Friday, February 11, 2011

Like a Fading Memory, Revived.

Part of the room where I first heard
Chuck Berry's Golden Decade
As I’ve worked on this blog, I’ve written a lot about my own experience as a Chuck Berry fan, and I’ve struggled to recreate some of that history. I don’t know why it is so important to me, but it is. For whatever reason, the man had a huge impact on me.

I “discovered” him as a young teenager. I’ve always remembered the broad outlines of that personal history. I remember first hearing about him from my brother Stevo. I remember first seeing him on a Mike Douglas show. I remember seeing him again on the Dick Cavett show. I remember that neither of those television performances turned me into a Chuck Berry fan—but I find it interesting that I remember them nearly 40 years later.

Then, of course, I remember seeing him for the first time at sad sort of show at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium. I wrote about it (with some innacuracies) HERE. I was mesmerized, and the next day I went out and bought the original "Golden Decade" album.  I was changed forever.

But whatever I wrote was done from memory—memory faded by 40 years of experience (and gently rinsed by 35 years of beer and wine).

Part of the mystery is that I probably remember more of my crucial Chuck Berry memories than other things arguably far more important. I remember those television shows. I remember other Mike Douglas Show appearances. I remember that first concert, and the second, at South Lake Tahoe. I remember hearing that first Golden Decade album and playing it again and again in the empty tower room of an old Victorian farmhouse that we lived in at the time. I remember going crazy with those songs, singing them as loud as I could with my awful singing voice. I remember soon after when I went to the suburban Sacramento Tower Records and found “Back Home,” and my delight in hearing a modernized but thrilling new version of Chuck Berry music. (Tonight the harmonica player on “Back Home,” boogie-woogie piano player Robert “Boogie Bob” Baldori is reportedly participating in the Blueberry Hill show in St. Louis. They are probably just finishing as I write this. I wish I were there!) I remember months later finding “San Francisco Dues” at that same branch of Tower (and finding an album by T-Bone Walker, that I still play from time to time, at the same store.) I remember seeing Chuck Berry a third and fourth time at “Rock and Roll Revival” shows at the Memorial Auditorium. Each time he ended the show with a rousing finale. Only Bo Diddley even came close.

I could go on and on, because by the time I was 16 there was a sudden burst of renewed interest in Chuck Berry. He had his first number one hit, and suddenly he was everywhere. I remember him on “In Concert,” and “The Midnight Special.” I remember a show where he played live on television with Bo Diddley. I remember when “Bio” came out, and then, seeing one last great Chuck Berry show at Monterey, California, where he played for hours and then disappeared into the sunshine in his rental car (or maybe just his own Cadillac for the relatively short drive to Los Angeles town).

As I say, I could go on and on.

Now, recently the magic of the blog has begun to pay off. One day I was googling for news stories and found a “Tahoe Tribune” story about the South Lake Tahoe concert that I saw at an old Safeway store turned rock hall. Suddenly I had a date for that show: July 4, 1971.

I don’t know if I believe it was July 4. I have no memory of the holiday, or fireworks. But July 1971 fits perfectly with my memory-- and let's give the Tahoe Tribune credit for journalistic accuracy.

I would have been 15 years old. I forget how I got to Tahoe, where my older brother was living, but I remember that a girl from my school met me there with her girlfriend and we went to the show, went crazy, and left, exhausted, before the second set was even done.

(Don’t tell my mother that Lara went to the cabin.  She found her in my room once—and believe me, we were just talking—and threw a fit.)

But I was still missing information about the first show. So I decided to try to figure out when it was.

I had tried looking at microfilms at the Sacramento library.   But without a date, that was a haystack. 

A few weeks later I e-mailed the Sacramento Convention Center and asked if they had information.

And guess what?  They didn’t. But a very nice man there told me who might. He told me the name of a researcher at the Sacramento Archives.  (He also sent me a very, very cool poster.)

It took me a few weeks to call the archives. (I actually do have a job and work to do.)  I asked for the archivist and told her what the man at the Convention Center told me—that she knew everything.

He was right.

Less than 24 hours after I called, she sent me an e-mail telling me that the first Chuck Berry concert I saw in person happened on February 13, 1971. And she confirmed something else I knew—that only 800 people attended.

Dear Peter:

I did find that Chuck Berry played Memorial Auditorium on February 13, 1971. Also on November 24th 1971 there was a “50s Rock & Roll Revival” but the listing doesn’t mention who played. I can also tell you that 800 people attended the Berry concert and over 4,000 attended the rock & roll revival.
Things were starting to fall into place.  Another bit of magic from the blog is that I was encouraged to buy a couple of Morten Reff’s books.  One of them gave me tantalizing tidbits—dates of television shows. Now, with these dates from the archives and Tahoe, they make perfect sense to me.

Chuck Berry was on the Mike Douglas show on October 22, 1970-- four months before I'd finally see him live. I can say with nearly absolute confidence that I first saw Chuck Berry on that episode of Mike Douglas. (I was expecting a blond version of Elvis!) All I can say is that I found him very interesting, and that I’ve never forgotten the experience. I was 14.  Here is that show.  (They made him perform in some awkard situations in those days.)

Two months later Chuck Berry was on Dick Cavett. I remember being asleep in bed in my room next to the television room. Something woke me. I went out, groggy, and watched with my brothers Stevo and Danny. No real connection yet, but again, I’ve never forgotten. (I didn’t know it at the time, but according to Reff’s book, that was the first time I ever heard the song “Tulane!” Oh, if someone has the tape I want it!)

Then, two months after that, the show in Sacramento.  (This isn't it, but this is what he looked like-- and the only time I saw him in Jeans.  I'm thinking this must be from "The Music Scene" hosted by David Steinberg.  It makes me wonder.  I used to watch that show.  It played December 22, 1969.) (Did they always make him play on raised platforms?)

And the next day, love! I bought the album Golden Decade. I played it straight through over and over in the empty upstairs room where I kept my drumset.  (I still have that drumset!  It's vintage now.)
So pieces of my history are starting to fall in place.

In a wee little room...

It had to be Valentine’s Day, 1971. Start of a lifelong love of Chuck Berry’s music and the blues.

Part of why I was so profoundly touched by Chuck Berry is probably that accident of time: the accident of finding him just as I was becoming my own, independent self. (Except for the 1970-1971 yearbook photo at the bottom, the pictures on this page were taken about that same exact time, with an Exa IIA reflex camera that I bought mail order from the back of a magazine for $30. I had a little darkroom in my closet.  I recently found the negatives and had them printed because they contained photographs of a couple of high school events and we had a reunion last year.  The art photography career didn’t pan out, but the camera, though broken, is in my drawer.)

But I noted with interest recently that I found him about the time my own father died. Now I realize it was just one month prior to my father’s death. I’m sure that played a role, too.

And in his old age I’ve come to realize that as an adopted father figure he probably wasn’t such a crazy choice. I see him on stage with his son and daughter and grandson. I hear that he calls Jimmy Marsala and Robert Lohr his other “sons.” I see him in “Hail! Hail!” with his own dad and his other family members. I see him in Rolling Stone with his wife of 61 years. All rumor and story and silliness aside, you could do worse finding a father figure.

At any rate, writing about him, and searching for these bits of personal history is helping me make sense of faded memories.

Thank you again, Mr. Berry.


Anonymous said...

Really interesting interesting stories. I enjoyed reading!

Anonymous said...

Peter, You are always coming with new interesting stories. Thank you so much for this blog. Is that your old Fiat you used to drive to Berry Park?


Peter said...

Peter, no-- that is my brother Danny's Fiat Multipla, a wonderful but deadly little car. Mine was a plain Jane sedan. You definitely have a good eye! Funny, because I was thinking just yesterday of scanning a photo of the 128. (Somewhere I also have a 1978 photo of the gravestone, but it's lost for the time being.)

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to see your scanned photo of your old Fiat 128 :-)


Peter said...

Right! (It looked like every other Fiat 128:)

Anonymous said...

But your Fiat was att Berry Park!
Every other Fiat 128 have not been there :)