Friday, September 23, 2011

My First Chuck Berry Experience

(Excerpted from a book I hope to publish some day.  E-mail me and I'll send it to you!)

One day I’m listening to the beginning of The Mike Douglas Show, a day time talk show and after school favorite of mine.  I like Mike, who seems genuinely nice, and who takes time to talk to the musicians on his show.  I first saw B. B. King talk about his guitar Lucille on the Mike Douglas show.  And this day, I see Chuck Berry for the first time.

It is October 22, 1970.  

(I learn the date 40 years later from a reference book called “The Chuck Berry International Directory” by a Norwegian named Morten Reff, a man, by all evidence, even more obsessed with Chuck Berry than I am.)

And because of the miracle of YouTube, I’ve watched the performance again.

Mike Douglas sits with Cher and Sonny.  He says: “In the rock era of the fifties he was an innovator, with tunes like “Maybellene,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Johnny B. Goode.  Here is Mr. Chuck Berry!”  Sonny and Cher applaud without enthusiasm.  

Chuck is standing on a series of risers that look like giant building blocks about four feet tall and three feet square.  He’s crowded by the mike stand.  One misstep and he’s an innovator with a limp. 

He’s wearing yellow pegged slacks that tighten about three inches above his shoes and show skinny ankles.  He’s got the purple paisley shirt I’ll see in hundreds of pictures and at a couple of performances over the next 20 years or so.  His upturned pencil mustache is mimicking Salvador Dali or Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux.  He has giant sideburns and slicked back hair.  He has the high cheek bones I envisioned, and he might have freckles, but the pompadour is not blond.  

The guitar intro is flawless.  When he starts to sing he recoils from the volume, but someone adjusts it and he settles into a grim, nearly joyless performance of “Johnny B. Goode.”  No wonder I wasn’t overly impressed.  The band plays a lifeless arrangement with bass and drums that are too neat and horns that are dorky.  (A comment posted on YouTube says : “Man, that band is really dragging Chuck down. That bass player flat sucks!”) During the instrumental break Chuck has to climb down from the riser without tripping over his guitar cord and killing himself, all the while picking a complicated solo.  You can see his relief when he finally gets to the stage where he can dance and do his “scoot.”  With his shorty short pants he looks a bit like what Michael Jackson will look like 10 or 11 years later at the Motown 25th anniversary show except that he’s totally uncool.

I remember this much distinctly: I watch, interested, but unchanged.  

Why I remember that show I’m not sure.  The actual obsession wouldn’t hit until I saw him live, four months later.  It is a testament to whatever Stevo told me about the man, and how he told me, that I remember a performance that otherwise didn’t do it for me.  Stevo’s words were like an injection of live virus for which I had no antibodies—cells that would multiply and become a chronic disorder.

And here it is.

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