It’s the summer of 2010. I call an archivist for the city of Sacramento. A manager at the Sacramento Convention Center has told me “She knows everything.” I tell her that I’m researching a Chuck Berry show at the Memorial Auditorium that I’d attended as a teenager. I think it happened in 1971. Can she find the date? She promises to look and get back to me. The next day I get an e-mail:
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.
I attended both of those shows. The Rock & Roll Revival show was a roaring success, with a full house and at least a half a dozen acts. Chuck Berry ended it with a short, victorious set that topped even his friend Bo Diddley. But it is that first show, on February 13, 1971, that has always haunted me. Now, forty years after the fact, I make a startling connection.
I have always known that Chuck Berry is a father figure to me—albeit an odd one, and as different from my own father as could be. My father was born in 1901, 25 years before Berry. He was 55 when I was born. When I first saw Chuck Berry, my father was 70 and doing poorly. Chuck—the “father of rock ‘n’ roll”—was a mere 45.
The only song I ever heard my dad sing was a seafarer’s song called “Down Among the Dead Men,” which he sang in a descending bass that sounded like a fog horn as the seaman’s body sank “down, down, down, down—down among the dead men.” (It’s hard now not to hear a certain resemblance to “Downbound Train,” a traditional pub song that Chuck Berry covered and took as his own.) My dad was no longer thin by the time I knew him, his belly swollen by rib-eye steaks and whiskey. And where Chuck Berry, a non-drinker, was always sober, my dad rarely was.
I was the youngest of his children. When I was little he was, of course, my hero, and a worthy one—a nice, nice man, funny, a former athlete who knew a host of famous and not-so-famous ex- ball players. (They used to come to our house on his birthday and get drunk. We tended to leave.) He was well known in his home town Sacramento. When he was young someone sent a letter to him from across the state. Instead of an address, the sender glued a picture of my dad to the front of the envelope over the word “Sacramento.” He got the letter.
He had so many friends he couldn’t remember them all. I remember when some happy guy accosted him after church. My dad talked and joked and slapped his back for several minutes. As we walked away he asked my mom “Who was that guy?”
When I was small he still had his own business, installing lawns and selling grass and garden supplies near the highway. By then it was more of a hobby than anything else, or maybe a place to drink without interruption. Sometimes he took me along. There were huge piles of black peat, top soil and rice hulls. Rice hulls are the hard, paper light sleeves that wrap a grain of rice while it’s growing. My dad would add them to soil as a sort of mulch. They were slippery, and fun to sink into. There were still nice moments. I remember that we occasionally walked next door to the Shell station for a Bireley’s Orange.
At work, and most of the time until he finally retired, my dad wore white t-shirts and khaki work pants. When he retired he switched to polo shirts, slacks and cardigans.
Once, when I was six or seven, my dad stopped his pickup while backing out the driveway, and watched my mom wave goodbye to us with a happy smile.
“Pete, your mom is the most beautiful woman in the world,” he told me.
“No,” I told him. “The Virgin Mary is the most beautiful.” I clearly needed a rock and roller in my life, but daddy laughed and said I was probably right.
Within a year he was sharing a bedroom with me. I don’t know if that move represented a rough form of family planning or if it was motivated by his collapse into alcohol. Probably both. I remember in the bedroom we briefly shared watching him open a high cupboard. His back was to me. There was the “kssk-kssk-kssk” of a screw cap. He leaned back to swallow, then turned to smile and wipe his lips. I didn’t know it was odd to keep whisky in a bedroom closet, but I was learning.
Even in those early days he wasn’t always kind. He attended my first little league game and stood, glaring, hands in pockets, a few yards to my left as I played right field—a position he called “Left Out.” He barked some instructions, and then left. He never came back.
But I felt loved and cared for by him until the eve of my ninth birthday, when understanding hit like a freight train. We were moving. It was a considerable upgrade, from a small, stucco flat top to a split level rambler with a swimming pool. Our upward mobility was financed primarily by my mother’s real estate acumen. She had an eye for cheap lots that later sold at a profit.
For some reason my dad, my sister Ann and I were going to inaugurate the new house by spending a night there before everyone else. The rest of the family would move in the next day.
The house had two distinct sections. The main house, up front, was older, with plasterboard walls. The back wing, where I lived, was new, modern, and dark, with the dark wood paneling that would later frighten me, and dark, cork floors. That night we entered the house through a long, dark hallway in this newer section. My dad was startled by a sudden dip in the hallway floor. He dropped a bottle, which shattered into a thousand dangerous pieces.
That’s when childhood shattered. My father was suddenly an angry bully. He made me clean up the mess while he berated me. (For not cleaning fast enough? Cheerfully enough?) I remember the sour smell of the bourbon, the shards of glass, and my own irritation. I was angrier than he was. I talked back to him for the first time. “It’s not my fault! I didn’t break it!” Daddy stood over me, barking instructions. It was the man from the right field sidelines, fully engaged by his loss and trying to figure out how and when he’d sneak out to get more.
In the rest of our short time together—five more years—Daddy’s disintegration continued. He wasn’t usually mean but sometimes drinking made him that way. He mocked our weakness when my mother and a few of us kids struggled to pull him off the floor where he lay bleeding. I remember changing his wet underpants as he sat uselessly on the edge of his bed and drunkenly thanked me. One day he appeared in a doorway and, listing just a bit, told my sister Ann and me with a big, wry smile, that he was “a pioneer” and spoke “In’ian talk.” He kept it up for a week. We don’t know why.
Ambulances came to the house three or four times during his last years. Once, a priest performed the last rights. There was weeping until, like Lazarus, he woke on the gurney then charmed the attendants as they wheeled him out the door.
I was at the Orangevale house when the call finally came. It was my brother Paul. He’d rushed off that morning after a call from the hospital.
I’d seen Daddy the previous day. He was happy. He thought the hospital was a cruise ship. I remember him tugging at his sheets with stiff fingers as he told us about his journey.
“Is he okay?” I asked Paul. I remember almost smiling. Daddy had risen from the dead so many times we came to expect it.
The phone was quiet then Paul answered, “Peter, he died.”
Paul asked me not to share the news until he got home. I knew I couldn’t face anyone. I went outside into a small pasture where no one could see me cry.
I didn’t know until the archivist sent her e-mail that my father died just weeks after my first Chuck Berry show, at that time when I was immersed and lost inside Chuck Berry’s “The Golden Decade.”
And no wonder I grabbed on so hard.
(If you'd like to read the whole book, here's a link to Chapter One.)