old electric, and play a song or two with people I don’t know. I won’t play Chuck Berry. It’s a blues band. But, fingers willing, I’m sure a lick or two descendent from Chuck will come out at some point, the way they always do when guitars get plugged in anywhere on earth, from Montana to Mozambique.
But geeze-- it gives me wiggles in the knees just to think about it—like a teenager again.