Thursday, December 12, 2013

Chuck Berry LIVE at The House of Blue Lights

1
 Well, not really!  It was Chuck Berry and Company at Blueberry Hill, the 11th day of December, 2013.  But as you'll see, with my old camera and no flash, there's a blurry blue light that captures the event better than the cold, hard light of my flash.

It was a fun night.  Sometimes it was so much fun Chuck seemed to think we were laughing at him.  "I hear you talking and laughing.  But no man is perfect!"

But never, Mr. Berry.  Everybody loved every moment.

It began, as ever, with "Roll Over Beethoven," followed by a long, beautiful version of "Wee Wee Hours" and a short half version of "Maybellene."  Then a long rock and roll instrumental in G, where Chuck and his band hit the St. Louis groove that I became more familiar with on this trip.  "That was pretty good!" he said, with considerable understatement.

Someone yelled "We love you, Chuck!"

"Thank you girls," he said.  "I know a girl when I hear one!"

There was a moment in the set where Chuck Berry tried to show us all his hearing aid.  "This one's gone," he said, pointing to his right ear.  "If you spend 52 years in front of a drummer you pay a penalty!"

"I didn't say 'a penny,'" he added.  "I've paid this one plenty!"

But that hearing aid obviously helps.  There were some flubbed notes, but on "Wee Wee Hours" and a couple of the instrumentals, Chuck was killing it.  So was the band.

He did "School Days (Ring Ring Goes the Bell)," but forgot to let us sing "Hail! Hail!"

He launched into a short one about no poem as lovely as a tree and admitted "We've never played this one before."  The band members agreed.

When he asked what Chuck Berry songs we wanted to hear I used my position in the front row to lobby for one I've never heard him play.  "No Money Down!" I yelled.  I hold a perfect record on that one.  I still haven't heard Chuck play it-- he stood there listening while Ingrid and the band did a great job on the song.  That made me feel a little bad, but I was consoled by a high five from the rhythm guitarist.  Anyway, it was a great Chuck Berry song that ought to be played more!

To get himself back on track Chuck launched into another rocker instrumental, and once again, they killed it.  Then he asked Bob Lohr what to play.  "How about Johnny B. Goode?"  And they rocked that one, too, with some lyrics I've never heard but that I liked: "a little boy who looked a lot like me!"

Ingrid did a slow blues next.  "You know what I'm talking about ladies, don't you.  I work hard every day taking care of castle keep."

And then a wonderful version of "Reelin' and Rockin'," with the vocal highlight coming from bass player Jimmy Marsala.  At a quarter to 12 Chuck began singing "I didn't know if I was...".  And when he paused for just a breath Jimmy filled the void with "going to Hell!"  Charles was laughing so hard he was unable to play guitar for at least four bars.

A band called Palace opened.  We heard their soundcheck and knew they were good, but during the first few numbers the sound equipment faltered badly and they had to stop mid-song two or three times.  One of their singers-- a very pretty young woman-- told stories and jokes and answered silly questions from the audience while BBH's sound man figured out the problem, and then they went back to work with a shortened by triumphant set of rhythmic pop that mixed bits of Brian Wilson, Queen and The Beatles.  The crowd loved them, so did I, and so did Charles Berry, Jr., who applauded their professionalism afterwards.

All in all, a wonderful night.  We topped it off by staying up way past our bedtimes to see a bit of Roland Johnson's set downtown at The Beale.  I guess I'll pay tomorrow.  Tonight, I'm just pleased we came back to St. Louis one more time.

(Unbelievable!  Just lost all the pictures I was trying to show you.  It was taking forever, so I'll do a selection!)

































Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Night of Blues and Soul in St. Louis


(I didn't go out in St. Louis with the idea of writing about what I'd seen and heard, so I didn't take notes.  But what I saw and heard was worth recording somehow.  Here's the best I can do under the circumstances.  The way to find out what it was really like- head there yourself!)

I’ve never been to New Orleans (I’m saving it up) but I know about New Orleans-- that it’s a place famous for its musicians.  I know about Memphis, Nashville and Austin (though, come to think of it, I’ve never been to to a couple of those, either.) Everybody knows these places are music places, and still lively that way.

But I didn’t really know about St. Louis.  

Which is odd, considering that my hero and the lifelong object of my obsession hails from St. Louis, and considering that I associate the city names like Albert King, Miles Davis and Ann Peebles.  

But after a quick trip back to St. Louis this December-- one of several that I’ve taken in the last five years-- I’ve finally begun to scratch the surface and learn a little about the city’s still thriving Blues scene.  

In the course of three nights-- December 7, 10 and 11-- my wife and I saw five great performances by artists like Boo Boo Davis, Marquise Knox, Eugene Johnson, Kim Massie and Roland Johnson.  It was easy to do since all of them performed at two cool venues that sit across from each other a few blocks south of the Arch on South Broadway-- B.B.’s Soups, Jazz and Blues and Beale on Broadway.

I’d gone to St. Louis to see my old hero Chuck “one last time.”  (He keeps fooling me.)  But these two clubs-- and I’m sure there are a half a dozen more to add to the list-- are worth a trip to St. Louis all by themselves.  The drinks are big and cheap.  The food at B.B.’s is good.  The crowds ranged from boisterous on the weekend to intimate on a Wednesday.  The music was consistently stellar.

Every night we found a new mix of musicians, always with some crossover from a prior night.  Bassist Gus Thornton played for both Marquise Knox and Kim Massie.  Guitarist Stephen Martin backed up Massie and Roland Johnson.  Drummer Gerald Warren played with Eugene Johnson and stayed to provide beats for Kim Massie.  Keyboardist Robert Lohr was with Delta blues great Boo Boo Davis on Saturday night and on the following Wednesday crossed town to back Chuck Berry.  Eugene Johnson led his own group on Tuesday but also appears on  Marquise Knox’s newest cd.

I can’t pretend to know much about these musicians, (and I went to enjoy the music, not to take notes; I wish now I’d written a few things down) but bassist Gus Thornton provides an example of the depth of talent.  Watching him back up the remarkable Marquise Knox, I was struck by Thornton’s easygoing smile and the effortless way his fingertips touched the five strings of his bass to drive the songs.  A couple of days later Bob Lohr clued me into Thornton’s background playing bass for people like Albert King.  You can check it out yourself and read a good interview of the man HERE.   

Guitarist Stephen Martin, who played with Massie and Roland Johnson has a similarly angelic smile but plays devilishly good stuff on his pale blue Telecaster.  Massie was complimenting him on a new haircut when we saw them together.  You had to crane your neck to see him, tucked away in a corner behind Thornton, but you could hear every lick, down to the subtlest little bent “twing” that got drummer Gerald Warren laughing and nodding at the end of a song.  

And that’s one of the best parts: these musicians, who collect themselves in different groups every night, (or twice a night,) seem to really enjoy hearing and playing with each other.  In Memphis, on Beale Street, we saw some fine musicians putting on a fine show for us toursits, but at Beale on Broadway we saw fine musicians making music with and for each other.  Which works out fine for the audience.  

At the Marquise Knox show one young woman danced with half the men in the place, enticing them to all sorts of silly acts of lust which she then rejected with a grin.  Kim Massie brought out post-it notes and a vase to collect requests and big bills.  (She got plenty!)  Eugene Johnson invited a drummer he’d met in Europe to sit in.  The drummer, who took the sticks from Warren, might have regretted his decision about half way through “Brick House,” but it proved just how good the Warren and the other regular musicians are.  Another guy who took the stage before Roland Johnson’s set had better luck.  He borrowed Stephen Martin’s guitar and began to sing and strum a bit timidly.  We thought it was going to be a disaster, and one man made a face and laughed.  But the further he got, better it sounded, and one by one the musicians began to join him on stage.  Lew Winer, III, comedian of the group, played some wonderful sax, Eugene Johnson added bass, and Roland Johnson even tried to play the drums.  It was downright pretty.

As for the stars, dang!  To hear voices like Kim Massie’s and Roland Johnson’s from ten feet away restores a soul.  Both are great performers, too.  Johnson is as close as I’ll get, in attitude, to seeing Otis Redding alive, and Massie’s all attitude.  (To see Johnson and his band Soul Endeavor live, check out this clip of them playing at the Blues Deli in St. Louis's Soulard neighborhood.  Follow this Link!)  Between great songs Massie fires off wickedly dry one liners and singled me out for a cruelly shouted line questioning my manhood!  (It took a while to forgive her- but you can’t hold a grudge against a voice like that!)

(Here's a chance to hear her with a pretty well known drummer.)







Boo Boo Davis, who plays the first Saturday of every month at B.B.’s Soups, Jazz and Blues, was the old timer of this group, a veteran Delta Blues musician and drummer who helped nurture the current St. Louis blues scene back in the 1970s. B.B.‘s is a long, narrow place with a long bar that opens into a dining room and stage.  You can eat there, too.  When we arrived Davis, resplendent in black leather and bordello red, was seated at the front of the house just beneath the stage taking visits from audience members.  Boo Boo Davis was preceded on stage that night by singer and harmonica player Tom “Papa” Ray, who did a rhumba style “Summertime” on a very cold fall night backed by a group that included Robert Lohr on Piano, Nephew Davis on bass, Carlos Hughes on drums and Larry Griffen on guitar.  Then Boo Boo Davis, who alternates his deep growl of a voice with harmonica.  A man claiming to be his little brother sat whooping and hollering a few feet from us.  I decided his claim might be true when he said “the Wolf’s in the house” just before Davis launched into a startling imitation of Howlin’ Wolf.


When Davis’s first set was over we crossed the street to see and hear Marquise Knox.  At Beale on Broadway, the stage is right next to the front door, so as soon as you enter your are slammed with blues coming full force from a line of old guitar amps that seem to be stationed permanently against the back wall.  We paid our 7 dollars and sat on stools right next to the door while Knox, just 21 years old but completely mesmerizing, leaned forward to do a medley classics and originals.  (One song takes the title of a Billy Peek classic, “Can a White Man Play the Blues?” and makes it relevant to Knox by asking if a young man can.)  (The answer, in both cases, is that if it’s the right one, yes indeed.)  Here's a sample.


I don’t know if Chuck Berry will get me back to St. Louis again, but I know I’ll be back, and that when I return, I’ll go wherever these folks are playing.  And then I’ll head down the river to New Orleans.  ‘Cause I haven’t been there, yet.



Thursday, July 4, 2013

If You Get Too Close, Prologue and Chapter 1


(When I was 14 I saw Chuck Berry perform a set in a nearly empty auditorium in Sacramento, California.  He's been with me ever since.  This blog turned into a book about my imaginary life with a cultural giant.  You can read it below.)



Prologue





When I was twenty-two I drove an ailing Fiat east from Seattle, across the Rocky Mountains and the northern states, as far north as Montreal, down through New England and New York, then west, to a small town in Missouri called Wentzville. I kept a journal throughout the trip, but there’s only a short note about this stop: 

“My car almost kicked the bucket in St. Louis. The brakes went out and it began stalling in the 92 degree heat. Then, somewhat mysteriously, the brakes came back, and I managed to make it all the way to Mecca.”

Reading this 33 years later, I worry about the 22 year old who believed in the spontaneous regeneration of Italian brakes, and I wonder about the absence of detail. There was a story to tell, and I ignored it. Maybe I was still hot with shame. Maybe I already knew that I would never forget my sad visit to “Mecca.”

I remember asking at a gas station how to find it. “The rock singer’s place?” The attendant was young, and ill-informed. (He wrote a verse for you, fool!) But he talked me part of the way there.

I asked again at a store piled high with checkered feed bags and wooden cases of warm, bottled Coca Cola.

“The negro singer?” drawled the proprietor. (I write politely here. He said negro with an “a.”) He pointed his hand with disinterest.

I found it across from a gun club— a granite tombstone, with “Welcome” at the top.

Berry Park
Founded August 15, 1957
By the Family
For the People

It didn’t look like a park— no rides, no customers, no hamburgers sizzling on an open grill, no little cutie to take my hat. There was a chain link fence, a long, asphalt driveway, and at the end, a few low buildings painted brick red. 

What I had read about, years prior, was a place where you could sip a cold drink by the pool, get a hot dog, (or maybe a steak a la “carty”, if you had the cash,) and perhaps see the man himself wander by with a rake or a shovel.

What I hoped for, in the hidden recesses of my being, was more: a place where I could check that nonexistent hat, sip that cold drink, and be recognized by the man himself as a long lost, genetically inferior but much loved child. The part of me that still believed in the spontaneous resurrection of faulty brakes wanted to be welcomed into the bosom of my true home.

There is a rational part of me, too, so what I got instead of hope was a growing sense of foreboding and criminal trespass— the open, obvious understanding that, despite the word “Welcome,” (years later it would be masked for a time by an angry piece of gray duct tape,) this was not a public place open to strangers— it was the private estate of a private man.

But my story has nothing to do with rationality. It is a story of gentle madness, of harmless obsession, a lifelong relationship with a person I’ve hardly met and do not know.

So I eased on my brakes and I pulled in the drive.

I remember idling up the asphalt. 

I remember thinking “This is not a commercial establishment.”

I remember that my Fiat got hot and wouldn’t do no more.

The little Fiat sputtered and died maybe 100 yards up the driveway.

A woman came out of one of the buildings another 50 yards away. In my mind there is the creak and bang of a screen door, and a shotgun, like an old western when an unwelcome stranger shows up. But that’s not what happened. She just stood, arms folded, watching me.

“What do you want?” she asked. She had to raise her voice.

I got out of my car. I had no answer.

“Is he here?” I asked, stupidly.

“He’s not.”

I stood there.

“You need to leave.”

I sat obediently and turned the key. The starter whined uselessly, slower and slower. The woman held her post.

I did the only thing I could. I pushed the car backward out the driveway toward the road. I found a little shade by the gravestone. I waited for the heat of the motor to go down. Eventually the car started and I drove until I found a roadside campground somewhere to the west on I-70. I set up my tent in the dwindling sun and lay there, hungry and humiliated.

Such was my first trip to Berry Park.



Chapter One - My Imaginary Friend


I’m driving along in my automobile with my daughter Gemma. She is 17, a beauty, poet, a budding piano player. She’s telling me something important about her own life— something to do with friends. I begin to respond. I tell her that I never had many as a kid or as a grownup—that I’ve always been satisfied with family and a few good friends. I’m already appalled by my own conversation, which so often comes back to me, me, me, one of the only subjects I know. But I continue. I begin repeating a recent theory of mine, that perhaps life happened that way for me because of the outlandishly alcoholic home I grew up in—that I wasn’t comfortable inviting many people into it. It gets quiet. Gemma’s losing patience. She’s heard this before. As we drive in momentary silence my mind clicks and rolls like a slot machine and the idea tumbles out like a small fortune in heavy coins. 

“Maybe Chuck Berry is my imaginary friend!” I say, as if I’ve discovered something important. Gemma rolls her eyes violently and our conversation crashes to a halt. My daughter has little use for my prehistoric rocker. Like her older sister Jade and their little brother Rafferty, she has had enough. 

But I’m on to something— right? My mind is abuzz as we drive in irritated silence.

That night, in bed, I tell my wife, Rebecca. 

She laughs, hard.

I explain to her that I’m not confused or delusional. I know he’s not my friend. I don’t talk to him in the sandbox. I know I don’t know that I’ve made the proper clinical diagnosis.

But isn’t that the explanation?

Because almost all of my life this public person has been an important part of my private life. Gemma and Jade have grown up to stories about the man. Rafferty once believed “Chuck Berry?” was the answer to almost every question. Who’s singing, Rafferty? Do you know who wrote that song, Rafferty? 

Who is the President of The United States, Rafferty?

Rebecca comes home to stories about people in England, France or Sweden whom I’ve never met. 

“Jan sent me a CD today!” I tell her. She has to work to find context.

“The guy in Iowa?” 

“Germany.”

But she is no longer listening. And who can blame her? 

In my youth there had been a charm to it. My idol was somewhat obscure, his last big hit seven years old. Kids my age hardly knew him. My high school acquaintances followed the latest trends, but not me. I worshipped rock and roll’s first true poet and guitarist. His early recordings were as fresh in 1971— are as fresh today— as they were in the mid-1950s. My early fixation showed a sort of precociousness.

But I’m a grandfather now, with joint pain and whitening hair. Precociousness is no more. 

I can still justify my admiration. In early 2012, Chuck Berry was honored with the Pen New England Award for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence. Pen New England is America’s oldest literary society. The jury included Salman Rushdie, Paul Simon and Bono. Caroline Kennedy spoke at the ceremony. Bob Dylan sent his regards. Keith Richards sat in the front row. Chuck, alleging deafness in one ear, couldn’t hear the remarks of presenter Paul Simon (Chuck called him “the announcer”) and told him so. Afterwards, in lieu of an acceptance speech, Chuck grabbed Elvis Costello’s guitar and surprised the organizers with a ragged, solo “Johnny B. Goode.” It was all sweet and spectacular, and well deserved, one of dozens of such honors he has received. So my admiration is understandable. He is a legend among legends— a giant not just of rock and roll, but of American art and culture. 

But my problem is not as simple as admiration. 

I edit myself constantly— even with family— so that I might appear less mentally suspect. One day on Facebook Peter from Sweden posts an old magazine spread showing the young Chuck Berry and his family posing in front of a 1950s style hi-fi. Berry’s son, Charles, posts a comment. “They still have that Silvertone console!” he writes. I’m thrilled by this potent bit of trivia. I react like an old CIA analyst to some tidbit from the Kremlin. “They” means that “they”— Chuck Berry and Themetta, his wife of more than 60 years— are still a couple who jointly own furniture and appliances. Their child perceives them as “they.” I like that. I am happy because— forgive me— in some more theoretical and perhaps less strictly factual sense, I, too, am his child, right? Glad to know dad and mom are together! I am equally moved by the fact that “they” still have that Silvertone! I’ve got my camera and drums from 1971, and the guitar I bought in 1975, and a scrap of metal that I picked up on Greenback Lane when I was 15. I keep things, and so, I learn, does Chuck! I’ve learned online that in addition to the 1950s hi-fi, he has his 1980 Caddy, his psychedelic sport coat, various guitars and the dates of all his concert appearances! I know from the movies that he has kept his old, disintegrating bus, charred scraps of personal history, and that in 1986 he had at least three well-preserved, tarpaulin covered 1970s Cadillacs in storage. He keeps what is important. I want to tell Rebecca about the hi-fi— but I don’t. Later I want to tell her again, but I don’t again. My self control is the product of fear. I imagine calling her, explaining the magazine spread, and then telling her that my internet friend Charles, whom I don’t really know, has said thus and such about an old hi-fi. She would feign interest through glazed eyes. She would think to herself “Who is this man that I married and who fathered my child?” I remain silent, but look again the next day, and smile.

A day or two after my “eureka” moment I do some internet research on imaginary friendship and discover a professor of psychology who studies the subject in a serious way. "I'm beginning to think it never goes away," she tells the Seattle Post Intelligencer. "It morphs into a different form." She and her colleagues interviewed 50 novelists about their characters and found that the characters took “a life of their own.”

That’s not exactly how it is with me. After all, my imaginary friend already has a life of his own. But it’s close. She found that “many of these authors developed personal relationships with the characters in their novels and had imagined conversations with them.” 

I don’t have very many imagined conversations with Chuck Berry, although it does happen. It’s difficult to manage in a convincing way. To make it work I have to invent situations that put me in a position to actually talk to the man. That’s harder than it sounds. Just try. To up the level of difficulty try to figure out a reason why Chuck Berry might want to talk back, once you’ve put yourself in a position to utter inanities. (I eventually solved these problems. It took inspiration, and a measure of luck. Remind me to tell you about it.) 

And to be honest, I’ve never been sure that I want to get to know the real Chuck Berry. He’s rumored to be difficult, to have quirks, to be short at times. If he were nasty to me it might compound my neuroses. There’s a YouTube video in which former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman says that he loved Chuck Berry until he met him. (I’m sure I don’t want to meet Bill Wyman.) Unlike Wyman’s, my encounters with the real Chuck Berry, though brief and reasonably shallow, have been wonderful. He has been attentive and kind. But who knows? Really getting to know the man might spoil it for me. 

But there’s no doubt that I’ve constructed an ongoing “personal” relationship with him—or with an imagined facsimile. Indeed, everyone who really knows me has to live with Chuck Berry to some degree. They do draw lines. “I’m tired of your stupid Chuck Berry!” Gemma has told me more than once. Rebecca refused for nearly a decade to watch “the Chuck Berry movie.” Others, like Jade, just nod and wait for me to stop. But they can’t avoid him entirely. My stories keep coming. I keep plucking the same notes on the guitar. I keep writing my blog and watching YouTube clips.

Of course, people who are not like family simply don’t know. I don’t tell them. At best, cornered by circumstance, I might admit that “I’m a big Chuck Berry fan,” as if that explained it.

But it doesn’t.  Being a “big Chuck Berry fan” doesn’t explain the dreams.

I dream about him regularly. In one recent dream I drove him around in my car. He was old, quiet, and a little sad, and wore his captain’s hat. He looked straight ahead through dark glasses. We parked and I told two women in a ticket booth that Chuck Berry was in my car. They were reasonably excited. He got out of the car to sit by himself on a bench near dark water. He returned to my car and was just about to answer my question about his version of the blues “turnaround” when Rafferty jumped into the bed and woke me. I narrowly avoided telling him that he’d interrupted an important conversation with Chuck Berry.

In another dream I watched from a balcony as members of my extended family came off the golf course with Chuck Berry. I remember my sister-in-law Liz, my brother Paul, and my sisters Ann and Maggie, all happy. Chuck, though, must have had a bad round. He was scowling from under one of those stupid golfer caps with a tuft of yarn on top as he pushed open the door of the men’s locker room and disappeared. (I felt left out up there on the balcony, though happy that my brothers and sisters were getting along so well with “dad.”) Oddly, this was not my only reverie about Chuck Berry as athlete. In 1977 or 1978, soon after I moved to Seattle and my brother Paul introduced me to the NBA, I dreamed that Chuck Berry had been an early professional basketball player. In my dream I watched grainy, black and white dream footage of the journeyman Berry executing a layup. “I never knew that about him!” I dreamt.

After looking at some of her research I find the psychology professor’s university e-mail address, send her a detailed outline of my psychosis, and ask if I am on the right track with the diagnosis of “imaginary friend.” She doesn’t respond, but later I find a description of a talk she gave where someone wrote that she was “exploring whether there is a similar kind of imaginary companionship at work in teenagers who idolize a movie or music star and imagine conversations with that person.” 

I take that as a yes. 


(This is part of a 33 chapter book on Chuck Berry.  It's free!  You can continue reading here:  http://goheadon.blogspot.com/2013/07/chapter-2-gift-from-stevo.html)



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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Chapter 2 - A Gift from Stevo

My brother Stevo is the one who first told me about Chuck Berry. It came in two conversations— lectures really, because there was no give and take. And I doubt that he was talking to me. We weren’t close then. He was older. My guess is that he was talking to Danny, who was closer to Stevo’s age, and that I was sitting nearby, listening.

If I were to guess again, I would say we were in a car, Danny at the wheel of his 1958 Chevy sedan, Stevo riding shotgun, pontificating with lots of hand motion and no eye contact. I was likely in back. But that is only a feeling, because this first lecture is disembodied in my memory, just Stevo’s words describing an old rocker who was “better than Elvis.” This was no recommendation. The Elvis I knew made bad movies and sappy ballads.

Though I have no visual of Stevo talking—only that vague sense of a moving car— I recall exactly the visual I formed of this Chuck Berry fellow. For me “Chuck” meant blond, with freckles. Chuck was the catcher on my little league team. Chuck was the actor who played “The Rifleman” on TV. So the mental image I formed was a 1950s rocker, tall and a bit menacing, with Connors’ high cheek bones—David Bowie with a blond pompadour. He wore a checkered shirt and played an acoustic guitar.

Then one day I was listening to the beginning of The Mike Douglas Show, a daytime talk show and after school favorite of mine. I liked Mike. He seemed genuinely nice, and took time to talk to the musicians who appeared on his show.

This time I have actual memories. It is before my parents separate. I am in the swanky, suburban rambler that we occupy from the time I am nine until I am fourteen. I am listening to the chatter of a small black and white television when the announcer says that Chuck Berry will be on today’s show. That gets my attention.

It is October 22, 1970. Four decades later I learn the date from a reference book and, through the miracle of YouTube, I watch again.

Mike Douglas sits with Cher and Sonny. He says: “In the rock era of the fifties he was an innovator, with tunes like “Maybellene,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Johnny B. Goode. Here is Mr. Chuck Berry!” Sonny and Cher applaud without enthusiasm.

Chuck is standing on a series of risers that look like giant building blocks about four feet tall and three feet square. He’s crowded by the mike stand. One misstep and he’s an innovator with a limp.

He’s wearing yellow pegged slacks that tighten about three inches above his shoes and show skinny ankles. He’s got the purple paisley shirt I’ll see in hundreds of pictures and at a couple of performances over the next 20 years or so. His upturned pencil mustache is mimicking Salvador Dali or Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. He has giant sideburns and slicked back hair. He has the high cheek bones I envisioned, and he might have freckles, but the pompadour is not blond.

The guitar intro is flawless. When he starts to sing he recoils from the volume, but someone adjusts it and he settles into a grim, nearly joyless performance of “Johnny B. Goode.” No wonder I wasn’t overly impressed. The band plays a lifeless arrangement with bass and drums that are too neat and horns that are dorky. (A comment posted on YouTube says : “Man, that band is really dragging Chuck down. That bass player flat sucks!”) During the instrumental break Chuck has to climb down from the riser without tripping over his guitar cord and killing himself, all the while picking a complicated solo. You can see his relief when he finally gets to the stage where he can dance and do his “scoot.” With his too-short pants he looks a bit like what Michael Jackson will look like 10 or 11 years later at the Motown 25th anniversary show except that these pants are totally uncool.

I watch, interested, but unchanged.

Why I remember that show I’m not sure. I had no real stake in Chuck Berry then. The obsession didn’t hit until four months later, in winter. It is a testament to whatever Stevo told me about the man that I filed away fragments of this event as lifelong memories. It’s as if Stevo’s words were an injection of live virus for which I had no antibodies.



A few months later, in December, on the other side of the same split level rambler, I’m awakened by loud music and voices. This has to be just days or weeks before our life at that house will end— days or weeks before we will leave my father and move to an old Victorian farm house on the edge of town. It can’t happen too soon. The house and our life in it have become disturbing. There’s too much craziness. Even the dark paneling on this side of the house—the side where I sleep— is nightmarish. In my young mind the dark waves of wood grain are like shrieking ghosts, the incarnation of what scares me about our life in this place.

This night Stevo and Danny are in the sunken, paneled room where my father usually watches television. It’s around midnight. Danny and Stevo are watching the Dick Cavett show at high volume. They are laughing and talking. I sleep in the next room, but as Chuck says, no use of me complaining, my objection’s overruled. I get up and walk to the den, bleary with interrupted sleep.

I remember colored stage lights and glinting chrome. “Who is this?” I ask.

“Chuck Berry,” says Stevo. He’s not lecturing now, he’s annoyed at my interruption.

It’s a color television and a more exciting performance than I saw on Mike Douglas. I watch, but I’m too groggy to be affected. I go back to bed and to sleep.

And then, (because all of this happens over a fall, and a winter), maybe a few months later, Stevo again holds forth on Chuck Berry. I know this is later because we have left the suburban rambler. We are living in changed and changing circumstances— released from a five year nightmare of alcohol and insanity in the suburbs. The drunken howling is no more. The scary paneling is behind me. My mother, my sister Ann and I have moved, just weeks prior, to a dream world: a yellow Victorian in Orangevale, with a three story tower, a rock garden, small pastures and barns.

Stevo must be visiting. He has his own apartment—one of the dozens he occupied in those years. We are in the living room. Stevo is by the door. He moves from the door to the piano, waving his hands, lecturing again.

Stevo is short, stocky and Irish in a half Irish family where the men tended to be tall and (in our youth) lean. He’s got a mustache and goatee. He wears his brown hair pushed back, a bit like the man he’s talking about. It’s continuation of the same lecture he started months before: Chuck Berry 101. He’s describing a show he attended at the Fillmore in San Francisco, a show that was mostly blues.

“He’s not really a blues guy,” says Stevo, “not like Muddy Waters, or B. B. King, or Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland.” Stevo, at age 20 or 21, has been toughened by fights and car crashes and stints in jail. His face is scarred. There is a round half circle punched into his cheek by the steel rim of a steering wheel hub.

“You can tell he came up playing in blues clubs,” he tells us. “He knows that stuff. He’s good at it, too.”


Stevo probably knows nothing about Chuck Berry’s actual and specific history—how he started in North St. Louis and East St. Louis, playing blues and bits of country music at places like The Crank Club and the Cosmopolitan— but he’d seen Chuck Berry play a bluesy set and had processed it through his tremendous stores of pop culture knowledge and is here to testify, to teach, to bear witness. He leans over my mother’s old baby grand piano and picks out bit of two or three fingered boogie-woogie.

“He ain’t a bluesman, but he can play it! He’s good at it!”

I’m 14 years old. I don’t know what a bluesman is, or who Bobby “Blue” Bland is, or that the boogie-woogie music Stevo is playing is what formed the backbone to so many of Chuck Berry’s early rock ‘n’ roll hits. But Stevo’s words have altered me, and within weeks or months I will feel raw, slow guitar pouring bent blue notes through the doors of an old civic auditorium, and when I push those doors open, my life will change forever.

(This is part of a 33 Chapter "book" on my imaginary life with Chuck Berry.  You can keep reading HERE!)

53

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.

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