Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Chuck Berry at the Argosy Casino in Alton, 2-18-2012

They don’t allow cameras at the Argosy casino, so there are no pictures.  Which means I have work to do.  I have to try to put the excitement into words.  This was a good show and a good night.

It starts backstage, where we are lucky to find ourselves for a few minutes before the show. And some point I go to the hallway and catch a glimpse of a familiar figure in the other room—thin, tall, dressed in black, a captain’s hat. It’s just a flicker, but after forty-one years of adulation and obsession, it’s a powerful flicker, enough to send a shiver through me.

We go out for the soundcheck.  For a while it looks like we will have to watch from the side of the stage but Bob Lohr helps us get great seats in front of the sound board.  I'm happy for Rebecca, who has never seen Chuck Berry live.  There’s no warm up or opening act.  The band plugs in, a woman makes an announcement, and there he is.

He’s dressed all in black. He nails a “Chuck Berry” intro and begins “Let it Rock.” You know right away it’s all clicking—that this is going to be a good night. He even does the “scoot” during that first song.  He’d do it a couple more times during the evening.

The Argosy is a fun place to see and hear Chuck Berry-- good sound, with an older but appreciative audience.  The room seats about 500-- big enough, but not too big.  We were near the back but could see every expressive movement of Chuck's face.

He does “Wee Wee Hours” and takes a request for “Maybellene.” “You’re asking for the fast ones to see if I can still cut the mustard!” he says.

He can.

After he plays "Promised Land" he thrills me with a comment about "marches" and Birmingham.  I've always thought that "Promised Land" was about a lot more than just planes, trains and automobiles-- that he's talking, in his own way, about the same "Promised Land" as Martin Luther King, Jr. was talking about.  It's no accident that the song talks about Greyhound busses and Rock Hill, where the police disappeared and young Freedom Riders were harassed and threatened by angry crowds of crazies.  It's no accident that the song was recorded just a few months after the church bombing in Birmingham killed little girls.  I was thrilled to hear him acknowledge the song's actual depth, if only indirectly.  

He slows it down for a powerful rendition of “Rock me Baby.”  His voice is strong tonight-- really singing, sounding 55 years younger than he is.  Ingrid joins him and sings part of it. He does a very short “Ding a Ling” (and proves that size matters, but in this case, the shorter the better).   Charles suggests “School Days,” and he does a knockout version. Bob Lohr requests “Carol,” and Chuck begins it sitting down and ripping out a perfect, powerful guitar introduction.  After a bit he turns it to “Johnny B. Goode,” then back to “Carol.” Ingrid does a powerful version of “Key to the Highway” and gets great solos from CBII on guitar and Bob Lohr on keyboards and a great beat from Keith Robinson.  It's a pleasure at the end of his career to see Chuck Berry, who played so many gigs with local pickup bands, backed by a group of truly stellar musicians-- ones who clearly love and respect him.

At one point we get a special treat-- a guitar needs tuning and Chuck fills the time with a version of the poem once put out on San Francisco Dues as "My Dream."  He gets part way through (I have a feeling the full poem might take half the set) when Jimmy Marsala returns with the freshly tuned guitar and the musicians do an exchange that could have been directed by Charlie Chaplin-- Chuck dons a Stratocaster, then removes it when Marsala reappears with the Gibson.  Marsala turns and does a double take when he sees CBII wearing his bass.   CBII takes that off and returns it to Marsala, then takes back the Stratocaster.  The audience enjoyed it.

The guitar CBII was playing on "Key to the Highway" was a Gibson prototype once owned by Derek Trucks.  But I was pleased when Chuck talked about his own guitar. “I love this guitar,” he said. “It’s all scratched up and ragged, but it’s a good one.  And it doesn't go out of tune!”

He played “Around and Around,” and “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” (the lovely Rebecca dancing right next to him and Ingrid at that point) and a few lines of “House Lights” and then he was gone.

Except that he wasn’t.

He kept playing.  I was off to the side by then and can’t say if he was on the stairs or down the hallway—all I know is that I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him, for another couple verses.

In the land of neurological deficit I'll add this: He played "You Never Can Tell."  Rebecca heard it.  Doug heard it.  I HEARD IT AND HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO MEMORY OF IT!  Ah well.  That's the way the brain crumbles.

Sometime soon I’ll tell you the rest of the story. Or the rest of the stories.  Even the ones I forgot or didn't see.

For now I’ll just say thanks.

Thanks Rebecca. Thanks Bob. Thanks Doug. Thanks Charles. Thanks Ingrid. Thanks Jimmy and Keith. Thanks Judy and Karen.  Thank you Jade, Gemma and Rafferty.

And thank YOU Mr. Berry—for everything you’ve done, and for what you keep doing, show after show, year after year. Amazing.

(Hey!  If you got here through a link, be sure to click on the "Go Head On!" masthead at the top.  That'll get you to the site, and you'll find several years of stories about Mr. Berry, and lots of great pictures and videos.)

The Pen Award Ceremony: Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence

My Earliest Intimations of Mortality and Eternity

came from an old can of Bon Ami bathroom and kitchen cleanser which showed a pretty housewife holding a can of Bon Ami that showed the same woman holding a can of Bon Ami that showed the same woman holding a can of Bon Ami, and on and on.

As a small child I stared with awe and terror.  Which is how I feel when I click HERE.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Blog Devoted to ... Leonard Cohen!

Great minds think alike, but sometimes about different things.  Check it out HERE.  Hey, where else could you find analysis like THIS:
Formal wear for the Hall of Fame

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Chuck Berry Wins Pen Award: All the News Links Fit to Print

Read all about it!  (He played Johnny B. Goode for them.)

You can see a video of Keith Richards and Elvis Costello in this one, and read the telegram from Bob Dylan to Mssrs. Berry and Cohen.

Here's a good one!

Here's coverage from the Boston Globe, and great picture of Keith and Chuck.

Lots of great pictures here.

Battle of the Berrys

The Belgium performances are masterful-- especially, I think, the songs that were new at the time, like "No Particular Place to Go" and "Promised Land."  But my own vote for best video probably goes to this performance from France-- chiefly for the almost unhinged version of "Wee Wee Hours."

Almost amazing, 7 years later in London, a perfect version of "Carol."

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Long Distance Information Give me Memphis, Tennessee

Beale Street on a quiet night.

The wall outside Graceland.

                                                             A peek into the grounds

Presley Park

                                                                        Elvis's plane(s)

We couldn't get inside Stax

Memphis Slim's house is right behind Stax.  Not quite as well preserved as Graceland-- but it looks like there are plans.

I loved some of the wall paintings nearby.

American manufacturing at its best.  Apple should take note.

                          Look close and you'll see the ES semi-hollow body they are making for me.
                                                                           (Ah well...)

                                                   Half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge.

I'd never been to Arkansas or Tennessee.

Don't know if it'll work-- but if it does, you'll see a roll get thrown.  Doug's was thrown even farther.  

The Promised Land

One thing I forgot-- after doing "Promised Land" at The Argosy Chuck Berry mentioned Birmingham and marches.  No doubt now (never was a doubt) the song that mentions Rock Hill, and Birmingham, and busses, and crossing Mississippi clean is about a lot more than a crazy journey west.  He is talking about the same Promised Land that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw-- he's just doing it the Chuck Berry way.  Not that there's doubt about this, either, but the guy is a national treasure-- what Ronny Elliott rightly calls "the greatest living American."  

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

This is My Son, Too!

This part I only learned about the next day from my wife, and got confirmation this morning.

We're backstage after the show at the Argosy.  I'm obviously in my own little world of thought.   While I'm lost there Chuck points to Doug and says "This is my son, too!" then shrugs.  "Don't know what happened!"


Author Chris Kennedy Talks About the Book 1950s Radio in Color

Chris Kennedy, author of 1950s Radio In Color, was nice enough to answer some questions about his book.  Fans of 1950s rock and roll are going to want this one-- but for me its significance is that there's a photograph from Chuck Berry's August 1955 performance at Gleason's Pub-- his first big gig after cutting Maybellene, one he remembers fondly in outtakes from Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll (primarily for the $850 he earned that week) and in his Autobiography.

Who was Tommy Edwards, and how did he fit into rock and roll history? 
Tommy Edwards was a popular deejay at WERE-AM in Cleveland, Ohio from 1951-59. Tommy was an early champion of Elvis Presley and his music, and played a key role in furthering his career. In 1954, Edwards began playing Blue Moon of Kentucky on his Hillbilly Jamboree radio show. In early 1955, Tommy booked Elvis for his first appearance north of the Mason Dixon line at the Circle Theater in Cleveland. In 1955, he began taking color photographs of all the artists who came by the radio studios. The discovery of these nearly 1,800 candid and beautiful photos, along with the discovery of the entire collection of the T.E. Newsletter, Edwards's weekly, two-page recap for industry insiders, gives Tommy the recognition as the deejay responsible for perhaps the most important photographic and written documentation of twentieth-century popular music ever produced.

How did you learn about the pictures that he took? 
Being an Elvis fan for practically all my life, I was aware that Tommy was the photographer who snapped the iconic October 20, 1955 shot of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley shaking hands, backstage at the filming of The Pied Piper of Cleveland show, at Brooklyn High School, in Brooklyn, Ohio. The Pied Piper of Cleveland was a movie short, financed by Cleveland deejay Bill Randle, and is rumored to be Elvis's first film appearance. The film is the lost Holy Grail of rock and roll, and remains missing. In 2006, I tracked down Tommy's nephew, who held on to a few of his uncle's slides. A few weeks later, he called to say he found nearly 1,800 more, stashed under a work bench. He had simply forgotten he had them.  
What was it like seeing them for the first time?  You must have known you'd discovered gold. 
It was an exhilarating experience, an emotional one as well, since I'm a fan of rock and roll and knew how important and rare these photographs were. Tommy was in essence a documentary photographer with a great eye, capturing our musical heroes as never before seen. Candid, raw and in amazing Ektachrome color.
Are there pictures that didn't make it into the book?  Pictures of Chuck, for example? 
The book features over 200 photographs, so over 1,000 photos didn't make the book. There was only that one shot of Chuck, but it's one of the most amazing ever taken of him, on so many levels, in my opinion. I chose the 200+ photos that are in the book using my own criteria. How important historically the subject was, if they subject was still alive and I was able to interview them, or simply if I thought the photo was beautiful.  
I haven't actually seen the book-- do you give background information about the photographs?  
Each photograph is accompanied by text describing what record or film the artist was promoting at that particular time Tommy snapped the picture. I used this approach to put the reader right into the moment, to give a fly on the wall perspective, have them emotionally involved. Using Tommy's newsletters, I was able to date, sometimes to the day, when the photos were taken. Also included are quotes from Tommy Edwards from his newsletters as well as the artist's own words, if I interviewed them. 
What's the story behind the pictures of Berry?  It looks like he's already playing with a pickup band just a month after Maybellene was released.  That surprised me. 
The picture was taken August 15-21, 1955 at Gleason's Musical Bar in Cleveland. Tommy had been hearing about Berry, so he went downtown to check him out, camera in tow. It was a pick-up band, and I was able to interview the deceased saxophonist's family, who recalled him speaking about the show and the great time he and the other guys had. Not only is the photo just a gorgeous shot, dripping with that Ekatchrome color, but it gives us a rarely seen Chuck Berry, raw and incomplete, before his star ascended.  

You're a musician yourself?  Tell us about that. 
I was the lead singer, bassist and songwriter for the rock band Ruth Ruth. We've released albums on Epitaph, RCA and a bunch more labels. Here's the Wikipedia link, for anyone who's interested:
Where can people get the book? 

Meanwhile, I was still thinking.  

So here's Ruth Ruth: