Thursday, November 18, 2010
One thing this year of blogging has done (and I’m afraid it’s gone beyond a year now) is to allow me to think and wonder and perhaps discover why Chuck Berry means so much to me.
I’ve said before that I’m convinced part of it is simply genetic—some inborn disposition to a certain sound from the guitar. My dog likes to swim. I like Chuck Berry’s guitar. And songs. And the way he moves around on stage. And he makes me laugh.
And part of it is undoubtedly luck. I “discovered” him when I was 14. That will sometimes do it. I hear that some animals will adopt whatever face they first see as their mother—so something like that obviously happened. But, the truth is, I’d had lots of powerful musical experiences before I saw my first Chuck Berry concert. I remember going crazy over Otis Redding’s stuttering climax to “Try a Little Tenderness” when I was only 12 or 13. I remember the same feeling when the bass jumped in at the end of Sly Stone’s “Stand.” One of my earliest concerts was a young B. B. King, who put on a thrilling show at the California State Fair of all places. And I’d paid due attention to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and all of the popular acts who were actually good.
So I think that the real clue came earlier this year when an archivist in Sacramento dug up the date of that first live Chuck Berry show that I saw at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium. It was mid-February 1971. I was 14. And within a few weeks my father would die.
He was probably dying at the time.
My father was pretty different from Chuck Berry. He was way older—born in 1901. He was white. He wasn’t thin—at least by the time I knew him.
The only song I ever heard him sing was something called “Down Among the Dead Men.” (Actually, that sounds a bit like “Downbound Train.”) He didn’t play music, but he seemed to like it. I know he went to see Louis Armstrong several times when I was a little kid.
And he drank way too much.
He was an alcoholic, and that’s what ultimately killed him.
I was the youngest of his seven children. When I was little he was, of course, my hero. And he was a worthy hero—a nice, nice man, funny, a former athlete with a host of famous ex- ball players as friends. (They used to come to our house on his birthday and get drunker than skunks. We tended to leave.)
He was well known in his home town, with more friends than he could recognize. We’d be accosted by some guy, they’d talk for ten minutes, and as we’d walk away my dad would ask my mom “Who WAS that guy?”
He was on the right side of all things political. He was a Democrat. He was for working people. He was for civil rights. He was against Nixon.
Unfortunately, by the time I turned into a budding teenager his drinking had become such a problem that whatever was good about him was usually overwhelmed by the evil of the alcohol. He never became angry or violent, but he lost a lot of dignity. We’d find him on the floor unable to get up. He’d lose his mind for a few days or a few weeks. There was a time he began to speak “Indian talk,” which he kept up for several days for reasons only he understood. I was just a kid, and it was more than I could handle.
Around this time, my brother Stevo first told me about Chuck Berry.
I was probably not the intended recipient of the wisdom. My other brother Danny must have been there. But I heard and retained all of it.
There was this guy Chuck Berry. He’d played recently at the Fillmore. Stevo saw him. Stevo said that he was more important than Elvis, and better.
And he talked about Chuck Berry’s roots, and the show he’d put on, which had been steeped in the blues. And what I remember is that he said “He’s not really a blues man, but he grew up with all that, that’s where he came from, and he plays it well.”
This was probably 1970. These words have been said many times since, but in 1970 this was some pretty original thought coming from Stevo, and pretty right on.
Of course, since then, Chuck Berry’s blues have become my favorite Chuck Berry music. His blues style is so unique. Sure, he shows the influence of his heroes, T-Bone Walker, and Elmore James, and others—but the style he’s patched together is unique and (to me) instantly recognizable as his own. He wasn’t the bluesman that Muddy was—but he had it, and it became more powerful with time.
By the time I first walked into the Memorial Auditorium, in February 1971, his blues were deep, and so, undoubtedly, were mine. My father was dying (killing himself) (being killed by his addiction).
So I push open those doors, and there he is, playing blues, slow, bending those notes two at a time, playing the licks that would work their way deep into my soul. The auditorium was a quarter full. (The archivist told me: 800 people.) He was alone at the mike stand, a cherry red Gibson, jeans, a sad look, opening a show he was supposed to headline, probably just to get out of town and back home.
I’ve written about that show elsewhere on the blog. It was a good one. Despite a mediocre band he got it going, playing hit after hit, all of them sort of familiar, sometimes because of the Beatles. It was a classic, Chuck Berry show.
The next day I bought “Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade,” and my life was changed.
And two or three weeks later, my father died.
He had almost died so many times that it took me by surprise when he actually did. I remember getting the call and then walking out into a little pasture in front of our house and cried for a while.
Part of the loss is never getting to know the man who was my father. The eight year old me knew him, but only the way eight years olds can know an adult. I idolized him.
But on the eve of my ninth birthday, like a freight train, I was hit by his faults. That night my sister, my dad and I were spending the night in our new home. He christened it accidentally with a bottle that broke on the cork floor of the hall. He had me clean it up, and he was prickly, because he'd just dropped his supply for the night. Somehow, as I bent to clean up that fould smelling bourbon and broken glass, I figured it all out: that this was the cause of so much that was weird and hard in out lives.
And for the next several years there, the weirdness just got worse.
So like a bird in a nest, looking up at some kindly but unrelated fowl that passes by, I looked up one day and saw Chuck Berry, alone on stage, and something clicked.
I was helped by a lot of symbolism. He was “The Father of Rock and Roll.” He strutted across stage between songs looking out at the crowd and saying “All my children!”
Anyway, I took him on as a substitute father.
Which in later years seemed absolutely crazy: he was a crazy rock star, surrounded by rumors and controversy. What sort of father figure could that be?
But he was family. I put up with his faults. And I got to know him better than I ever got to know my poor father.
I read every tidbit I could find, bought all the songs, saw him live as often as possible, drove to his house once, and obsessed. I took my mother to see “Let the Good Times Roll.” I took my friends and family to see him at Tahoe and in Monterey (they came, anyway). I took my ex wife to see him at the Seattle Paramount. I took my two little girls to see him at Seattle Center. My brother and his wife Liz joined me for two shows in a week in St. Louis, last October. (My now and forever wife keeps sending me, or letting me go! Someday, she’s got to go with me, too. Another reason for another "last" Chuck Berry show.) That time I got to meet him briefly, and although I didn’t tell him “Hey, I adopted you as a substitute dad forty years ago!” I did try my best to tell him, quickly, how much he means to me and to so many of us. He’s heard it a million times before.
And that show cemented something that I’d only begun to understand when I went to Blueberry Hill in the winter of 2009: that my adoption of Chuck Berry as father figure was not so far fetched after all.
When I first saw him at Blueberry Hill, I was struck by how his son, CBII, moved about the stage, cautiously protecting his 81 year old dad from the women and girls dancing on stage at the end.
Ingrid wasn’t at that show, but when we saw him at The Pageant this October it was a full tilt family rumble, with Ingrid blowing harp and singing, Charles II on guitar, and Charles III doing the scoot and playing his own Stratocaster a little further down. Chuck’s wife Themeta was seated to my right with a host of other people I took to be family, and there cute girls dancing up front who might have been Berrys, too (or maybe fans of CBIII!). At that show there was a moment when Chuck Berry mouthed the words “I love you” to Ingrid, and instructed CBIII on the art of scooting. At the next he showed his incredible pride in CBII during a solo.
And of course, there are so many other examples. The scene with his dad in “Hail! Hail!” The pictures with his brother and nephew that recently surfaced. The songs themselves, with their mothers, and fathers and children: “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Dear Dad,” “Bye Bye Johnny,” “Ingo,” “Johnny B. Goode.”
He once said he didn’t write love songs—but he does.
So, not such a bad choice for a 14 year old to make, searching for someone to symbolically take the place of a dad who was slipping away. I was smarter than I knew.
As for the real one? I keep him by my side. And maybe someday, I’ll get lucky, go backstage, and meet him again, for the first time.