Sunday, May 20, 2012

Just Him and His Guitar (A Repost)

I was at the gym, pedaling furiously, getting steadily fatter, and watching a bank of silent television screens. On one, as usual, was Lady Gaga. I have to admit I don’t know Lady Gaga. I wouldn’t recognize her music. I wouldn’t necessarily recognize her—except that I’ve come to associate her with any series of extremely fast edits and costume changes: patent leather, bubbles, bright lipstick, that sort of thing.

I have nothing against Lady Gaga. Gag if you will, but I figure that most of the people we see on screen have worked hard and have talent. There are undoubtedly people who’ve worked harder, and have more talent who never make it to the big screen or the little screen, but that doesn’t take anything away from those who do. Lady Gaga seems like an original presence with ideas.

But when I watched the fancy video production, the quick edits, the costume changes, the makeup, the boys, the girls, and thought of the hundreds of other talents behind all that—directors, musicians, make-up artists, costume designers, editors, techs, you name it—I thought of our man, travelling alone for decades with a guitar, a briefcase, some well worn clothes and a rental car. He didn’t even bring a band to 90% of his gigs. He certainly didn’t bring a retinue. No agent. No manager. No roadies. He’d show up, and whether the band was good or bad, he’d play—and usually bring down the house and send them all home happy.

What’s funny is that these independent activities have given him a reputation. People complain that he wants the right amplifier, or that he wants the money that was promised.

Every artist wants the right amplifier! Every musician wants the money!

Most of the famous ones don’t have to ask for it themselves. The road manager handles all of that.

Chuck Berry has done it all on his own, in minimalist style—a good guitar, a cord, a bag of cash, a stage, some hopeful and hopefully competent musicians standing ready leaning to get a hint at the key he’s going to choose waiting for their moment of history.

I was in Sacramento a few weeks ago, wandering around the beautiful brick barn of an auditorium where I saw Chuck Berry perform three times and it set me to wondering: where did he park? How did he find these places without google maps? Who saw him walking up to the back of the auditorium with his guitar? Which door did he knock on?

Once, not that long ago, I saw him leave the basement parking of the EMP rock and roll museum in Seattle a couple of hours before his show began. It’s a spot where I now frequently go to pick up my daughter—a circular driveway leading out onto Fifth Avenue. I was with both daughters that day, and we lurched forward towards the black Town Car, but he lurched forward, off to some destination in Seattle. He wasn’t alone that day—he had someone that I suspect was a travelling partner from St. Louis; but who knows. It’ might have been someone from the EMP guiding him to wherever he was off to.

On stage it’s “just him and his guitar.” I got an e-mail from one disgruntled musician who said he played with a wah-wah once, and that after his solo Chuck Berry said something like “I don’t play with toys—I play guitar.” Decades later the poor guitarist remains scarred—but it’s true. The sound he fought so hard for (whether right or wrong in that instance) in “Hail! Hail!” is the pure sound of a Gibson guitar, a Fender amp, and Chuck Berry’s inimitable hands and rhythm.

Without the crews, the managers, the make-up, the costumes, the smoke and mirrors and special effects Chuck Berry swung the guitar around like it was lighter than air, dancing with it, doing things most people can’t do without any burden, and doing it all while spitting out those amazing double string bent notes, making faces, making us dance, making us laugh.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Peter, What you just touched on is the magic of Chuck Berry, its real , its in the moment, its Live, its the truth, its raw, Its Rock & Roll at its core, its Chuck Berry......
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