Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Chapter 2 - A Gift from Stevo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I watch, interested, but unchanged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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