Monday, July 1, 2013

Chapter 3 - Infection

(Wherein our hero sees his hero Chuck Berry for the first time live.   This is the third chapter of a "book" you can read online here for free.)

I hear about it on the car radio. It’s February 13, 1971. I’m fourteen. I am with my mom. Maybe Stevo told her about Chuck Berry, too, or maybe she’s concerned about the recent upheaval in our lives, because she encourages me.

“You should go,” she says.

My parents have just separated. My father, who is 70, and weakened in mind and body by decades of alcoholism, has been exiled to a nice apartment where a home health attendant named Jose takes care of him and urges us to take him back. “It’s wrong to leave him this way” Jose tells me when I visit. Daddy is on the bed, drunk. Jose wears starched white and looks at me sternly. He probably left his own father in a village a thousand miles away. I’m stung but remain strong. I figure my dad left me, opting instead for gallons of Old Crow that he mixes with tall, tinkling bottles of Diet Rite Cola.

Only Ann, my mom and I live at the Orangevale house, but an earthquake in Los Angeles has brought my oldest sister, Rooney, home for a visit. (She doesn’t know, but she will never go back to her husband, or to Los Angeles.) I ask her to take me to the show. I’m too young to drive. Ann, who is two years older than me, comes, too. We arrive downtown late but have no trouble parking next to the concert hall. That should tell us something about the size of the crowd we will encounter.

The show is at the Memorial Auditorium, a beautiful old place, built of brick and terra cotta, set among trees and green grass in the center of downtown Sacramento. The place reeks of wrestling, boxing, bad opera and old rock and roll shows.

We get to the lobby ticket window a few minutes after the scheduled start of a three act show. A local group called Slo Loris is supposed to be opening. A kid named Little Dion is the second act. We aren’t in a hurry because we only want to see Chuck Berry, and the ticket lady isn’t in a hurry because she is not the sort to be in a hurry. But while she counts our change blues guitar leaks through the auditorium doors.

“Has the show started?” we ask. She’s grumpy even though nobody’s there to bother her except us. The lobby is empty.

“He started about five minutes ago” she says, without looking up.

“Who started? Chuck Berry?”

“Five minutes ago.”

This is alarming news. Chuck Berry is supposed to be on top, the headliner. He’s the reason we came. We push open the auditorium door and there he is, seemingly alone on stage, just him and his guitar, playing the blues.

That is the moment of infection. If it had happened differently— if I had entered the sort of jam-packed crowd that Chuck Berry usually played in those days, with thousands of people dancing and clapping; if we had been forced to find places for ourselves in some far corner and crane our necks— if had happened differently, I think that my life would have turned out differently. No dreams. No blog. No transcontinental journeys. No obsession.

But the huge room is empty—a few hundred people in the front rows, and a few hundred more along the sides and balconies. We walk straight to the seventh or eighth row. There’s no need to sit down. There’s no one behind us. And the sheer emptiness allows me— forces me—to focus all of my imagination on this man.

And there is Chuck Berry, tall, lean, wearing jeans and an orange shirt, hair slicked back, eyes half closed, high cheekbones tilted at the mike, singing something slow and sad and woeful.

He isn’t the man I saw on television. This is someone thoroughly real, alone in a third rate town, backed by a local band, playing to a crowd that hardly qualifies as such. I’m clobbered by the melancholy of it.

His guitar is a cherry red Gibson. It sparkles under the lights. He bends powerful clusters of notes, two or more at a time. It’s loud and raw. His voice is mournful and a bit scratchy. It is one of my first introductions to the blues.

Forty years later old posters on the internet will tell me that Chuck Berry played at the Memorial Auditorium at least twice before I saw him there. On August 24, 1957, nine days after founding Berry Park, he costarred there with his idol, Louis Jordan, and singer “Sugar Pie” De Santo. Louis Jordan wasn’t just a musical hero for Berry. Jordan’s guitarist, Carl Hogan, gave Berry the outlines of Berry’s signature guitar intro— the four bar lick that opens “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and about half of Berry’s live songs. De Santo—a tiny, beautiful woman with a big voice and stage presence— has endured about as long as Berry. I was thrilled to see a recent video of her singing the blues at a festival on the streets of San Francisco.

Berry played another show at the Memorial Auditorium just a few months later, on his 31st birthday, October 18, 1957. It was quite a lineup. Chuck co-starred with Fats Domino, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, The Everly Brothers, The Crickets, Eddie Cochran, The Drifters and Frankie Lymon. You have to figure it was a somewhat different crowd than the Louis Jordan/Chuck Berry show a few months prior.

In his autobiography Chuck is unkind to Sacramento. (He’s not alone in this.) Describing the 1957 tours he says “It seemed that all the senior citizens were in Sacramento, all the parents were in Fresno, and San Francisco was oriented to natives and beatniks.” I find it hard to believe that many senior citizens showed up at the rhythm and blues review in August, or the rock and roll bash that fall. My wild guess is that Chuck was not so fondly remembering my first Chuck Berry show, on February 13, 1971— a sad sort of show played to a nearly empty hall that felt, that night, like a senior center, or maybe a hospice.

So when we walk into that empty hall, he’s playing the blues. Who knows what the song is. Perhaps it’s the Tampa Red / Elmore James classic “It Hurts Me Too.”

When things go wrong
Go wrong with you
It hurts me too.

Maybe it’s Little Walter’s “Mean Old World.” Or maybe it’s Chuck’s own “Wee Wee Hours.”

One last song
For a fading memory

But he knows he’s alone here, in an empty hall, in a drab town, with a mediocre band of young local musicians. They’re scared, but they’re trying. And so does Chuck Berry. He pushes through a full set, clowning, dancing, doing splits and the duck walk, getting the small crowd up on its feet for most of the show.

He tries to get the local guitarist to solo. The guy smiles humbly and plunks a single note. (He probably still regrets that impotence.) Chuck laughs and gestures “Why?” But it’s the kid’s loss. All Chuck Berry needs is his guitar, an amplifier, and a crowd, however sparse. He plays songs I know only somewhat, by cultural osmosis: they’re rocking in Boston, and Philadelphia, PA. He plays a couple of songs I think of as Beatle songs and suddenly realize probably are not. He finishes with “Johnny B. Goode,” bowing as he backs off stage, still playing a guitar held upright in front of himself like a religious offering— and then he’s gone, like a cool breeze, the band still rumbling away, and finally a story from the emcee about a mix-up in schedules and another show that night in Los Angeles. If there’s another show, Chuck Berry probably booked it from a back stage phone when he saw the receipts for that night in Sacramento. We figure he just wants to get out of our geriatric cow town as quickly as possible with whatever small bit of cash it has yielded.

We watch the other acts for as long as we can stand it, but it’s a steep downhill slide. The band that backed him returns for some acid rock. When the diminutive Little Dion, perhaps ten years old and dressed in colored tights and a floppy hat, launches into “It’s a Man’s World,” we leave.

(This is part of a book length piece on my imaginary life with one of America's cultural icons.  You can keep reading Here! or find the beginning of it HERE.

11/13/12 5:58
7/1/13 11:52

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That´s how it is. Chuck Berry never leaves the stage without trying to get the crowd happy. Other musicans have deep respect for the Man and it sometimes shows to much...// Thomas The Swede