Tuesday, January 11, 2011
He May Go Down Sometimes but he Comes Back a Rock and Roller
My 40th anniversary is coming up.
Don’t tell my wife. She and I have a much shorter history. I’m talking about the fortieth anniversary of my first Chuck Berry show—which was about 20 years after Chuck Berry’s first Chuck Berry show.
In those days people already thought he was an old guy.
He was 44! He’d been a star (a variable star) for about 15 years. Even though they were nearly brand new, I purchased the albums “Back Home” and “San Francisco Dues” in the Oldies section.
But he was “old,” and he called us all his children.
Flash forward 40 years. He’s still an old guy—just an old guy who’s in better shape than his “children.”
I’m not talking about his real children, of course. They benefit from the same genes that have their parents getting ready for a 70th anniversary sometime not to far from now.
I'm talking about the kids like me, who've got the rolling arthritis big time, and maybe an extra chin or two.
But even though he’s in good shape we can see that time marches on. He began his 70th year in show business by collapsing with exhaustion after attempting three shows and who knows how many flights in two cities in 24 hours. And he still insisted on “scooting” off stage.
Bob Dylan called him a “force of nature.”
I remember finding my own 80 something mom on a step ladder changing the lights at her house. Her bones were like eggshell but her will was like iron.
I’ve said before that I adopted Chuck Berry as a sort of spiritual father soon after I first saw him. It was only last year that I was able to put the timetable together and see that my first Chuck Berry show came about three weeks before my father died. So it all makes sense now.
And I don’t think I’m the only one who’s done something like that. When the young Chuck Berry walked back and forth across the stage feigning surprise at an ovation and hollering “all my children!” at the screaming hordes a lot of us accepted the gift. He’s the Father of rock and roll.
And his fans are younger. If he’d been strictly a blues musician he would have attracted fans his own age. That’s undoubtedly who came to the Cosmopolitan and the Crank Club. And his first few recording sessions didn’t really tip the scale one way or another. But as his recording career progressed he began singing more and more about and for the kids who came to his shows.
(By the time I found him he was singing to grown ups again—at least on records. I always thought “Lonely School Days” sounded a little funny on “San Francisco Dues.” Turns out it was an old recording of an old song.)
When he had trouble a few weeks ago in Chicago my little blog felt the uptick in googling about his condition. People were worried.
We’re all caught in a funny place. We want to keep seeing and applauding the man we love, and we want him to slow down and take care of himself. I posted a vision about a Chuck Berry show that included a chair on stage, lots of stories and poems, and maybe a few ballads or blues numbers. A friend just pointed out that this is what B. B. King’s doing these days.
But what makes Chuck Berry great is that he’ll do it his way and always has.
He started his career with an argument over lip-synching. He didn’t want to do it. And he’s kept it real ever since. Raggedy at times-- but real.
And 40 years after I first saw him he’s gearing up for his regular Wednesday night gig at Blueberry Hill.