Friday, June 14, 2013

Chapter 13 - Buyin' Danny's Guitar and the Rhythm of Bye Bye Johnny

Not long after seeing Chuck Berry at Lake Tahoe I found myself riding back in that direction with my brother Danny to buy a rock and roll electric guitar.

Danny took up guitar while living in a cave in a neighborhood of Gypsies and Flamenco dancers somewhere in the south of Spain. Danny liked the rhythm guitar he heard Gypsies play. Spain was still burdened by Franco and fascism. Its economy was so weak Danny could live there for practically nothing. He got a great guitar for practically nothing, too— a beautiful Spanish classical with mother of pearl inlays for the equivalent of $50. I think he’s still got it, though it now has a big hole worn through the soundboard by Danny’s pick. It’s that Gypsy influence—Danny strums fast and hard.

But like many of Chuck Berry’s rock and roll children Danny had fantasies—a vision of his name in lights— so one day he and I drove from Sacramento to Reno in search of an electric guitar. Danny’s theory, no doubt true, was that out of luck casino musicians would lose their paychecks at the craps tables, hock their instruments, and guitars would be plentiful and cheap. So we went to a Reno pawn shop and Danny found a Fender Mustang.

The Mustang was originally marketed by Fender as a budget guitar for students. It became a favorite of surf musicians. If you want to see a Mustang, close your eyes and imagine three or four young white men lined up with short sleeved shirts and snazzy looking guitars. Those are Mustangs. They earned even greater cult status when Fender stopped making them and Grunge rockers started using them.

So Danny got himself a classic. Someone had painted over the original glossy finish, but given its age—probably a mid 1960s Fender—it was a pretty great guitar—one with both a history, and a future. (Danny’s experience finding a Mustang at a pawn broker’s shop must not have been unique. Fender now sells a re-released “vintage” Mustang that it calls the “Pawn Shop Special.”)

One reason Danny needed an electric guitar was so that he could play “Bye Bye Johnny” with the garage band that I formed with my high school friends John and Greg. John played guitar. Greg played piano. I played drums. It is not self deprecating to say that our band was the worst I’ve ever heard perform in public. We played the State Fair and attracted one fan. I saw him rocking back and forth, but learned afterwards that he was mentally and physically disabled and that his rocking motion was involuntary. He seemed to like us, though. The grizzled manager for youth events at the State Fair wasn’t so sure. He invited us back but we drove a hard bargain. We needed to rent an amplifier and electric piano. We told him we’d play again for $10. That sealed the deal. We were unemployed.

The name of our band was “Keg.” Our highest aspiration, evidently, was to be a party band for people too drunk to care (“Barf” would have been a more appropriate and visionary moniker). We never achieved that goal. Our only professional gig was playing for a group of 10 year old kids at a swim party.

But if practice was at my house, Danny would often find us, plug his Mustang into John’s big Fender Bassman amp, and play his favorite Chuck Berry song, “Bye Bye Johnny.” Danny liked everything about that song. I remember him commenting on the squeaky guitar lick (it sounds like someone twisting a cork from a bottle) that Matt “Guitar” Murphy puts between the cries of “Bye Bye Bye.” And Danny liked the rhythm of “Bye Bye Johnny.” I remember him talking about it the same way he talked about the squeaky guitar lick.

I should have taken Danny’s interest in the rhythm of “Bye Bye Johnny” as a clue that there was something special there. I should have taken my record upstairs and tried to work out the drum part—or at least some version that paid homage to the original beat. But I didn’t. That would have made too much sense. It never occurred to me as a young musician to go to the original, which I’d listened to hundreds of times without actually hearing. I thought music was a strictly natural process, and that it would be cheating to actually learn something from real musicians— so when we played the song I flailed away in my normal, clunky fashion, whacking a badly split cymbal that sounded like the crack of a horsewhip in a western theme song. Rawhide! Whack!

I remember, decades later, watching the 76 year old Berry instruct a local bass player on that same “Bye Bye Johnny” rhythm. Berry strummed it on the guitar: ba-bum, ba-bum, ba-bum, ba-bum (and one and two and three and four). When the wide eyed the bass player (middle aged, but cowering under the direct tutelage of the master) started doing the same thing as Chuck, he got one of those big Chuck Berry stage smiles and Chuck returned his attention to the rest of us. It was a lesson in how to play Chuck Berry by Chuck Berry.

That same rhythm has become a career for Chuck’s longtime bassist Jimmy Marsala, who plays it often during live shows, and is probably the closest thing you’ll find to the heartbeat of Chuck Berry without putting a stethoscope to his chest.

And then one day, still later, spurred by comments in Fred Rothwell’s book Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry’s Recorded Legacy, I finally listened to “Bye Bye Johnny,” comparing the original mono version to the pitifully “Altered Electronically for Stereo” version that I’d grown up with. (They also alter cats and dogs.) It was like night and day. The altered version was flimsy and weak. No wonder I hadn’t fully heard what was there!

But the original was glorious! Strong, clear, poundingly direct. And there it was, in its original glory: the chugging of a locomotive piston driving the song, as played on snare and high-hat by the inestimable Mr. Odie Payne. It’s not the bass or the guitar this time— it’s Payne launching each half measure with what two successive whacks on his snare drum— and-one and two and-three and four and-one…. You hear it on the altered version, but in mono it’s up front spewing smokestack lightning.

Odie Payne was a blues drummer par excellence, a founding father and innovator, who can be heard on dozens of classics by Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, and on some of Chuck Berry’s greatest recordings. Once I started noticing his omnipresence I looked him up on YouTube and found a video of him playing drums in a small bar in the 1980s and imagined what it would be like to wander into such a place and find such a hero there. YouTube, always a miracle, allowed me to do so.

These so-called “sidemen” are often glorious and deserve more recognition than they got or get. Musicians and record producers knew them, of course, but the general public only knew or know their sounds. And only a particular public, like Danny, fully appreciated what he heard.

As an untaught and unlearned musician, (“uneducable,” my wife might say, in a lofty mood), I assumed that all of the musicians I loved were either born that way or educated only by nature or their hard knock lives. But Odie Payne studied music in high school and after a stint in the Army, at the Roy C. Knapp School of Percussion in Chicago, then hit the road with one of greatest blues guitarists and singers in history, Elmore James. Where can a musician learn more than on stage, night after night, in live performance, especially with a genius the caliber of James? Payne became a sought after session musician. At Chess he worked with a variety of stars, and helped Chuck Berry create his second generation of hits in the early 1960s, including “Nadine,” “You Never Can Tell,” “No Particular Place to Go,” and “Promised Land.” He was famous for the “double shuffle,” where he played cymbal and snare together, and which he played, rather famously, on “No Particular Place to Go.” A master of the shuffle, it is ironic that he helped Chuck Berry move from the shuffle to the straight ahead rock beat he has used since recording songs like “Nadine” and “Promised Land.”

And “Bye Bye Johnny!”

As an old man, I hobbled downstairs to my dusty old drum set and tried to recreate that “Bye Bye Johnny” rhythm. It wasn’t easy. It’s almost backward to the backbeat I normally do, where the emphasis is on the two and the four. But I bet it’s exactly what Chuck asked Odie Payne to play 50 or so years ago.

“Like a train, you know? Cha-chah! Cha-chah!”

“Like this, Chuck?”

Odie Payne, Jr. has got to be the guy with the space age headphones, second from the right.
And there’s that heartbeat, Johnny B. Goode’s metronome, the locomotive that brought Johnny’s mother to the kitchen door to see if her son was home at last.

I always knew it was there—I just didn’t know what I knew, or listen to what I heard. When “The London Sessions” came out it made me crazy to hear the crowd sing “Go Johnny Go!” when Chuck was obviously playing “Bye Bye Johnny.” He switched gracefully over, or tossed the lyrics, and the show ended. But there it was—that driving rhythm, this time on guitar, which the bassist picked up. (The drummer on the “London Sessions” plays it like I did.)

But “Bye Bye Johnny” doesn’t end with that magical beat. The lyrics are full of the rich imagery and rhythmic detail that make Chuck Berry songs Chuck Berry songs: The Southern Trust, the gathering of crops, the Greyhound, the kitchen door, the tears falling from happiness—this song is as good as it gets.

And how did Johnny get his guitar? Johnny’s mother “remembered taking money earned from gathering crops and buying Johnny’s guitar at a broker’s shop.”

A pawn shop! Like the one Danny went to. So what more fitting song for Danny to play on his broker shop guitar?

I never put these bits and piece of life together until decades later, when I started writing about my life under Chuck Berry’s spell. I started telling the story of Danny, and his guitar, and the song, and all of a sudden I saw the connection.

Chuck Berry songs don’t come true. They are true.

And it keeps going.

A year or two after we bought the old Fender in Reno, Danny, my sister Ann and I picked honeydew melons west of Sacramento. We earned $2.32 an hour.

It was my first introduction to hard work, and Ann and I were good at it. (Danny— not so much, but he kept showing up.) The supervisor gave us a sharp carpet knife and a long row, and we’d stoop and cut and lay the melons in a straight line. If you were lucky you found a cantaloupe every now and then to cut open for a snack. Ann and I kept ahead of all but the two best—a middle aged Mexican woman and her teenage son, who worked twice as fast as anyone else in the field. They liked us because we didn’t slouch and complain like most of the white kids. I kept my spirits up and passed the time by humming my way through all four sides of the Golden Decade.

Our supervisor was a quiet, tall Mexican man with sunglasses and a white cowboy hat. We were hard working, but always started a little later than the Hispanic workers. He’d see us come and smile. “You like honeydew?” he’d ask, day after day, and laugh. It didn’t take too many tons of honeydew to give you a strong response to that one. I used to worry he wouldn’t pay us enough. I watched him when we arrived. He never took out a pen or paper. He never wrote anything down.

When pay day came and our work was all done we went to the El Rancho Motel in West Sacramento to pick up our check. It was a sprawling place—pretty nice—and my memory is that they used to host interesting music there—performers like Ray Charles, and some of the big bands. Our supervisor was there grinning from behind his dark glasses. It would be our last time meeting him. Our days as farm laborers were done forever. When he handed us our checks, with his characteristic smile, I checked it quickly, certain I would be cheated, but somehow, without ever taking a note when we arrived or when we left, he had it perfect—exactly what I’d calculated myself, down to the last quarter hour.

I cashed the check and went to a little music store on Auburn Boulevard and bought a $150 Japanese copy of a Fender Telecaster. It was beautiful guitar- a buttery cream color with a maple neck and fret board, and a pretty hard case. I used that guitar and a little Fender amp that I picked up in Los Gatos, California to learn my first real Chuck Berry licks, then took it to Italy for a year, where I’d stand in front of the mirror and enthrall invisible masses with nearly silent versions of “Reelin’ and Rockin’” and “Johnny B. Goode.” It was my first love affair with a guitar. But love is cruel. Eventually I traded my it for a semi-hollow body Ovation that looked like the Gibson that Chuck Berry played.

I still have the Ovation. It, too, is a beauty—with golden brown spruce on the front and buttery brown maple on the back. But I never forgot my first love, the guitar I traded to get it— so 30 years later I bought a Mexican built Fender Telecaster that looks just like my old Japanese copy.

And one day, playing it, I remembered what I’d never before realized: that I’d bought my first real guitar with “money earned from gathering crops,” just like Johnny’s mom.

Which goes to show that what I say is true: Chuck Berry songs don’t come true. They are true.

(This is part of a book length feature.  You can check out the first chapters HERE.  For more, find the Chapters in the "Pages" section to the right.)


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