Friday, June 28, 2013

Chapter 6 - Daddy

It’s the summer of 2010. I call an archivist for the city of Sacramento. A manager at the Sacramento Convention Center has told me “She knows everything.” I tell her that I’m researching a Chuck Berry show at the Memorial Auditorium that I’d attended as a teenager. I think it happened in 1971. Can she find the date? She promises to look and get back to me. The next day I get an e-mail:

Dear Peter:

I did find that Chuck Berry played Memorial Auditorium on February 13, 1971. Also on November 24th 1971 there was a “50s Rock & Roll Revival” but the listing doesn’t mention who played. I can also tell you that 800 people attended the Berry concert and over 4,000 attended the rock & roll revival.
I attended both of those shows. The Rock & Roll Revival show was a roaring success, with a full house and at least a half a dozen acts. Chuck Berry ended it with a short, victorious set that topped even his friend Bo Diddley. But it is that first show, on February 13, 1971, that has always haunted me. Now, forty years after the fact, I make a startling connection.

I have always known that Chuck Berry is a father figure to me—albeit an odd one, and as different from my own father as could be. My father was born in 1901, 25 years before Berry. He was 55 when I was born. When I first saw Chuck Berry, my father was 70 and doing poorly. Chuck—the “father of rock ‘n’ roll”—was a mere 45.

The only song I ever heard my dad sing was a seafarer’s song called “Down Among the Dead Men,” which he sang in a descending bass that sounded like a fog horn as the seaman’s body sank “down, down, down, down—down among the dead men.” (It’s hard now not to hear a certain resemblance to “Downbound Train,” a traditional pub song that Chuck Berry covered and took as his own.) My dad was no longer thin by the time I knew him, his belly swollen by rib-eye steaks and whiskey. And where Chuck Berry, a non-drinker, was always sober, my dad rarely was.

I was the youngest of his children. When I was little he was, of course, my hero, and a worthy one—a nice, nice man, funny, a former athlete who knew a host of famous and not-so-famous ex- ball players. (They used to come to our house on his birthday and get drunk. We tended to leave.) He was well known in his home town Sacramento. When he was young someone sent a letter to him from across the state. Instead of an address, the sender glued a picture of my dad to the front of the envelope over the word “Sacramento.” He got the letter.

He had so many friends he couldn’t remember them all. I remember when some happy guy accosted him after church. My dad talked and joked and slapped his back for several minutes. As we walked away he asked my mom “Who was that guy?”

When I was small he still had his own business, installing lawns and selling grass and garden supplies near the highway. By then it was more of a hobby than anything else, or maybe a place to drink without interruption. Sometimes he took me along. There were huge piles of black peat, top soil and rice hulls. Rice hulls are the hard, paper light sleeves that wrap a grain of rice while it’s growing. My dad would add them to soil as a sort of mulch. They were slippery, and fun to sink into. There were still nice moments. I remember that we occasionally walked next door to the Shell station for a Bireley’s Orange.

At work, and most of the time until he finally retired, my dad wore white t-shirts and khaki work pants. When he retired he switched to polo shirts, slacks and cardigans.

Once, when I was six or seven, my dad stopped his pickup while backing out the driveway, and watched my mom wave goodbye to us with a happy smile.

“Pete, your mom is the most beautiful woman in the world,” he told me.

“No,” I told him. “The Virgin Mary is the most beautiful.” I clearly needed a rock and roller in my life, but daddy laughed and said I was probably right.

Within a year he was sharing a bedroom with me. I don’t know if that move represented a rough form of family planning or if it was motivated by his collapse into alcohol. Probably both. I remember in the bedroom we briefly shared watching him open a high cupboard. His back was to me. There was the “kssk-kssk-kssk” of a screw cap. He leaned back to swallow, then turned to smile and wipe his lips. I didn’t know it was odd to keep whisky in a bedroom closet, but I was learning.

Even in those early days he wasn’t always kind. He attended my first little league game and stood, glaring, hands in pockets, a few yards to my left as I played right field—a position he called “Left Out.” He barked some instructions, and then left. He never came back.

But I felt loved and cared for by him until the eve of my ninth birthday, when understanding hit like a freight train. We were moving. It was a considerable upgrade, from a small, stucco flat top to a split level rambler with a swimming pool. Our upward mobility was financed primarily by my mother’s real estate acumen. She had an eye for cheap lots that later sold at a profit.

For some reason my dad, my sister Ann and I were going to inaugurate the new house by spending a night there before everyone else. The rest of the family would move in the next day.

The house had two distinct sections. The main house, up front, was older, with plasterboard walls. The back wing, where I lived, was new, modern, and dark, with the dark wood paneling that would later frighten me, and dark, cork floors. That night we entered the house through a long, dark hallway in this newer section. My dad was startled by a sudden dip in the hallway floor. He dropped a bottle, which shattered into a thousand dangerous pieces.

That’s when childhood shattered. My father was suddenly an angry bully. He made me clean up the mess while he berated me. (For not cleaning fast enough? Cheerfully enough?) I remember the sour smell of the bourbon, the shards of glass, and my own irritation. I was angrier than he was. I talked back to him for the first time. “It’s not my fault! I didn’t break it!” Daddy stood over me, barking instructions. It was the man from the right field sidelines, fully engaged by his loss and trying to figure out how and when he’d sneak out to get more.

In the rest of our short time together—five more years—Daddy’s disintegration continued. He wasn’t usually mean but sometimes drinking made him that way. He mocked our weakness when my mother and a few of us kids struggled to pull him off the floor where he lay bleeding. I remember changing his wet underpants as he sat uselessly on the edge of his bed and drunkenly thanked me. One day he appeared in a doorway and, listing just a bit, told my sister Ann and me with a big, wry smile, that he was “a pioneer” and spoke “In’ian talk.” He kept it up for a week. We don’t know why.

Ambulances came to the house three or four times during his last years. Once, a priest performed the last rights. There was weeping until, like Lazarus, he woke on the gurney then charmed the attendants as they wheeled him out the door.

I was at the Orangevale house when the call finally came. It was my brother Paul. He’d rushed off that morning after a call from the hospital.

I’d seen Daddy the previous day. He was happy. He thought the hospital was a cruise ship. I remember him tugging at his sheets with stiff fingers as he told us about his journey.

“Is he okay?” I asked Paul. I remember almost smiling. Daddy had risen from the dead so many times we came to expect it.

The phone was quiet then Paul answered, “Peter, he died.”

Paul asked me not to share the news until he got home. I knew I couldn’t face anyone. I went outside into a small pasture where no one could see me cry.

I didn’t know until the archivist sent her e-mail that my father died just weeks after my first Chuck Berry show, at that time when I was immersed and lost inside Chuck Berry’s “The Golden Decade.”

No wonder.

And no wonder I grabbed on so hard.

(If you'd like to read the whole book, here's a link to Chapter One.)


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Chapter 8 - My Very Own (Imaginary) Berry Park

I’m fifteen or sixteen. I’ve got a spiral bound notebook and a ball point pen. I fill a page with a large square. At the bottom is a straight country road. I plant trees and shrubs along the road. Like Gretta Garbo in Grand Hotel I want to be alone. 

I draw a long, curving drive from the road to a small house. The house is surrounded by more trees. There is room inside for me and the mystery woman who will accompany me in life. I don’t draw it but there is a room with guitars, drums, a keyboard and a four track reel to reel tape recorder. I have vague plans for a one man band that will use cheap amps and instruments to produce low fidelity sound. Out back is a small wooden structure with a roof that rolls off onto raised wooden tracks. Inside that shed is a large telescope bolted to a concrete pier. I draw rows of garden crops. We are self sufficient. I put a gate on the access road. We are safe. But while the goal is a sort of protected solitude, I’m frightened enough of the country and the pickups that hurtle past on that dark road that I draw outlying cottages for close friends and family. I give each its own gravel road. The only rent is to protect me. 

Though I don’t yet know it, I have designed my very own Berry Park.

Early on I developed the ability to draw a line between myself and the unhappiness that surrounded me. I still have it, though with age and responsibility the line has deteriorated. I’m no longer able to insulate myself so thoroughly—especially when it’s something that involves my children or my granddaughter. But as a kid I learned to protect myself even if it meant losing myself in an estate imagined on 8 ½ by 11 inch lined paper. 

I recall at age 12 training some classmate to do my paper route. He was going to be my substitute. I’m not sure how or why he got the job—he wasn’t my friend. We didn’t hang out together. We hardly spoke. He was a chubby, pushy guy, with an awful mom, who wound up taking almost all my profits for one day of work each week. I remember his sour faced mother pushing him to my front door at the end of the month and forcing me to hand over just about every penny I’d collected. (My problem was that customers didn’t pay me. I paid my substitute and my distributor, delivered the papers, and at the end of the month the customers hid, sipping desperate gin behind shut doors.) Anyway, one morning at 5 am this unpleasant kid and I were on the front porch folding papers. It was still dark. We were going to strap canvas bags of newspapers to our bikes and ride around the neighborhood and deliver them as gifts to evil deadbeats. Suddenly the front door opened, and there was my dad, in sagging underpants and a t-shirt, swaying, bleary, still drunk enough from the night before to burp and slur his words. 

“Wha tchou doing?” 

I saw the kid look, bewildered, but with growing understanding, at my dad, drunk at 5 am. His eyes swelled with enlightenment. “O’Neil’s dad is a drunk!” I knew instantly that he’d share this vignette at school with whoever it was that he hung with. 

There weren’t many such instances. I made sure of it. Once I asked a friend named Kevin to spend the night. I’d never done such a thing. It was night and we were in my room when I began to hear howling and craziness migrate through the house. Kevin was Irish and probably had a life similar to mine. He became very excited. His eyes lit up. He became hyper. He wanted to see what was happening. I knew all too well what was happening: my kindly old dad was drunk and berserk. I could hear the house erupt in a battle to get him back into his room. Kevin became diabolical. “What’s going on?” he asked, again and again, with a manic grin. He was ready to pop like a party favor. My mom and sister came to my door and told Kevin and me to stay put. I remember my mom’s worried face. I suspect my own expression was the same. My father bellowed and howled. There was banging and thunder all over the big house. 

That was my last sleepover.

I didn’t bring people home unless they were very good friends— a pattern that stuck even after I’d grown. I’ve never had much use for acquaintances. I don’t ask coworkers to lunch. I rarely go drinking with the boys. I don’t even know the boys. I’m quite satisfied with family and a few close friends, even if the friends are far away.

Even my hobbies and interests are solitary.

I’m writing, for example. I like to read, write, and listen to music. I jog long distances, alone. I hit golf balls at the range, and might enjoy golf, but hate foursomes. I even make music alone, playing two or three guitar parts, and adding drums, bass, keyboards and a droning vocal. 

It was the same as a kid. One of my hobbies was stargazing. It still is. You can’t get more alone than to sit under the night sky with a companion that is a hundred million light years away. That is being alone. As a young teenager, I’d lay outside nights with a tiny telescope and a star map. The skies were still dark in those days, and my little scope, purchased for $10 at a big discount shop, could show me the rings of Saturn, the Orion Nebula, and the cratered surface of the moon. I even found Uranus once—a tiny, cold blur that I marked in my atlas of the stars. The Milky Way still glimmered faintly in our sky then, and the immensity of it all thrilled me. 

I inherited my interest in telescopes from my seventh grade friend Peter F., one of the rare kids I really allowed into my life. He knew my secrets and I knew his—(chiefly that we stole half a dozen packs of his dad’s Tareytons and smoked them in a “fort” that we dug behind his house.) We could laugh at our problems, even my dad and his drinking. We could make the skeleton in my closet dance a bit for our amusement. 

Peter was a natural engineer. We built mock spacecraft together. He taught me about Estes model rockets. He showed me catalogs from a company called Edmunds Scientific, filled with telescopes, telescope kits, and parts. Edmunds sold a three inch reflector for about $30, and a six inch mirror kit for about $13. I chose the latter and spent several months gamely trying to grind a telescope mirror using instructions from The Standard Handbook for Telescope Making, by Howard Neale, and Star Gazing with Telescope and Camera, by George T. Keene. The unfinished mirror is still in my closet. But in middle age I found the $30 reflector in mint condition at a flea market for $15, and just recently I purchased and built an Estes model rocket with my six year old, Rafferty. Thank you, Peter. 

I played drums. After I’d learned some basics on Stevo’s set, my former brother in law, Rich, gave me a set of sparkling red Kents. Later I bought a set of used Ludwigs painted black. I wasn’t Stevo, but I could keep a few beats and do some simple fills. Although I participated in a band, of sorts, most of my drumming was done solo, to records.

I stopped playing when I went away to college but I kept the Ludwigs and resurrected them recently. The drums are now “vintage” and somewhat valuable.

My mom loaned me her old Argus 35 millimeter camera and I roamed our property shooting pictures. I still have the negatives. When she saw I was using her camera she bought me a darkroom kit that I set up in my closet. I made prints of our goat, our house, and bits and pieces of my room. A sign that said “Income Tax.” Hand puppets that my sister Ann had made. A pair of overalls blowing in the wind. A tiny bottle of some product called “Death to Moles.” For a time I bought photography magazines and studied not only the artistically nude women and the Ansel Adams photographs, but also the black and white ads in the back crammed with deals for cameras from Germany and Japan sold in shops on 42nd Street in New York City. I sent for a $33 German Exa IIA single reflex that I could focus and adjust. (I still have a postcard from 42nd Street informing me that my camera had been shipped.) My pictures improved just slightly. Eventually the camera broke and the enlarger was retired, but I still have both, and the pictures, too. I hang on to important things.

I hung out in the non-fiction part of the library and scoured shelves for anything that interested me. I liked science and practical things. For a few days or weeks I read all about pigeons and dreamed of building a coop. I read books on astronomy. I’d become interested in some weird topic like horse-shoeing, or rabbits, or gold-panning, and try to learn how to do it. (I suspect you can’t actually learn horse-shoeing from a book.) I read Helen and Scott Nearing’s “Living the Good Life” about a New England couple who built their own home, and “Living on the Earth,” by Alicia Bay Laurel, about imaginary hippy skills—how to live in flimsy shelter without clothing. It seemed appealing, in part because there were pen drawings of pretty naked women, arms outstretched beneath the sun. I wanted to live among them. I see now that much of the knowledge I sought focused on self-sufficiency and freedom. I loved “Summerhill,” a book about a free school in Leeds, England, where the children had an equal vote. I wanted to go there, but instead I got Peach Tree, a school just as good, maybe better, run by an African American woman who wanted a decent school for her own children during turbulent times. It was no “free school.” Mrs. Brunberg was strict but loving. She let you argue. She didn’t let you win, but she allowed you to. Our teachers were young and smart. The kids were a collection of delinquents and misfits who quickly became family. We did cool things. In one class we built a big raft of plywood, two by fours and styrofoam and floated it overnight down the Sacramento river. We made movies. We protested at Dow Chemical. We saw Ralph Nader when he was still a hero. 

Our art teacher once assigned us the project of writing our “philosophy of life.” I wrote about what I called “Some necessities”: 

“a Steinway piano, or any spinet or grand piano; a record player of extremely high quality; three or more acres of land; a four track tape recorder; my drums, my Silvertone to be; my Teisco to be; my gorilla; a typewriter; interesting books with pictures; an eight inch telescope; a small basketball court; four cars of varying prices ($62-$22,000); and of course, the girl or woman of my dreams (depending on how long it takes to get my wishes).”

It’s funny how close it is to what I now have. I have my drums. I have several guitars. (They are not Silvertones or Teiscos, but they are equally unique.) I own a four track recorder but don’t use it. Technology has changed. I use a computer. But I have a good telescope, plenty of books, a $20,000 car (they ain’t what they used to be), and the woman of my dreams. All that’s missing is the acreage, which I still covet. 

The desire for rural privacy stems from the place we lived when I was a teenager. When my father’s drinking got too crazy my mother, my sister Ann and I moved to the outskirts of Sacramento, a part of town that almost qualified as country. There were trucks and cowboy hats and threats of violence. Low rolling hills climbed past Folsom Prison towards the Gold Country. There were a couple of small sad shopping centers and drive-ins between empty lots of wild oat grass and powdery brown dirt. People there talked like “Okies,” and after a while, so did I. 

Our house was magic—a yellow Victorian on two and a half acres divided into small pastures. There was a lot to explore and photograph. We had a dark tool shed, painted brick red, and a small red barn where we kept two goats. Everything was old and a bit funky and exactly what I wanted after five years in a posh, suburban home where the vacuum system was built into the walls and floor, a sprinkler system was built into the lawn and terror seemed to bleed from the woodwork. I needed old paint and country. A Singer automobile rusted on blocks on the western side of the property, and to the east there was a forest of bamboo. Huge trees hung over us, including a cork oak, a magnolia, and lots of elms and maples. There were olive trees, too— enough that a neighbor gave us a gallon jar of them in exchange for the rest of the harvest; and grapes that crept up the side of the house from an old fashioned arbor. (Once my mother and I used them to make wine, but my brother drank it and replaced it with colored water.) The yard was lush and grassy, with beds of violets around the edges. Out front, a long gravel driveway led to the main road and the back end of a great Mexican restaurant. Our white goat would sometimes wander back from the restaurant with an orange face after getting into the garbage cans. 

So there I was open, curious, living a little out of the mainstream, increasingly fatherless, insulating myself more and more from what ailed me, and I found this wandering rocker with slicked back hair and a red guitar, a man who could do incredible splits and dance moves and who made me laugh. 

Some part of his appeal was probably genetic or accidental—a predilection for certain sounds, rhythms and rhyme. Maybe, deep in my bones, I needed the vibration of an old Gibson guitar cranked hard through the tubes and speakers of a huge Fender amplifier, or songs about “Milo Venus” and “Nadine.” But that can’t be all of it. 

Maybe it was just timing— that simple twist of fate leading me to the exactly right thing on the right day. There’s a moment in life when we are ready to be swept away by whatever we really see or hear, and it behooves us that day to find something real. I got lucky. 

Maybe it was the recognition of some real aspects of his personality. It didn’t escape me that he was described, in his private life, as something of a “loner” who shut out people and amused and insulated himself with a large piece of property. It didn’t escape me that he was self sufficient and managed his own businesses. Nor did it escape me that he was fit and sober, unlikely to die at an early age.

And maybe there was some real connection that runs deeper than my small mind can imagine. 

In 1973, I learn from an old snapshot on the inside cover of a record called “Bio” that Chuck Berry used a darkroom as a kid. In the picture he is standing, leaning against a counter where we see trays of developer and stopper. He’s probably 12. His head is bowed as he studies something in his hands. A portrait of Abraham Lincoln, out of focus, gazes upon him. Because I have a darkroom of my own I can practically smell the chemicals. I know the magic of watching an image that I created appear in the dark bath of developing solution.

Then, when I am much older, I see another photograph of the pre-teen Chuck, this time using a telescope. It thrills me beyond imagination. It’s my hobby! The snapshot is probably taken the same year as the darkroom picture, but this time Chuck is full of energy and dressed to the hilt in coat, tie, and two-toned leather shoes. He’s got a cap on—either a beanie, or a baseball cap, backwards. The telescope’s spindly wooden tripod is on gravel, and behind Chuck are four or five parallel lines or lanes. At first I think he is at a running track. It takes a while for me to decipher that he is on a rooftop, and that the lines are created by sheets of tar paper tacked to a sloping roof. 

The photograph is taken in broad daylight, and I first assume he’s just posing with a new toy. But I notice the shadows are all behind little Chuck. This means he’s pointing his telescope at the sun. I realize that front lens of his telescope—which I had thought was some tiny, prehistoric lens— is covered by a solar filter to protect his eyes from the blinding rays of magnified sunlight! Chuck Berry is using his telescope to observe the Sun— an act that probably puts him in the top five percent of telescope owners. I wonder if, perhaps, he is observing an eclipse. I e-mail Peter K., the Chuck Berry fan in Sweden who sent me the picture and who, I have learned, is good at internet sleuthing. Peter K. shares my obsession with Chuck Berry and also my interest in astronomy. I offer my theory. Within minutes Peter K. sends me details of two solar eclipses that passed through St. Louis when Chuck was a youngster—one when he was 12. 

So I am reasonably confident that Chuck Berry once shared my geeky interest in stargazing, and did it at a level that raised him above the typical department store telescope owner. 

In that moment I feel an almost magical connection.

Maybe if 12 year old me had met 12 year old Charles on that rooftop, in a world untouched by reality, or by Jim Crow, my imaginary friend could have been my real friend!

Ah but that’s imagination again.

(This is part of a book length piece about my lifelong fascination with Chuck Berry.  You can find every chapter on this blog!  Read it!  Only free book this side of your local library.  Almost.)


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Chapter 10 - Family

The melancholy of Chuck Berry is hard wired—as much a part of his personality as the humor. He’s often at his best when he is most nostalgic, as in “Wee Wee Hours,” “Memphis,” or “Oh Louisiana.” Sometimes it’s a sweet melancholy— “Time Was,” or “Oh Baby Doll.” It’s rarely the hard blues of Muddy Waters. His deepest feeling is the dull ache of faded memory, of loss, of aloneness. “In a wee little room, I sit alone and think of you,” he sighs in “Wee Wee Hours.” Or watch him sing “Cottage for Sale” or “I’m through with Love” in the film Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. He is on the floor, leaning back, eyes half closed, strumming slow, simple chords, and yet it’s the emotional highpoint of a film about a “rock and roller.” This is Chuck Berry’s real blues, the blues he feels at his core. It is why, despite his own protests, or Stevo’s musings, he really is a bluesman, and a great one.

Imagine the hours, days, and weeks he has spent alone, in hotels, on planes, backstage, in wee little rooms or big ones; the separation from his family and home; the forced isolation caused by a society that jailed him unjustly at the peak of his career; the self-inflicted injuries caused by his own bad choices. When I have seen him onstage with his daughter Ingrid, or son Charles, or his grandson, or backstage with his wife, it is obvious how much family means to him— but how much time with them did he lose or throw away?

Then again, is there a single Chuck Berry song that takes ownership of any part of that loss? It is always the other party’s fault. “Her mom did not agree, and tore apart our happy home.” “You ain’t done nothing, darlin’, but ruin a happy home.” “She put me in shame and in sorrow.” Is there an apology anywhere?

Maybe one. “I stayed away from you too long,” he sings in “Oh, Louisiana.” If there is a single regret that rises from his astounding career, I’m betting it’s that.

Family has always been a part of it.

He wrote “Roll Over Beethoven” in part because of the struggle for time at the family piano bench. His older sister Lucy played classical and got first dibs. Chuck wanted time at the keyboard to learn boogie-woogie. It was a musical family. Another sister, Martha, sang on some of his early 1960s recordings.

Or think of the families in his songs: Johnny’s mother, spending everything she could earn or borrow on Johnny’s future, then waiting anxiously by the kitchen door for his return; Little Marie’s father living, presumably, at his uncle’s place, missing his daughter and family; Sweet Little Sixteen’s pushover mommy and dad; Henry Ford’s junior, who asks his dad for a competitor’s car.

When I first saw Chuck Berry, he made a point of including everyone in the crowd as family, walking back and forth across the stage, eyes wide, head twisting this way and that, feigning surprise as we chanted “Go! Johnny, Go!”

“Sing it, children!” he’d say, marveling like a proud dad. “Just look at you! All my children! All my beautiful rock and roll children!”

Nowadays he usually shows up on stage with his son Charles and his daughter Ingrid at his side, and sometimes even grandson Charles III, who plays guitar. Out front some of his “rock and roll children” hobble in on walkers, because hey— Sweet Little Sixteen is sweet little old 70 something these days! But remarkably, there are usually lots of young people in the crowd, too, because Sweet Little Sixteen will always be 16, and Little Queenie will never be more than an interesting year older.

An early instrumental was called “Ingo,” presumably after his daughter Darlin’ Ingrid Berry Clay. It bops and bounces along like a happy little girl.  Ingrid is a regular part of her father’s shows in St. Louis, blowing harp and singing blues and harmony. She started early. When she was still a little girl she walked onto the stage at the Apollo Theater in Baltimore, Maryland (not to be confused with the better known Apollo in Harlem). “Mother was holding me pretty tight so Alan Freed intervened and said ‘Oh, let her go,’ you know. I was shaking and shimmering, trying to get away from Mamma, and I broke loose and ran on out there and first thing that struck me were the lights, the people in the audience, the musicians,” Ingrid told an interviewer for a St. Louis oral history project. “The first thing I did was just stand there for about a few seconds and then I had this little guitar that Dad bought—a little toy guitar and I just strummed it and went across. And that was the first time too, that I ever did the "duck walk," which Dad has in his show.”

She didn’t stop at the Apollo. Ingrid helped with vocals on some of his Mercury recordings, and then on the 1975 album “Chuck Berry,” where she harmonized on a couple of numbers including Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do.”

There’s evidently an unreleased song about Ingrid—one I haven’t heard. The New Yorker reported in 2006 that Berry had written a song called “Darlin’.”

Darlin', your father's growing older, I fear;
Strains of gray are showing bolder each year.
Lay your head upon my shoulder, my dear:
Time is fading fast away.

It’s part of a mountain of unreleased material that Berry has recorded since 1980, some of it probably bad, some reputedly wonderful.

Though Ingrid has been a regular part of her father’s shows and tours since the mid-1970s, I didn’t see her live until 2010. She is over 60 now and has matured into a powerful harmonica player and blues singer but obviously remains her father’s little girl. I have a snapshot, taken in early 2012, where she stands beaming, hands clasped in delight or prayer, while her 85 year old father bunny hops across stage with his guitar.

In the same shot is Charles, Jr., the very accessible moderator on Chuck Berry’s website and social networking pages, where he calls himself CBII. (He has also used the clever screen name “Son of Rock and Roll,” a bit of wordplay worthy of the lineage). In the photo Charles’ smile is proud and amused. He shares the enthusiasm of fans, and offers amazing tidbits of history. My favorites have been his descriptions of the wine red Gibson that Chuck Berry has played for the last 35 years or so. The guitar is scratched, busted, with missing knobs and other parts tossed as useless. A funky steel bracket is screwed to the front, evidently to accommodate a thumb when the guitar is played on a shoulder or behind the back. A strip of yellow tape has cut across the butt of the guitar for several years now, holding the strap in position. It reminds me, in many respects, of Big Joe William’s nine string guitar, with all of its added hardware. Despite this cosmetic charm, Charles, Jr., who appears to love cars and guitars as much as his father, says it’s a powerhouse, and one of the best his father has played. At a 2012 show at a casino in Alton, Illinois, Chuck told the audience “I love this guitar. It’s scratched and raggedy, but it’s really good!” He’s not the only one who loves it. A picture that Swedish fan Peter K. took of that guitar backstage draws more people to my blog than almost any other single thing. In Peter’s photograph the guitar sits casually next to snacks and drinks. Another Swedish fan, Thomas, calls Chuck’s old guitar “the Holy Grail.” Thomas has actually held it and played it—an honor. There’s a video on YouTube of Charles, Jr. playing the guitar during a sound check in France. With the old Gibson in hand, the genetic link between father and son becomes audible as Charles plays chords that would make me jerk with recognition from halfway down the street. That guitar is family, too.

Charles seems determined to protect his father on stage, and to protect his father’s legacy off stage. I occasionally see him pop up on the internet to comment on his dad or his dad’s equipment. Usually he’s fan-friendly and polite, but I saw him sharply rebuke some anonymous commenter who called Chuck Berry a “jerk-off” on a list serve. Poor fool didn’t see it coming— didn’t know the “son of rock and roll” would read his rude post about the father of same.

There are less public children. One daughter seemed to give her name to Chuck Berry’s music publishing company. Another—a health care administrator— showed up in the news talking about Obamacare. All of the kids seem intent on protecting their dad. A Berry family friend once told me that “gate-keeping” within the family is formidable. When Charles, Jr. was remembering bits and pieces of his past on Facebook, one sister appeared with the gentlest comment—Charles’ nickname, followed by three dots. I can’t know it, but I got the impression she was reminding him that discretion is a Berry family value.

Family is everywhere in his songs, but also, touchingly, in the movie Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, when Chuck and his sister sit with their father and tell stories. There’s one about “Daddy” losing his eyesight as a child but regaining it when “they pierced his ears.” Charles and Ingrid sound just as adoring in a BBC interview when they talk about how Chuck still mows his own lawn, and occasionally makes “crop circles.” “I think they’re beautiful!” says Ingrid.

When I see Chuck Berry now, 15 years older than my dad ever got, surrounded by his children and grandchildren, I realize that it was not such a bad choice for a desperate 14 year old to make, searching for someone to symbolically take the place of a dad who was slipping away. And as I’ve grown older the bond I felt as a kid grew even stronger. Here was a “dad” I could watch grow old. When he first started showing his age, at about 55 or 60, I didn’t like it. I wanted the young guy back. But now that he’s elderly and I am showing my own age it gives me great comfort to have him around. I go to see him now and then. I sit or stand up close. I bring small gifts in case there is a “meet and greet” after the show.

I love him.

As for my real father— I keep him as near as I can, and hope that maybe someday I’ll be truly lucky, go backstage, and meet him again, for the first time.

(For the rest of this story, from the beginning, see the "pages" section to the right.  Or keep reading below!)


Sunday, June 16, 2013

Chapter 12 - Why He Matters, Part IV: Chuck Berry as Businessman

Which leads to the next topic— because beyond the art, the poetry, the songs, the performance and the pure presence, there are a couple of other things that make Chuck Berry’s long career so notable.

He fought for himself as an artist—and continues to do so. He makes sure he is paid in advance for his performances. He manages his own career. He insists that every promoter provide the bare bones necessary for him to put on a proper Chuck Berry show: i.e., a few professional musicians, the proper guitar amplifier, and cash. When they fail, he lets them know.

Various people have criticized Chuck Berry’s insistence on being compensated for work performed, including later generation rockers who take in unimaginable riches and have riders demanding assorted wines and chocolates, or tea served in china cups, and who undoubtedly leave most details to legions of attorneys, agents, handlers, publicists, and hangers on.

Eric Clapton said “I still love his music, but meeting him in some senses took the edge off it for me. I found out bit by bit that he was so concerned with money and himself, and he is such an ambitious man, that in a way it kind of spoiled the feeling for the music.”

This is ironic commentary from a man who, with The Yardbirds, The Bluesbreakers, Cream, Derek and the Dominoes, and as a solo act, has gathered more windfall from the inventions of African American and Jamaican musicians than whole armies of the original artists. As best I can tell, from what I admit is only idle knowledge of his music, Clapton himself invented nothing and has written just one truly good song. Instead, like a good second story man he lifted the good stuff, polished it beautifully, and then fenced what he took at great personal profit. Good for him—that’s music. Musically Chuck did much the same thing (though he added several dozen beautifully crafted songs to the mix). But where, then, does Clapton get off talking about ambition, money and self importance? He’s got all of that in spades.

Or listen to Keith Richards, who started his own career covering hits from Chess stars like Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. In my mind he deserves more artistic credit than Clapton—Richards helped write whole bunches of great songs. But discussing the 1986 film Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll he said: “Chuck said to the promoters that he wanted to bring his piano player, but only if they pay him. Chuck’s about bucks.” The Rolling Stones reportedly earned more than $400 million from its “Bigger Bang Tour,” and in 2001 the British paper The Guardian once reported that Richards was worth 130 million pounds. I guess with $200 million in your pocket, a busload of roadies, and a bunch of lawyers, managers, accountants and hangers on, you can be all about the art.

I got the Clapton and Richards quotes from John Collis’s Chuck Berry: The Biography. Collis himself chimes in: “Berry’s prudence with money, his fascination with its accumulation, is legendary. He loves it more than he loves rock ‘n’ roll. The deal is what matters to him, and he reads a contract with X-ray eyes.”

Collis’s quote is probably “on the money,” and less judgmental than the statements by the two well nourished rockers. Chuck Berry would never deny that he’s interested in the money. He remembers how much he was paid at his first gigs in the early 1950s. He remembers how much he was paid to paint the walls of the club, too. (“When the money got larger, I put the paint brush down, picked the pick up, and fiddled!”) He remembers the cost of old cars, tape recorders, guitars, even an $8 pair of pants. As an African American born in 1926, he is a child of both Jim Crow and the Great Depression. Yes, money means something to him.

And to his art! The pecuniary details are as important to his songs as the machines, the safety belts, or the young love. Johnny’s mother remembers where she got the bus money and the money for the guitar, which she bought at a pawn shop. The protagonist of “No Money Down” knows exactly how much he’s got left to spend to insure his “yellow convertible four door de Ville.” The “little money coming worked out well” for Pierre and the Mademoiselle.

There’s a scene in the film Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll where three legends gather around a piano at Berry Park. Bo Diddley starts talking about his early recording contracts. Little Richard admits he never read them. Bo says he did, and begins to say how much he earned per record. Half a cent says Chuck. The records sold for 59 cents. “There were 58 other pennies going somewhere,” says Chuck. “I majored in math. I was looking at the other 58 cents!”

At another point in the movie he talks about the payola scandal, and about finding two other names credited on his first hit record, “Maybellene.” “I knew Alan Freed. I heard him on the radio. He was the disk jockey in New York that played the records. Who was Russ Fratto? He owned a stenography store—a stationary store that supplied Leonard [Chess] with his stationary.”

“Maybellene” is now credited to just one man—Chuck Berry. Berry and his record company also fought to get royalties owed to him by the Beach Boys for using the melody of “Sweet Little Sixteen” to make “Surfing U.S.A.” Even John Lennon had to settle with Berry (he agreed to record more Chuck Berry songs) in return for using Berry’s line “here come old flattop” in The Beatle’s song “Come Together.” Call it hardnosed, or call it smart, or call it taking care of his family and his legacy— it was the right thing to do. How many blues and R & B stars died homeless, their efforts ripped off and returned home by foreign invaders? Not Berry. There’s a mansion on the edge of Berry Park that wasn’t there when my car stalled in 1978. (And that’s his other home. I’m pretty sure the big one is down the road a piece.)

His own musicians sure respect him. “The money's always right and on time,” says Bob Lohr, Chuck’s long time St. Louis piano player. “The touring conditions are the absolute best as well— five star hotels, sometimes first-class airfare, all expenses paid.” Fellow pianist Bob Baldori agrees. “I have never found Charles difficult to work with. He's always been 100% professional and easy going with me.”

If Chuck Berry reads a contract with “X-ray eyes” it’s because he’s a businessman who has been burned and would prefer to avoid it. “I have tried to curb the manners in which I have been ripped off so that it doesn’t happen again,” he told an interviewer from the BBC. “Which has given me a reputation of being—cynical, is it? It’s not that I’m distrustful—it’s just that if the same type of dog comes up and you think that he’ll bite you, well, move out!”

In his book he talks about his first and only manager. Chuck fired him when he learned he was stealing money. After that Berry managed his own career with the help of a few trusted agents and friends.

He wasn’t alone. The great Chess Bluesman Howlin’ Wolf also paid attention to money matters. Wolf paid his musicians’ taxes, social security and unemployment insurance—all unheard of in the blues world of the 1950s. When he fired a musician, or there wasn’t work, that musician could still get a check. When the musician retired, he’d get social security. Wolf also insisted on following the rules of the musicians’ union. Once, Elmore James put Wolf’s name on a poster without Wolf’s permission. Wolf fined James $25.

One of Wolf’s contemporaries talked about Wolf the same way some people talk about Chuck Berry. “He was mostly about money,” the musician said. “He conserved his money and he was always singing about money…. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him broke… He really was into that money thing and he had some money!”

Berry and Wolf, entertainers, sometimes clowns on stage, and undeniably great artists and musical innovators, were serious business people who insisted on being treated with respect, dignity and fairness in the financial rough and tumble of the music business. Musicians should thank them, not just for paving the way musically, but for helping turn the rough and tumble music business into a viable and dignified profession. It is a legacy almost as great as the music itself.

(Earlier chapters of this book length piece can be found in the "pages" to the left, and scattered throughout the blog.  I'll be publishing additional chapters once or twice a week throughout summer.  It starts HERE.  Or to read the next chapter, click HERE.)


Friday, June 14, 2013

Chapter 13 - Buyin' Danny's Guitar and the Rhythm of Bye Bye Johnny

Not long after seeing Chuck Berry at Lake Tahoe I found myself riding back in that direction with my brother Danny to buy a rock and roll electric guitar.

Danny took up guitar while living in a cave in a neighborhood of Gypsies and Flamenco dancers somewhere in the south of Spain. Danny liked the rhythm guitar he heard Gypsies play. Spain was still burdened by Franco and fascism. Its economy was so weak Danny could live there for practically nothing. He got a great guitar for practically nothing, too— a beautiful Spanish classical with mother of pearl inlays for the equivalent of $50. I think he’s still got it, though it now has a big hole worn through the soundboard by Danny’s pick. It’s that Gypsy influence—Danny strums fast and hard.

But like many of Chuck Berry’s rock and roll children Danny had fantasies—a vision of his name in lights— so one day he and I drove from Sacramento to Reno in search of an electric guitar. Danny’s theory, no doubt true, was that out of luck casino musicians would lose their paychecks at the craps tables, hock their instruments, and guitars would be plentiful and cheap. So we went to a Reno pawn shop and Danny found a Fender Mustang.

The Mustang was originally marketed by Fender as a budget guitar for students. It became a favorite of surf musicians. If you want to see a Mustang, close your eyes and imagine three or four young white men lined up with short sleeved shirts and snazzy looking guitars. Those are Mustangs. They earned even greater cult status when Fender stopped making them and Grunge rockers started using them.

So Danny got himself a classic. Someone had painted over the original glossy finish, but given its age—probably a mid 1960s Fender—it was a pretty great guitar—one with both a history, and a future. (Danny’s experience finding a Mustang at a pawn broker’s shop must not have been unique. Fender now sells a re-released “vintage” Mustang that it calls the “Pawn Shop Special.”)

One reason Danny needed an electric guitar was so that he could play “Bye Bye Johnny” with the garage band that I formed with my high school friends John and Greg. John played guitar. Greg played piano. I played drums. It is not self deprecating to say that our band was the worst I’ve ever heard perform in public. We played the State Fair and attracted one fan. I saw him rocking back and forth, but learned afterwards that he was mentally and physically disabled and that his rocking motion was involuntary. He seemed to like us, though. The grizzled manager for youth events at the State Fair wasn’t so sure. He invited us back but we drove a hard bargain. We needed to rent an amplifier and electric piano. We told him we’d play again for $10. That sealed the deal. We were unemployed.

The name of our band was “Keg.” Our highest aspiration, evidently, was to be a party band for people too drunk to care (“Barf” would have been a more appropriate and visionary moniker). We never achieved that goal. Our only professional gig was playing for a group of 10 year old kids at a swim party.

But if practice was at my house, Danny would often find us, plug his Mustang into John’s big Fender Bassman amp, and play his favorite Chuck Berry song, “Bye Bye Johnny.” Danny liked everything about that song. I remember him commenting on the squeaky guitar lick (it sounds like someone twisting a cork from a bottle) that Matt “Guitar” Murphy puts between the cries of “Bye Bye Bye.” And Danny liked the rhythm of “Bye Bye Johnny.” I remember him talking about it the same way he talked about the squeaky guitar lick.

I should have taken Danny’s interest in the rhythm of “Bye Bye Johnny” as a clue that there was something special there. I should have taken my record upstairs and tried to work out the drum part—or at least some version that paid homage to the original beat. But I didn’t. That would have made too much sense. It never occurred to me as a young musician to go to the original, which I’d listened to hundreds of times without actually hearing. I thought music was a strictly natural process, and that it would be cheating to actually learn something from real musicians— so when we played the song I flailed away in my normal, clunky fashion, whacking a badly split cymbal that sounded like the crack of a horsewhip in a western theme song. Rawhide! Whack!

I remember, decades later, watching the 76 year old Berry instruct a local bass player on that same “Bye Bye Johnny” rhythm. Berry strummed it on the guitar: ba-bum, ba-bum, ba-bum, ba-bum (and one and two and three and four). When the wide eyed the bass player (middle aged, but cowering under the direct tutelage of the master) started doing the same thing as Chuck, he got one of those big Chuck Berry stage smiles and Chuck returned his attention to the rest of us. It was a lesson in how to play Chuck Berry by Chuck Berry.

That same rhythm has become a career for Chuck’s longtime bassist Jimmy Marsala, who plays it often during live shows, and is probably the closest thing you’ll find to the heartbeat of Chuck Berry without putting a stethoscope to his chest.

And then one day, still later, spurred by comments in Fred Rothwell’s book Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry’s Recorded Legacy, I finally listened to “Bye Bye Johnny,” comparing the original mono version to the pitifully “Altered Electronically for Stereo” version that I’d grown up with. (They also alter cats and dogs.) It was like night and day. The altered version was flimsy and weak. No wonder I hadn’t fully heard what was there!

But the original was glorious! Strong, clear, poundingly direct. And there it was, in its original glory: the chugging of a locomotive piston driving the song, as played on snare and high-hat by the inestimable Mr. Odie Payne. It’s not the bass or the guitar this time— it’s Payne launching each half measure with what two successive whacks on his snare drum— and-one and two and-three and four and-one…. You hear it on the altered version, but in mono it’s up front spewing smokestack lightning.

Odie Payne was a blues drummer par excellence, a founding father and innovator, who can be heard on dozens of classics by Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, and on some of Chuck Berry’s greatest recordings. Once I started noticing his omnipresence I looked him up on YouTube and found a video of him playing drums in a small bar in the 1980s and imagined what it would be like to wander into such a place and find such a hero there. YouTube, always a miracle, allowed me to do so.

These so-called “sidemen” are often glorious and deserve more recognition than they got or get. Musicians and record producers knew them, of course, but the general public only knew or know their sounds. And only a particular public, like Danny, fully appreciated what he heard.

As an untaught and unlearned musician, (“uneducable,” my wife might say, in a lofty mood), I assumed that all of the musicians I loved were either born that way or educated only by nature or their hard knock lives. But Odie Payne studied music in high school and after a stint in the Army, at the Roy C. Knapp School of Percussion in Chicago, then hit the road with one of greatest blues guitarists and singers in history, Elmore James. Where can a musician learn more than on stage, night after night, in live performance, especially with a genius the caliber of James? Payne became a sought after session musician. At Chess he worked with a variety of stars, and helped Chuck Berry create his second generation of hits in the early 1960s, including “Nadine,” “You Never Can Tell,” “No Particular Place to Go,” and “Promised Land.” He was famous for the “double shuffle,” where he played cymbal and snare together, and which he played, rather famously, on “No Particular Place to Go.” A master of the shuffle, it is ironic that he helped Chuck Berry move from the shuffle to the straight ahead rock beat he has used since recording songs like “Nadine” and “Promised Land.”

And “Bye Bye Johnny!”

As an old man, I hobbled downstairs to my dusty old drum set and tried to recreate that “Bye Bye Johnny” rhythm. It wasn’t easy. It’s almost backward to the backbeat I normally do, where the emphasis is on the two and the four. But I bet it’s exactly what Chuck asked Odie Payne to play 50 or so years ago.

“Like a train, you know? Cha-chah! Cha-chah!”

“Like this, Chuck?”

Odie Payne, Jr. has got to be the guy with the space age headphones, second from the right.
And there’s that heartbeat, Johnny B. Goode’s metronome, the locomotive that brought Johnny’s mother to the kitchen door to see if her son was home at last.

I always knew it was there—I just didn’t know what I knew, or listen to what I heard. When “The London Sessions” came out it made me crazy to hear the crowd sing “Go Johnny Go!” when Chuck was obviously playing “Bye Bye Johnny.” He switched gracefully over, or tossed the lyrics, and the show ended. But there it was—that driving rhythm, this time on guitar, which the bassist picked up. (The drummer on the “London Sessions” plays it like I did.)

But “Bye Bye Johnny” doesn’t end with that magical beat. The lyrics are full of the rich imagery and rhythmic detail that make Chuck Berry songs Chuck Berry songs: The Southern Trust, the gathering of crops, the Greyhound, the kitchen door, the tears falling from happiness—this song is as good as it gets.

And how did Johnny get his guitar? Johnny’s mother “remembered taking money earned from gathering crops and buying Johnny’s guitar at a broker’s shop.”

A pawn shop! Like the one Danny went to. So what more fitting song for Danny to play on his broker shop guitar?

I never put these bits and piece of life together until decades later, when I started writing about my life under Chuck Berry’s spell. I started telling the story of Danny, and his guitar, and the song, and all of a sudden I saw the connection.

Chuck Berry songs don’t come true. They are true.

And it keeps going.

A year or two after we bought the old Fender in Reno, Danny, my sister Ann and I picked honeydew melons west of Sacramento. We earned $2.32 an hour.

It was my first introduction to hard work, and Ann and I were good at it. (Danny— not so much, but he kept showing up.) The supervisor gave us a sharp carpet knife and a long row, and we’d stoop and cut and lay the melons in a straight line. If you were lucky you found a cantaloupe every now and then to cut open for a snack. Ann and I kept ahead of all but the two best—a middle aged Mexican woman and her teenage son, who worked twice as fast as anyone else in the field. They liked us because we didn’t slouch and complain like most of the white kids. I kept my spirits up and passed the time by humming my way through all four sides of the Golden Decade.

Our supervisor was a quiet, tall Mexican man with sunglasses and a white cowboy hat. We were hard working, but always started a little later than the Hispanic workers. He’d see us come and smile. “You like honeydew?” he’d ask, day after day, and laugh. It didn’t take too many tons of honeydew to give you a strong response to that one. I used to worry he wouldn’t pay us enough. I watched him when we arrived. He never took out a pen or paper. He never wrote anything down.

When pay day came and our work was all done we went to the El Rancho Motel in West Sacramento to pick up our check. It was a sprawling place—pretty nice—and my memory is that they used to host interesting music there—performers like Ray Charles, and some of the big bands. Our supervisor was there grinning from behind his dark glasses. It would be our last time meeting him. Our days as farm laborers were done forever. When he handed us our checks, with his characteristic smile, I checked it quickly, certain I would be cheated, but somehow, without ever taking a note when we arrived or when we left, he had it perfect—exactly what I’d calculated myself, down to the last quarter hour.

I cashed the check and went to a little music store on Auburn Boulevard and bought a $150 Japanese copy of a Fender Telecaster. It was beautiful guitar- a buttery cream color with a maple neck and fret board, and a pretty hard case. I used that guitar and a little Fender amp that I picked up in Los Gatos, California to learn my first real Chuck Berry licks, then took it to Italy for a year, where I’d stand in front of the mirror and enthrall invisible masses with nearly silent versions of “Reelin’ and Rockin’” and “Johnny B. Goode.” It was my first love affair with a guitar. But love is cruel. Eventually I traded my it for a semi-hollow body Ovation that looked like the Gibson that Chuck Berry played.

I still have the Ovation. It, too, is a beauty—with golden brown spruce on the front and buttery brown maple on the back. But I never forgot my first love, the guitar I traded to get it— so 30 years later I bought a Mexican built Fender Telecaster that looks just like my old Japanese copy.

And one day, playing it, I remembered what I’d never before realized: that I’d bought my first real guitar with “money earned from gathering crops,” just like Johnny’s mom.

Which goes to show that what I say is true: Chuck Berry songs don’t come true. They are true.

(This is part of a book length feature.  You can check out the first chapters HERE.  For more, find the Chapters in the "Pages" section to the right.)