Four score, four years, and exactly two months after Chuck Berry was born, my little Tulane arrived (jumped the counter?) at Swedish Hospital in Seattle. I stood in the hallway during her birth and cried when I heard her strong, raspy voice. (As the song says, down came a tear from her happiness.) My own little girl, Tulane’s mom Jade, had always been interesting and had sometimes been a handful. As a mother and a mom she is hands on and powerful. And now I understand what grandparents say about grandchildren. Leila Tulane looks and feels to me just like Jade and Gemma looked and felt. She is a time machine, delivering me back and carrying me forward. I’ve been one of her babysitters when Jade attends classes and she has become a special friend of mine. She babbles when I babble, barks when I bark, and rubs her lips to go bub-bub-bub-bub-bub just about every time I see her. Her smile restores the soul. She also likes guitars and the piano.
Gemma remains a poet but seems to have given up piano, at least for now. She currently thinks a stand up acoustic bass would be the thing. (Me too; it’s clever of Gemma to choose a new but expensive instrument that I find irresistible.) Her poetry is remarkable. I’m happiest when I see her take the stage somewhere and read to a huge group. I couldn’t have done that as a kid. (She wouldn’t remember, but she did the same thing when she was in first grade. It was at a coffee shop. I have a picture.) She is beginning her senior year and if we can get the applications in she will soon be off to college. As I type that I begin to feel emotions similar to what I felt in the hospital corridor as Jade gave birth, but the impending tears are happiness mixed with a bit of pain. Chuck Berry called them hurry home drops. I will miss her when she is away. Lord knows what will happen to my Chuck Berry problem without her there to call me out, roll her eyes, and put it in perspective. (“He’s singing about his penis.”) Gemma doesn’t care that much about Chuck Berry, but she tells her elderly teachers about my blog, and follows up to investigate if I tell her about an artist or poet or musician that I think is particularly good. What more can a father want?
Rafferty is my bundle of energy. To my knowledge he has never stopped talking since the day he was born except momentarily when mesmerized by a television commercial. Nor has he stopped thinking. He brings me detailed written plans that far exceed my energy and skill set. (I got the rolling arthritis.) But I do my best. Evidently I am going to build a fort/clubhouse soon.
Rafferty doesn’t like me to talk about the ½ size guitar that Santa brought, which is hard on his fingers, but he can already bang out a decent beat on my old drum set. He likes books and is making me read every word of the Harry Potter books aloud. They are getting hefty and long. I test his attentiveness now and then by substituting his name for Draco Malfoy, or by asking difficult questions about plot turns and minutia. He cannot be fooled.
Rebecca spent the spring and summer training for her first marathon. (I spent the spring training for my third and spent the summer limping.) Every day she carries in huge baskets of zucchini, green beans, tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, raspberries, strawberries, lettuce, arugula, potatoes, cucumbers, peas and greens from our tiny garden. She keeps becoming more and more skilled at it. Rebecca saved our lives, and mine in particular. She came into our lives not long after Jade, Gemma and I saw Chuck Berry at the EMP. She accepted challenges few would willingly deal with. The thing people sometimes soothingly and misleadingly call a “blended family” can be a wild mad mouse circus ride with many dramatic ups and downs. We all rode it together. We still hit exciting patches, but more and more we’re in that smooth part at the end, on calm, inviting waters— our reward for hanging in there. On the way Rebecca has accompanied me to see Macy Gray, B. B. King, Billy Preston, Pinetop Perkins and Willie Smith, Sonny Rollins, Dr. John, Hubert Sumlin and Mavis Staples.
And finally, this winter, Chuck Berry.
Rebecca had never seen him—never even watched “the Chuck Berry movie” with me. She put up with him the way she might a far off, cranky but well-loved uncle that I talk too much about. But she got me another ticket to Blueberry Hill, and this time she got one for herself, too. Once again there were two Chuck Berry shows within a matter of days. Rebecca couldn’t attend both, but she let me attend both, and arranged to join me for the second.
The first show was at Blueberry Hill. I met up there with Doug and Blueberry Hill stalwarts Judy and Karen. Judy and Karen have seen more Chuck Berry shows at Blueberry Hill than anyone and have earned permanent seating in the front row. This night, they let us join them there.
The next day Doug and I made our mad dash to Memphis in my rental car, talking for hours on end, visiting all the studios, eating fried chicken and ribs. We visited Sun Studios, where Howlin’ Wolf recorded “Riding in the Moonlight” and stumbled into a personal tour of Royal Studios from Boo Mitchell, son of the great producer Willie Mitchell. We visited the Lorraine Motel, and peered over the wall outside of Graceland. We talked about work, family and Chuck Berry. (Doug’s wife scolded me good naturedly on speaker phone. “There are only five of you who even care! And two of you are in that car!”) I have a hard time making new friends, but Doug was an old friend right from the start.
There were three dressing rooms. I was in the hallway outside the one Charles was using when I turned and saw a familiar figure in black in the other room. Doug was near me, and I motioned to him. He looked quickly, then turned back with big eyes. I looked again to see the dressing room door shut slowly and quietly.
When it was time for the sound check we went into the hall where Bob Lohr found us seats in front of the sound board. I didn’t want to lose them, so Rebecca and I stayed put while Doug went backstage again. I had brought a framed copy of the photograph of Chuck Berry as a child. It was my favorite—the one where he is using a telescope. I figured I might not get a chance to give it to him in person, so I handed it to Doug and asked him to give it to Charles. “Ask him to give this to his dad,” I said.
I brought the picture because I knew that at times Chuck Berry will meet fans after a show, and I remembered how, last time, he had told me about the job he’d held as a child. I hoped the picture might inspire another story about his youth.
The show that night was a good one. Bob Lohr says that the casino has good sound. Chuck Berry can hear himself, so his guitar playing is sharp there.
He fiddled with the tuning two or three times but surrendered the guitar to Jimmy Marsala almost immediately each time. Once while the guitar was being tuned he recited a poem—“My Dream”—a piece I knew from my third Chuck Berry album. When he played “Promised Land” he made a remark about “the people were marching” and Birmingham. That thrilled me—an indirect acknowledgment that the song is about more than planes, trains and busses. At the end of the show Rebecca got on stage with several other women and danced with Chuck Berry and his daughter Ingrid. All in all, it was a fine night.
When it was over our passes got us backstage again.
I was a bit disappointed to see the photograph still sitting on a chair in Charles’ dressing room. Then Doug pointed to it and said: “Peter, Charles said you should give that to him yourself.”
“I’ll introduce you,” said Charles.
When Chuck Berry passed through the hallway on his way home Charles stopped him.
“Dad, my friend from Seattle has something for you.”
When I’d met him at The Pageant a year and a half earlier I was struck by the human stature of the man. Chuck Berry had seemed elderly and a bit frail. I remembered the grey hairs that came out from beneath his admiral’s cap.
This time he is tall, regal, in charge and in a bit of a hurry. He is dressed entirely in black in full rock and roll mode with a leather jacket and dark aviator shades. He is now every bit the Father of Rock and Roll
“Seattle friend!” he says, turning to grasp my hand.
I feel like this time I am in control of my emotions. I tell myself that this time I will see and remember everything. He is different, and I am different, too. I will remember this.
I give him the picture of himself, as a child, with his telescope.
He holds it with both hands, slowly lowering his head but raising the picture, focusing through dark glasses on a long lost memory. He shakes his head and utters something like “Oh-wee!”
“Where’d you get this?” he asks me. I tell him that I don’t know—that it’s out there on the internet. My brain is faltering again. I’ve forgotten momentarily that it was sent to me by Peter K. from Sweden.
And then, suddenly, Chuck Berry is on the move.
“I’ve got to show this to Patrick!” he says, or at least I think that’s the name. He looks back at me and points. “And you are going to be there when I do it!”
He walks quickly down the hall to show the picture to several friends near the door. There is a woman who appears to be in charge, and a younger man that I assume is Patrick—another assistant, I’m guessing. The manager of the Casino is also there, beaming. Chuck shows them the photograph but doesn’t let go. The general consensus among Chuck Berry’s friends is that he was probably using the telescope to peer through some girl’s window. Chuck ignores that. I ask if he remembers observing an eclipse of the sun, but he is lost inside the picture and doesn’t respond. When he finally speaks, it is about something more important.
“Look at those shoes!” he says, laughing, pointing to the long, two toned leather “brogans.”
Then Chuck Berry, Rebecca and Charles work together on some American history and practical math. “What’s 1926 plus 11?” he asks Rebecca. They seem like old friends for a moment. 1937 Rebecca and Charles respond simultaneously. I’ve given Chuck a pen and a second copy of the photograph, hoping that he’ll sign it for me. He puts the date “1937” on the top of my copy—close enough to the year 1938, when, Peter K. has determined, an eclipse of the sun could be seen in Chuck’s native St. Louis.
It don’t take but a few minutes but it’s magical. He is visibly moved. A few days later Charles tells me in an e-mail that Chuck Berry took the picture home and showed it to his wife. That makes me happy.
I think of each little touch, from the handshake at Tahoe, to the note and chuckle in Monterey, to the words spoken from stage at the EMP, the stage door encounter at Blueberry Hill where I gave him Rafferty’s picture. The five minutes backstage at The Pageant. Each time I’ve gotten a little closer to something real. Not too close, mind you, but closer.
Before he leaves Chuck Berry raises his aviator shades and looks at me for just an instant.
“He looks like Seattle,” he says, ambiguously, but with finality.
And then he’s gone.
(This is part of a book. If you want to start at the beginning, go HERE! If you want to go the final chapter, click HERE.)