Friday, May 31, 2013

Chapter 22 - Stevo


            Stevo remains inexplicable to me.  


The best pictures of him are a couple of black and white photographs that my sister Maggie took and printed.  His eyes are deep and dark and sad.  His face, covered with long stubble, is scarred from car crashes and fights.  

His psyche was scarred by jail. He was locked up frequently for stuff that wouldn’t get you in trouble now—once for two tiny marijuana plants in his bathroom window, miniature seedlings with two pale leaves on a stem.  I saw them and can testify.  

He was the middle child in a family of seven children, and didn’t naturally fit with the older kids or the little ones.  His closest associates were the other middle children, Danny and Maggie—but Danny and Maggie were swingmen who could play two positions.  Danny would be with Stevo one day and the next he’d drop down to dominate Ann and me.  Maggie could hang with Stevo or with the older kids.  Stevo didn’t have that luxury.  He was stuck in the middle.

Stevo was a musician—a self taught drummer who played in a string of local Sacramento rock bands in the mid-to-late 1960s.  They battled other bands at local shopping centers and played teen dances at the Cottage Park youth center.  Although I never heard one of his bands, it occurs to me that they undoubtedly played Chuck Berry songs, and I would love now to hear Stevo play “Roll Over Beethoven” or ‘Bye Bye Johnny.”  He was good enough to play in the minors.  His group once opened for Sly and the Family Stone.  Stevo sat at Sly’s drummer’s set during sound check and got caught.   Sly’s drummer wasn’t pleased.  But Stevo could shrug off such stuff.  He was certifiably cool.  

He was also tough as nails.  He once walked home from a car crash on a badly broken foot.  Another crash left the circular gash in his cheek.  He fought when he had to, but we saw him cry when a new arrest meant he might graduate from county jail to state prison.  Hard time scared him.    

Like my father, he was locally famous.  He once borrowed a moped and led a pack of Hells Angels through town on their Harleys.  Once Danny came across a crowd of young people outside of a concert hall chanting “Stevo!  Stevo!  Stevo!”  He didn’t know why they, but watched as Stevo rose, said he wasn’t “in the mood” and then quieted the crowd by taking a quick bow.  

Stevo enjoyed my dad even during Daddy’s precipitous decline.  He’d sit and talk with him during those last years when there seemed no point in doing so.  As Stevo got older, he and my dad would sometimes drink themselves into insanity and run amok inside our house.  Stevo thought it was funny, which it sometimes was, but more often it was a sort of hell.  I remember Stevo laughing as my father chased him through the house with a plastic pitcher of urine.  That night Stevo hit my mother over the head with a plastic TV table. 

I told my mother we needed to move out, and the very next day we did.  

But Stevo could also honor my mom.  “You were a mother and a father to us,” he told her one day, a little drunk.  

He had, at times, a quick wit.  In a grocery store newly equipped with closed circuit cameras Danny, Stevo and our sister Rooney took turns mugging in front of the camera.  Danny and Rooney did quick bows.  Then, while the other two watched the monitor, Stevo stood in front of the camera, looked right, looked left, and stuffed something under his jacket.  His humor was goofily weird.  When the A’s moved to Oakland there was a joke going round.  “Are you a Giant fan or an Athletic supporter?”  The joke was the notion of a being a jock strap, but Stevo got as big a kick from the idea of a “giant fan.”   I don’t know if he envisioned a giant electric fan or a ladies fan, but he was ahead of the artist Claus Oldenburg, who designed a giant kid’s baseball mitt outside the A’s stadium.

In other ways he was a dummy.  On a trip to Europe with Paul, his wife Gina, and Danny, Stevo didn’t understand that people in other countries spoke other languages or used other money.  In London the others left Stevo in a hotel and returned to find him gone.  When they inquired at the desk the clerk responded: “Oh, you mean ‘Fuck your fucking hotel?  Fuck your warm beer?  Fuck your fucking accents?’  Oh, and ‘Fuck your fucking Queen?’  Yes— I remember him.  He’s no longer staying at our hotel.”

But Stevo was a gifted philosopher of pop culture, sports, and politics, which he understood in a deep and instinctual way, and which he liked to teach, lecturing us in the living room or from the front seat of a moving car.  Blazing south one night on Highway 99 in California, Stevo held forth on song after song on some 50,000 watt rock and roll radio show, discussing obscure hits and forgotten performers. Paul would test him in “Name that Tune,” twisting the volume knob as soon as a song began.  Stevo was unbeatable.  He recognized songs from a single beat or note, then could expound on the author, the band, the roots of the music, the time he saw it performed, or the time he drank wine with the performer.  

He was unconcerned with contemporary fashion or taste.  In the late 1960s it was unusual to hear a long haired tough guy defend Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett, but Stevo did it with force and eloquence.  I remember him describing the serious chops of Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney.  He lauded Sammy Davis Junior.  “He’s a Nixon supporter!” we said.  “He’s an entertainer,” Stevo told us.  “He can dance, sing, act, tell jokes.  He does it all!”  

Because of the difference in our ages Stevo and I weren’t very close, at least early on.  I remember him trying to roughhouse with me when I was six or seven.  He was trying to have a good time.  I didn’t like it.  He was 13 or 14 and smelled different, and I was the prissy child who told my dad that the Blessed Virgin was more beautiful than my mom.  But little by little, as I grew closer to him in age, our relationship grew.  I remember that he gave me a red plastic gum machine with real gum.  He bought it right in front of me.  He told me it was for Danny.  I told him that it was an excellent gift, then opened it on Christmas morning.

A few years later I began copying Stevo on the drums, sneaking in to play his beautiful blue set any time he wasn’t at home.  His disreputable friend Dee caught me playing along to “Love Me Do” and taught me my first real beat.  

I remember once asking Stevo what he wanted for Christmas.  He told me to get him the original album by The Monkees.  I did so proudly.  The Monkees, in those days, were right up my alley, the most popular group among sixth graders at my elementary school.  But just before I presented it Stevo opened a package of new records by The Grateful Dead, Paul Butterfield and The Jefferson Airplane.  By the time he opened my slim little package his interest in The Monkees had been erased by these newer, hipper gifts.  I was ashamed, but Stevo was nice about it.

It was Stevo, of course, who gave me Chuck Berry.  And years later it was Stevo who filled in important blanks in my own knowledge.  

Chuck Berry’s first hit, “Maybellene,” was recorded a year before I was born.  I’d never been conscious of hearing one of my hero’s great hits at the time it was new.  I barely knew the songs the first time I heard him.  But Stevo told me that Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go” was a hit back in 1964 when my mother packed six of us kids into her station wagon and drove us to Missouri to visit our eldest brother Paul. Stevo said that our mother didn’t like us to hear it, because of its suggestive lyrics, and would turn it down.  (She also refused to let us play a song called “Someone’s Pinched Me Winkles” on the jukebox in Willets, California.  We practically rioted.  We assumed it was a dirty song and wanted to hear it.  Decades later, thanks to the internet, I was disappointed to learn it’s a song about edible sea snails.)

I remember the Missouri trip well.  It amazed me to learn that I’d been there when one of Chuck Berry’s classic songs came out.  If I’d been listening (and I wasn’t) I might also have heard “Nadine,” “Promised Land” and “You Never Can Tell.”

As we got older there were more moments.  Once he came to my apartment and I played him a tape of a song I’d written.  It was a funny blues written from the perspective of an alcoholic.  Stevo listened and laughed.  “Who’s singing?” he asked.  “That’s me!” I told him.  “That ain’t you,” he said.  Later, as I drove him home (Stevo frequently lost his driver’s license) he told me we should start a band, and that he’d play drums.  We never did it, but I was surprised and honored.  

I remember a couple of incidents at Stevo’s apartments.  Once Stevo and I shared a six pack.  It was the first and last time we drank together.  I got a little drunk and fell asleep on his couch.  Later his roommate came home.  The roommate was a rough biker type, but he and Stevo spoke in gentle whispers.  “Who’s that?”  “My little brother.  He had a little too much to drink.”  

At another apartment—an old place downtown—a neighbor began to yell at us.  At some point I touched her shoulder.  She called it an “assault.”  Two police officers arrived.  They were nice but told me the woman was right.  Stevo intervened on my behalf and the officers left us with a warning.  “That was close,” he told me, and then explained that his pocket was full of heroin.

Stevo kept trying to get clean.  Unlike my dad, he found Alcoholics Anonymous and enjoyed the meetings.  He felt at home with the stories of drunken chaos.  When Stevo’s crazy friends would catch up with him he’d move, always switching apartments, always hoping that a new home would lead to a new life.  

I remember once when he was looking for a new place.  I was home that summer washing dishes at a restaurant.  Stevo had no license or car at the time and asked me to drive him this way and that across the sprawl of suburban Sacramento.  “Let’s check out Fair Oaks Boulevard,” he said.  Every time we’d get close to some destination he’d change his mind about the neighborhood and tell me to take him to some opposite and far off corner of town.  “Let’s try Del Paso Boulevard.  I like it out there.”  I dutifully turned.  It was a huge waste of time, and fun— a couple of wasted hours that I will always cherish. 

In the middle of that night my mom flung open the door to the guest room where I was sleeping switched on the light.  Her face was serious.  She ordered me to get up.   I never saw her so stressed or so forceful.  She was all business.  “Get dressed!  Stevo’s at the hospital!”  As we drove she told me that Stevo’s friend had called her.  He didn’t say if Stevo was okay—only that she had to go to the hospital quickly.  Then he hung up. 

“He was crying,” she told me.  

We rode grimly.  You can sense the worst.  We entered a dark waiting room with fish and shadows and sleepy, worried people.  A doctor came in.  He looked grim.  He mumbled what he could.  I watched my mother wither in grief.  I’ve never felt as helpless or as useless.

  In the next couple of days we’d learn only the sketchiest details of Stevo’s death.  He was dragged out of a bar by the bouncer and pushed into traffic.  

Within a few weeks I quit my job at the restaurant and moved to Seattle where my brother Paul lived.  Maybe it’s just a coincidence that when Stevo died, my interest in Chuck Berry faded, too.  Probably not.

(This is part of a book length piece on Chuck Berry and his effect on my life.  You can keep reading below, or start at the beginning over to the right in the section marked "Pages.")

30

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Chapter 33 - American History and Practical Math (A Last Encounter)

(This is the next to the last chapter in a book about how Chuck Berry affected my life.  Funny how it can happen.  This one's all about family, and a final, quick meeting with Mr. Berry, where, for a moment, I affected his life.)

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.

Leila’s mother Jade is teaching herself guitar, taking college classes and intends to transfer to a really good school. She got a modeling contract. She keeps getting 4.0’s. She talks about becoming a lawyer some day. I may try to divert her from that particular destiny, but she has had her own mind since she was born. And now she’s not almost grown, she’s grown. It amazes me.

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.

Chuck was wild that night, hopping and dancing all over the stage. He almost fell once, so a few seconds later he walked to the very edge of the stage and stood on one foot while dangling the other over the audience. He looked tired and had trouble with the lyrics, but summoned energy from someplace deep within and put on a spotty but wonderful show.

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.


We got back to St. Louis in time for me to pick up Rebecca at the airport. The next day we all crossed the Mississippi River to a casino built from an old river boat. Bob Lohr had once again arranged for passes that would get us backstage and allow us to see the sound check. CBII welcomed us, then Jimmy Marsala, Keith Robinson, and Bob Lohr, who was our host that night.

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.)

40

It's Important!

When I think of this silly blog, or when I think of Doug, or me, or Ida May, or Morten, or Dominic, or Jan, or Peter, or Judy, or Wolfgang, or Karen, or Thomas, or Stefano, or Carmelo, or Dietmar, or Fred, or Johan, or Thomas, or Manuel, or so many others, I think of the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind and all those disparate people drawn to a force they didn’t understand for reasons they can’t really fathom.

When I post various blatherings about my hero I’m like the guy with the mashed potatoes, scraping away with my fork, worrying my family, trying to figure out what it is exactly that has drawn me all these years.

I haven’t filled my living room with dirt, but I’ve filled a few drawers with clippings and a few shelves with records and books.  My wife thinks I have too many guitars.  (She doesn’t know how many YOU have!  She doesn’t know how much yours cost, either.  Mine were cheap!)

When I tell a family member or friend another parable about Chuck Berry, or get excited about an “interview” on the blog, I cringe a little.  I know they don’t really understand.  They just put up with me.

When I go to a show it's different.  I remember at Monterey in 1974 meeting someone at the foot of the stage after the show.  We recognized each other instantly as fellow travelers.  There’s no need even for a secret hand shake.  We just know.  That guy was Howard DeWitt, who wrote the first serious book about Chuck Berry.  
(A few months ago I found him on facebook.  One day I called him.  We couldn’t really talk because he was at Trader Joe’s.  But I told him “I think I met you 35 years ago at the foot of the stage in Monterey."  “It was me!” he said.)

At chuckberry.com it’s different, too.  (Poor chuckberry.com.  It’s fading under the spell of facebook.  The short lived Real Chuck Berry Page was a fine substitute and drew many of the same people. But now there’s just a page with untold millions of fans and friends.  I like it though.  I’m amazed at how many Spanish speaking comments there are.)  

At chuckberry.com I “met” Doug and Jan and Johan, and I knew right away that they were drawn by a force similar to what I’ve experienced.

When I started my blog I “met” new people.  A guy named “Dominic” from Manchester, England, England started commenting.  It was months before I saw him on facebook and youtube and learned he could play a mean Chuck Berry on his red Gibson. 
There’s an English connection.  Or maybe an Italian one.  Stefano, an Italian in London, sends ideas for interviews.  Fred Rothwell sometimes corrects my frequent errors.  ("Bo didn't write that one, Peter.")  Carmelo, a Genovese from Milano, (which sounds like a Chuck Berry song), sends snapshots that make me crazy-- Carmelo holding a famous pair of pants, Carmelo playing his Silvertone backstage with Chuck Berry.  Later I learn that I’ve known him all along as one of the Boogie Ramblers.

Manuel Borea is another one from Italy, though most people probably know him online as "ForeverChuck68."  Manuel’s enthusiasm for Chuck Berry shines through the inadequacy of google translator.

The Swedes and Finns and Norwegians are also well represented.  Something about the cold north needs the warmth of a Gibson guitar.  Peter Kaleta travelled to places in my country I’m still waiting to see and experience-- New Orleans and Memphis-- to document the holy shrines of American music.  Fats Domino heard him knocking and came outside to greet him.  He went to St. Louis, too.  Where he undoubtedly met the mayors of Blueberry Hill, Karen and Judy, who have attended more than 100 of the fabled shows at the St. Louis bar and restaurant.

Germany?  It’s full of them.

France?  One of the first is there.  And Red Chuck, too.

Ida May from Brazil has the perfect name for a Chuck Berry fan-- half Ida Red, half Maybellene-- and she’s the perfect Chuck Berry fan, famous on youtube for her brief appearance on stage with the man, and famous on facebook for her exuberant love of the guy.  

My blog gets hits from around the world: Mexico, Japan, Turkey, India, Spain, Armenia, Bulgaria, Russia, China and Korea, just to name a few.

Some of the people I’ve encountered have the talent to do more than mess up their mashed potatoes.  (They’re more like the artist with the baby who painted real pictures.)  I don’t know Thomas Einarsson, but I shook his hand, and I know he travelled farther than I did to attend two Chuck Berry birthday shows in October, and I saw him at the soundcheck playing some utterly convincing, utterly confident Chuck Berry riffs.  Carmelo and Dominic can be found on youtube doing the same. 

And of course there are the big leaguers.  Robert Lohr evidently grew up idolizing Johnnie Johnson and Otis Spann, said the music was in his blood at “a cellular level,” got to know them both, and now channels them on stage with Chuck Berry.  Daryl Davis told the kids at his high school he was going to study music and play with Chuck Berry.  And guess what?  Bob and Daryl and Bob Baldori and Ronny Elliott all shared stories and their admiration for the man on the blog, and the whole St. Louis band greets us “true believers” with real generosity.

Even those of us who can’t really do it do it.  Jan’s got a guitar.  I try to play one and made a mess of “Wee Wee Hours” and “Oh Louisiana.”  Doug got up on stage and brought Nadine to life at the Bussey, Iowa Fourth of July celebration.  He even duckwalked and scooted.

There’s something that grabs us, and pulls us--sometimes towards St. Louis.

How many people have posed by that piece of granite on a backroad?

How many of you have made it to Blueberry Hill?

How many have toured The Ville, looking for old houses and clubs?

How many are on their way?  I see Dominic is resolved to go.  I hope Ida May gets there, soon.  I hope Peter gets back.  Doug will, for sure.  He’ll celebrate his own birthday there.  And Judy and Karen are there so often they probably keep toothbrushes and a change of clothing there.

I don’t know exactly what it is that makes us what we are, but I know this: like the guy in Close Encounters told his distraught wife: “It’s important.”

If I had fallen sway to, say, David Cassidy (and I mean no disrespect to David Cassidy), I’d be a lot more worried.

If I was interested in a celebrity, I’d be embarrassed.

But Chuck Berry is the anti-celebrity.  He mows his own lawn.  He has no management.  His only PR service seems to be a loving son.  He doesn’t sell shirts.  He doesn’t even sell records these days.  There’s no Graceland.  

But a couple times a month he hops into his car and there is a show with music--raw, live boogie woogie and blues-- and a  dozen or so songs drawn from one of the richest veins in American or world music. 

I’ve learned is that it is as solid as that tower of basalt and lava, and as magical.  It’s built on 12 bar blues, hard work, rhyme, rhythm and family.

It’s important, and it’s real.




Chuck Berry at Blueberry Hill, 8-14-2013 (New and Improved!)

Thanks to Doug and Marilyn for these great pictures.  Check out that 40 year old shirt!  (So how does a n August 2013 show appear in a May 2013 post?  It's a visionary set of photographs, folks.)


Here's the set list and other commentary from Doug:


Chuck Berry @ Blueberry Hill August 14, 2013
backed by his St. Louis Band
Setlist
Roll Over Beethoven
CB says -  Is everybody alright ?? Is everybody Happy ?? Let me hear you say Ole' - Ole' - Ole' !!! 
Rock & Roll Music
Blues Instrumental
Everyday I Have The Blues - 
a  real Rockin' version of this blues classic, Ingrid throws a verse of Let It Rock in at the end....
Wee Wee Hours
Ding A Ling tune - but not the lyrics,
just a verse or so, I didn't recoginize for sure - may have been made up on the spot.......
Nadine
requested by yours truly, Thanks Charles for relaying the request to your pop ...
It Hurts Me Too
Let It Rock !!
Everyday I Have The Blues
classic Blues version
Johnny B. Goode - Let It Rock
with girls onstage and an Encore !!























The Boogie Ramblers Let it Rock!


Midway through the first half of my life I found myself found in a beautiful wood.  Which is a way of saying that I got lucky in my late teens and spent a year in Italy.

It was 1974.  A Pizza Margherita cost 300 lira.  Ghiberti’s doors (the real ones) hung a half a block from my pensione.  There was a Donatello down the street, and a dark sky full of golden stars in the same building.  At night we’d dance at Club Andromeda, or walk into Piazza della Repubblica and listen to a local band play “Volare” or “A Lighter Shade of Pale” at the outdoor cafe.  

A year after I left I went back with the idea of opening a Mexican restaurant.  It was a good idea.  My sister, her husband Gianni and I planned to serve enchiladas, tacos, chips and salsa to homesick Americans beneath pictures of Babe Ruth and Johnny Carson.  We figured Italians would like a good enchilada, too.

We never opened the restaurant.  But while I was in Florence that second time I got a German Shepherd puppy that I named Nadine.  When I left I gave her to my sister and her Italian husband.  I can still hear Gianni singing “Nadine!  Honey is that you?” with his Florentine accent. 

All of which I remembered instantly as I drove through Seattle last saturday evening playing a new CD by Milan’s The Boogie Ramblers.  



The album, called “Let it Rock,” features a number of Chuck Berry covers, including the title song, “Nadine,” and “Christmas,” but it doesn’t stop there.  The Boogie Ramblers do Fats Domino’s “My Girl Josephine” with a Zydeco feel.  Lead singer and guitarist Geno B. Goode sounds a bit like Bob Dylan when he sings the catchy “Dark Glasses.”  On the Ramblers’ lilting version of Chuck Berry’s “Come On” his gravelly voice reminds me of  Bruce Springsteen, and on the grittier “It’s My Own Business,” Dr. John.  These are good influences.  But there’s something else.  It’s an album of American music for sure, but one that reflects Italy’s own incredible musicality.  And that’s why I keep listening, dragging the cd back and forth between my car and the house.  This record is addictive.






Goode, (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Milan based music writer and musician Carmelo Genovese-- read all about Carmelo HERE) plays perfect Chuck Berry licks throughout the record.  Tito “Boy” Oliveto adds his sometimes wistful, sometimes blazing harmonica; Attilio Saini's strong bass lines are punctuated by drummer Maurizio Bevilacqua's interesting beats on songs like “Dark Glasses” and “Come On” (he sometimes loses the backbeat in favor of something more complex and vaguely latin.)  A bunch of guests add piano, guitar, sax, organ and banjo, giving the record a really full, enjoyable sound.  Tolo Marton and our own CB II give witness on the liner.  All in all, a fun record, perfect for a car stereo, perfect for summer.  

Fan Mail (An Old Post I'd Forgotten!)

Dear Mr. Berry:

I know you won’t read this.  That’s okay. I need to write it.

For the past 10 or 11 months (okay, 48 months?) I’ve had website devoted to you.  I started it more or less on a whim, and have drawn a line in the sand because I can’t keep it going forever.  But I figured I needed to sum things up a bit as I phase things down and out.

I suspect you would think it’s crazy for a person to devote so much time writing about you on the internet. And you’d probably be annoyed by any inaccuracies—and there must be lots of them. Certainly lots of speculation and opinion.

So why do it?

First of all, you’re an interesting subject. I can start with your music and end up almost anywhere. It’s like a river, a big, rich, muddy one, with tributaries and creeks going off in every direction. Lewis and Clark could have been lost for a lifetime if they’d explored this one.

And you’re important. Among American born I’d put you up there with just about anyone except two. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln are in a class of their own. You’re up there with just about everyone else I can think of.

You’re not a politician. (Not remotely.) But you helped accomplish political change. In that sense you were a bit like Rosa Parks. She and others helped destroy Jim Crow. So did you. You played music that literally broke down barriers. Literal barriers. Literal in the most littoral sense— a rope or balcony that divided kids and children by race. When you and your colleagues played the ropes fell. And like Rosa Parks’ efforts, it took courage—night after night sleeping God knows where, in cars, in boarding houses, in cheap hotels, on planes, heating beans on a hotplate far from your kids and family, driving all day, playing at night, and sometimes running from enraged crazies. I don’t think it’s crazy to compare you to Rosa Parks, or the thousands of citizens who boycotted busses or sat at lunch counters. You did it, too, in your own way, and we all owe you thanks for it.

But you had one thing Rosa Parks didn’t share.

You’re a great artist.

You might deny it. “I ain’t no big shit,” you’ve been quoted as saying. (You’d probably deny that, too. Your mother wouldn’t have approved of the diction!) But as an artist you’re up there with absolutely anyone.

It started, for you, with your voice. You sang a song at the high school talent show and it went over well. And your voice could have probably secured you some sort of musical career all by itself. There’s a clarity there that works.

I wouldn’t put you up there with my favorite singers based on your voice alone. I favor singers with a certain rasp and grit—Otis Redding, or Ray Charles, or on the blues side, Muddy Waters.

But you’ve got the perfect voice for your own music and your own songs—clear, light, and with a gift for spitting out syllables as fast as you write them. No mean feat. And unlike Otis Redding, you also play an instrument. Really well. (Otis probably played instruments, too—but you broke new ground with your guitar.)

The sound of your guitar is unique and instantly recognizable. You took bits and pieces from others and created something new that changed music as we know it. When I wrote the names Muddy Waters and B. B. King I probably didn’t do you any favors. Their styles also changed music. Every slide guitar player owes something to Muddy Waters, but Muddy Waters was channeling Robert Johnson. His real claim was electrifying an older style (and electrifying audiences with great performances and great records.) But you created something new— a sound that everyone who followed considered indispensible. B. B. King and Jimi Hendrix are the only two guitarists who have had such a direct impact on other guitar players. B.B. King’s style (like yours, rooted partly in T-Bone Walker) is almost as influential as your own. Every modern rock and roll guitarist owes a great deal to one or both of you. (Add Jimi to the list and it’s done.) But when it comes to the rock side of rock and roll, you really did lay down the law.

Lots of people think Chuck Berry guitar is simple guitar. I know better. I’ve tried to pick out some of those solos. You use lots of notes that are not part of the “blues scale,” and 80 percent of the time you harmonize that note with another, and then bend them both. It took me years to figure out the last few notes of the Johnny B. Goode intro. (I’m not gifted!) Plus, you can do it all upside down and backwards while doing splits or dancing along on one foot or holding the guitar on your shoulder!

But then come the songs. Dozens and dozens and dozens of them. Hundreds.

Every one of them is probably a good song. But then there are the great ones, three minute ditties that come as close to perfection as human beings are likely to get. (And the gall of it! Five or six years into your professional music career you tell Tchaikovsky news and then live up to the boast!)

It’s no wonder that “Johnny B. Goode” has been become such an icon, recorded by hundreds of different groups and individuals and played by hundreds of thousands of small time singers, guitarists and bands in millions of performances. It has everything—searing guitar, a great band, a perfect title (who would have thought to add an “e” to the end? To make “B.” an initial?), a timeless story with imagery that paints vivid, enduring pictures. The log cabin made of earth and wood. The gunny sacked guitar. The tree. The tracks. The name up there in lights. The mother. It’s pure and perfect poetry—the best all around rock and roll song ever recorded.

But wait—there’s more! “Nadine.” “Maybellene.” “School Day.” “Roll Over Beethoven.” “Bye Bye Johnny.” “No Money Down.” “Too Much Monkey Business.”

It just goes one and on—even into the later days, when you wrote and recorded songs like “Have Mercy Judge,” and “Oh Louisiana.” I know there are more. (I hope you put them out, soon.)

Beyond the songs and the performance you did a couple of other things that seem notable.

You fought for yourself as an artist. You fought for your own royalties. You made sure you were paid for your performances. You managed your own career. You insisted that every promoter provide the bare bones necessary for your to put on a Chuck Berry show: i.e., a few professional musicians, and a good amp.

I’ve heard various people criticize your insistence on being paid for work performed. Some of these same people probably earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per concert and have riders in their contracts insisting on strawberries dipped in chocolate, various champagnes and cognacs and leave most details of their professional lives to a legion of attorneys, agents and hangers on. You’ve seemingly done it all on your own.

And you’ve done it through thick and thin, when the records were selling, and when they weren’t, travelling alone, meeting up with the band a few minutes before show time, plugging in, and chugging away through your hits, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for several. I know they are putting up a stature of you in St. Louis, and I’m glad, but I’ve been thinking that another fitting memorial would be a list of every concert you’ve played etched in stone. There must be thousands up thousands of them. That list would be a tribute to something few of us are able to really see: the impossible hard work and hard travel, year after year, for decades. It would be something to see.

I was lucky to see you perform 10 times. Maybe I’ll get another chance someday. I saw you play in old auditoriums, an old Safeway store, an outdoor stadium, a fancy casino, an elegant theater, a rock and roll museum and, most recently, at Blueberry Hill.

Those Blueberry Hill shows are a great part of your legacy—a great, back to your roots gift to every fan who makes the pilgrimage. I hope I get there at least one more time.

I’ve had two chances to meet you. Once I was 15. The next time I was 52. I didn’t learn much in the interim. Both times I blurted out something silly.

Spending an hour at the computer doesn’t really help. There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said. But it still seems necessary, for my own good, to say it.

So thank you.

Thank you for the decades of hard work.

Thank you for doing your part to change this country and this world—delivering us from the days of old.

Thank you for all the shows and performances you’ve given us, and that you’re still giving to us long after most people retire.

Thank you for the lessons in musical history. (You’ve led me to dozens of wonderful musicians.)

Most of all, thank you for the music, and for your own great songs.

I know you sometimes joke with friends that you hope they live a hundred years and that you live forever.

Don’t worry.

You will.  The music is immortal.

 
Sincerely,
Peter O'Neil

(This old post pretty much says it all, although I said it much more verbosely in a book, set forth below!)

More from Doug: Chuck Berry at Knott's Berry Farm, 1984





I've made the point somewhere on this blog that I didn't like the 1982 performances-- one I saw live at Harrah's Lake Tahoe, and the very similar video at the Roxy.  But these-- GREAT!  My style!  They remind me of the Chuck Berry I first got to know in 1971.

Rollin' them bones till the foreman comes back...

I'm 57, pretty good at English, even wrote a "book," (which you can find and read below!)  But it sometimes amazes me what I don't know-- the things I let slip by for an entire lifetime.  For example, the phrase "rollin' them bones till the foreman got back."  All my life I have assumed it meant "resting."  I imagined the skeleton inside a sleeping person, loose, rolling this way and that.

I never looked it up.  I did puzzle over it.  Weren't they sitting in the song.  ("In the song, in the song, in the song!")

So today I watch the old video below and see Chuck act out his favorite song for the French audience, and when he sings "rollin' them bones" he rolls some imaginary dice, and I see and I understand for the first time.

You knew all along, didn't you?

You could have told me!

Anyway, here's Big Bill Broonzy doing a song Chuck probably heard as a teenager.

Chuck Berry at the Olympia, Paris, 1972

I'd seen parts of this, but not such a big chunk.  Grazie, Carmelo, per questo!

Born Under a Good Sign: Thomas Einarsson (I'd be Jealous if I had any Right to be!)

Some people just do it right.  On July 17, 2013, Chuck Berry will do yet another of his wonderful appearances at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis, and for the second time the show will be opened by the Swedish blues band Bad Sign-- a group that has also opened for Chuck Berry in Europe.  Bad Sign guitarist and singer Thomas Einarsson has made the pilgrimage to St. Louis even more often.  I saw him fill in for Chuck at a sound check in the fall of 2010, and last fall Einarsson was back to share the stage at Blueberry Hill with Chuck, the St. Louis band, and Guest star Johnny Rivers.  How's this for a scrapbook photo?  (Einarsson is second from the left.  Chuck is the one on the right with the giant smile.)



You showed up in St. Louis for the same two birthday shows that I saw last October. Tell us about your trip. Did you come specifically for those shows?

Jim Marsala told me last year that I could see three shows with Chuck during twelve days if I planned my trip right, but I could "only" make two shows. The Blueberry Hill and The Peagant (where I actually meet Themetta Berry, she is a very charming, nice lady, very much like Ingrid). My trip was very good. As always I feel very comfortable with the American hospitality. My friends are caring and taking their time with me and we usually go to see different gigs and happenings, but mostly we go guitar hunting.

I saw you at the sound check doing some wonderful Chuck Berry riffs with the St. Louis band. Tell us about your experience with those guys.

I have met Keith and Bob a couple of times at Blueberry Hill, and have had the pleasure to help them doing sound checks. They have a level of musicianship that you couldn´t ask for more.

They are brilliant and open minded and catch every curved fastball that Chuck Berry throws at them.

Charles "Butch" Berry, on the other hand has developed so much skills in guitar playing in short time it is just stunning me. Imagine that he started up playing at age of 38.   As I have learned he is a monster on knowing facts about almost everything. And he is a GREAT fellow and a great, supportive friend.

Jim Marsala is the bandleader and a good friend of mine. I consider him as one of the most important sidemen in Rock & Roll business of all time. He has always taken his time with all Chuck´s fans, and has a heart of gold.

Did you visit any other music shrines during your trips? Did you get to sit in anywhere?

I have seen some local St. Louis musicians around the “Soulard” area and was very impressed, but I have never sat in, but witnessed Jim Marsala sit in a couple of times, just for the fun of it.

Your band Bad Sign played at Blueberry Hill a few years ago. How did that happen, and what was it like for you guys?


My band Bad Sign started up in 1989 with some blues, some country, and-- you guessed it-- some Chuck Berry!! We are more into funky blues now but we are still in the same bag with some good old rock and roll. We finished a CD rcording in 2006 where we did let many of our musician friends appear, for example our music teacher, Inge Palm is laying some tenor saxophone fills.

But most important is that Jim Marsala appears on one track of the Bad Sign´s recording,

He told Joe Edwards about us, and Butch supported the idea of bringing us to play. In June 2009 Joe Edwards did let Bad Sign perform as a support act for Chuck Berry. That was an hilarious experience.

I asked Butch to introduce us because I was afraid that no one would care if we played. Just seconds before show time I told my guitarist from the very beginning, Mikael- "now we are very far from your parents chicken house", were we started rehearsals some 20 years ago. Of course I was wrong-- the enthusiastic St.Louis crowd carried us through the whole set !

I recently saw a picture of you doing a sound check in Europe with Chuck’s wine red Gibson. Tell us about that experience. How did it happen? How’d you like the guitar?

My helping hand with sound checks started with a backstage appearance in Hamburg 2006 when they needed someone to crank up Chuck Berry´s guitar and play something. And I volunteered.

To be trusted playing a guitar owned by Chuck Berry is such a great thing. This is the Holy Grail. I remember I held it as hard as possible, scared of dropping it. That guitar is very light and worn, but comfortable and has some great action, and through two sets of Fender Dual Showman amps, it can blow ANYTHING of stage.A Gibson 355 just cant sound any better through any other amp- believe me, and -Chuck has known it since the 60´s.

That might be why he argued with Keith Richards in the movie about it, during the rehearsals. (“Dont touch my amp....”)

Thomas, second from left, holding "grail" at sound check in Denmark.
Photo by Peter K.



Have you ever shared the stage with Chuck? Helped to back him at a show?

I have never played on stage with Chuck, but I have shared stage with him once in Stockholm in 1989, taking pictures (without permission) during a show. The security caught me and lifted me up and wanted to throw me in the sea, which is just behind the stage. When they sat me down, I ran like hell, cared about my camera, and I got away with it, and got some good pics on the back of the pianoplayer and Chuck too. HA !  (Editor's note: he has now!)

Do you have any favorite Chuck Berry moments—shows or portions of shows that stand out for you?

One of the moments that I think is most powerful about a Chuck Berry show is just before and when he hits the stage. I always feel the presence of something magic, and it still makes my few hairs stand and gives me goose bumps, too.

Once in Bognor Regis, England in 1994 I was sitting at the same seat two nights on a row. At the second night Chuck Berry noticed it, and asked me about it from the stage !!! FUN !


The most memorable moments I have ever witnessed was when two soul mates played together-Chuck and Johnnie Johnson ! Them together was beyond magic, at Blueberry Hill in 1999. I heard them play their hearts out. I met Johnnie after the show and he remembered me from years back in Sweden ! I still miss Johnnie a lot.

During the Scandinavian Tour in 1989 Johan Hasselberg and I followed Chuck Berry.  The promoter in Gotland didn´t have money enough to receive the promoting posters for the gig.  Johan and I did what we could and entered the local radio station to try to push the listeners a little to go buy tickets. The radiohost tried to make an angle about me and Johan following our hero during the tour, but as a radio reporter and journalist, Johan took over the show and of course put Chuck Berry and his music in focus, not us.

When Johan and I arrived at the afternoon at the arena, Kneipbyn and the promotor didn´t show up. He had a hard time bringing the money to Chuck Berry´s fee and even rented an aeroplane flying around with a banner saying Chuck Berry tonight.

It was a very hot day and the tour manager J├Ârgen Wiking, Johan Hasselberg and I were soaked in sweat. The bass player of the gig was Peter Jezewski, a very good singer and player of a famous Swedish Doo Wop band, The Boppers. He had listened closely to Chuck´s original recordings and was self confident until I told him to forget them. That’s when he started to sweat too. Then I showed him a little paper that I brought with the songs Chuck Berry used during the period of 1987-88 and the tempo, keys, but most important- how to play like Jim Marsala !!

Chuck Berry wanted to quit the tour without any money (understandable) and go home and things began to get very complicated for everyone. The promoter had to trade his very nice house to Chuck Berry and then he went bankrupt.

There were 800 people in the crowd, and a charming, house-owning Chuck Berry started out with Roll Over Beethoven and at the fist bars the nevous bass player played like the original recordings. Chuck immediately stared at him and showed him what he wanted -The Jim Marsala Beat !!

Of course Peter picked it up real fast and got a nice comment from Chuck-You got a fast eye !!


Can you put in words what it is about Chuck Berry that stirs you?

My passion for music starts with Rock & Roll and ends with Chuck Berry.  He is my greatest music inspiration. I studied all his live stuff since I was ten and learned a lot when I started playing guitar in my teens. I was a Chuck Berry nerd, I realized that when my older sister could remember and sing Chuck Berry´s lyrics better than me....

Chuck has fans all over, but I’d swear he has more per capita in Sweden than just about anywhere else. What’s going on there?

The Swedish people love everything of America. From the fifties we picked up the good life of having a nice car to cruise with. That created a new teenage culture named "raggare"=cruisers.

They also picked up the American music of the fifties listening to Radio Luxemburg during the nights. The Swedish radio then was monopoly, strict deciding what people should hear, and was far away from letting rock & roll go. Not very many people in Sweden did know of Chuck Berry in the fifties, Elvis Presley was well known, having good distribution, but in the late fifties/early sixties some Chuck Berry recordings found their way, and at that time NOTHING could be more cool than having a guitar and playing some rock & roll.The young people of Sweden found their favorites in Elvis, Jerry Lee, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino but the guy with all the fast songs and a guitar sounding like a ringing a bell was the MAN !

In the sixties almost every guy wanted to have a guitar, playing in the front of a band in Sweden.  Some learned his stuff from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, but many searched for the roots and there he was, the man who started it all, everyone's hero- the MIGHTY CHUCK BERRY, doing it so much better than his followers.

The Swedish press has always been rough on Chuck. (90 percent of the reporters are lousy musicians who can’t understand why people don´t love to hear them!) That makes Chuck Berry even bigger in the people’s eyes and he´s always been popular among his loyal fans. Especially among musicians and US.car lovers-- and they are many.

If you had a single topic you could talk to Chuck Berry about for a time, what would it be?

If I could talk about anything with Chuck Berry I think it would be his inspirations in music. The guy is so smart and multitalented and picked up so much in short time it is almost unbelievable. To this day he is wise and sharp as an knife, (and still can teach a promoter how to keep a contract....).