(From Dear Dad: My (Imaginary) Relationship with the Father of Rock and Roll (and my Search for the Real Dad Who Died Too Soon). c. 2012, Peter O'Neil)
When I was twenty-two I drove an ailing Fiat east from Seattle, across the Rocky Mountains and the northern states, as far north as Montreal, down through New England and New York, then west, to a small town in Missouri called Wentzville. I kept a journal throughout the trip, but there’s only a short note about this stop:
“My car almost kicked the bucket in St. Louis. The brakes went out and it began stalling in the 92 degree heat. Then, somewhat mysteriously, the brakes came back, and I managed to make it all the way to Mecca.”
Reading this 33 years later, I worry about the 22 year old who believed in the spontaneous regeneration of Italian brakes, and I wonder about the absence of detail. There was a story to tell, and I ignored it. Maybe I was still hot with shame. Maybe I already knew that I would never forget my sad visit to “Mecca.”
I remember asking at a gas station how to find it. “The rock singer’s place?” The attendant was young, and ill-informed. (He wrote a verse for you, fool!) But he talked me part of the way there.
I asked again at a store piled high with checkered feed bags and wooden cases of warm, bottled Coca Cola.
“The negro singer?” drawled the proprietor. (I write politely here. He said negro with an “a.”) He pointed his hand with disinterest.
I found it across from a gun club— a granite tombstone, with “Welcome” at the top.
Founded August 15, 1957
By the Family
For the People
It didn’t look like a park— no rides, no customers, no hamburgers sizzling on an open grill, no little cutie to take my hat. There was a chain link fence, a long, asphalt driveway, and at the end, a few low buildings painted brick red.
What I had read about, years prior, was a place where you could sip a cold drink by the pool, get a hot dog, (or maybe a steak a la “carty”, if you had the cash,) and perhaps see the man himself wander by with a rake or a shovel.
What I hoped for, in the hidden recesses of my being, was more: a place where I could check that nonexistent hat, sip that cold drink, and be recognized by the man himself as a long lost, genetically inferior but much loved child. The part of me that still believed in the spontaneous resurrection of faulty brakes wanted to be welcomed into the bosom of my true home.
There is a rational part of me, too, so what I got instead of hope was a growing sense of foreboding and criminal trespass— the open, obvious understanding that, despite the word “Welcome,” (years later it would be masked for a time by an angry piece of gray duct tape,) this was not a public place open to strangers— it was the private estate of a private man.
But my story has nothing to do with rationality. It is a story of gentle madness, of harmless obsession, a lifelong relationship with a person I’ve hardly met and do not know.
So I eased on my brakes and I pulled in the drive.
I remember idling up the asphalt.
I remember thinking “This is not a commercial establishment.”
I remember that my motor got hot and wouldn’t do no more.
The little Fiat sputtered and died maybe 100 yards up the driveway.
A woman came out of one of the buildings another 50 yards away. In my mind there is the creak and bang of a screen door, and a shotgun, like an old western when an unwelcome stranger shows up. But that’s not what happened. She just stood, arms folded, watching me.
“What do you want?” she asked. She had to raise her voice.
I got out of my car. I had no answer.
“Is he here?” I asked, stupidly.
I stood there.
“You need to leave.”
I sat obediently and turned the key. The starter whined uselessly, slower and slower. The woman held her post.
I did the only thing I could. I pushed the car backward out the driveway toward the road. I found a little shade by the gravestone. I waited for the heat of the motor to go down. Eventually the car started and I drove until I found a roadside campground somewhere to the west on I-70. I set up my tent in the dwindling sun and lay there, hungry and humiliated.
Such was my first trip to Berry Park.
Chapter One - My Imaginary Friend
I’m driving along in my automobile with my daughter Gemma. She is 17, a beauty, poet, a budding piano player. She’s telling me something important about her own life— something to do with friends. I begin to respond. I tell her that I never had many as a kid or as a grownup—that I’ve always been satisfied with family and a few good friends. I’m already appalled by my own conversation, which so often comes back to me, me, me, one of the only subjects I know. But I continue. I begin repeating a recent theory of mine, that perhaps life happened that way for me because of the outlandishly alcoholic home I grew up in—that I wasn’t comfortable inviting many people into it. It gets quiet. Gemma’s losing patience. She’s heard this before. As we drive in momentary silence my mind clicks and rolls like a slot machine and the idea tumbles out like a small fortune in heavy coins.
“Maybe Chuck Berry is my imaginary friend!” I say, as if I’ve discovered something important. Gemma rolls her eyes violently and our conversation crashes to a halt. My daughter has little use for my prehistoric rocker. Like her older sister Jade and their little brother Rafferty, she has had enough.
But I’m on to something— right? My mind is abuzz as we drive in irritated silence.
That night, in bed, I tell my wife, Rebecca.
She laughs, hard.
I explain to her that I’m not confused or delusional. I know he’s not my friend. I don’t talk to him in the sandbox. I know I don’t know that I’ve made the proper clinical diagnosis.
But isn’t that the explanation?
Because almost all of my life this public person has been an important part of my private life. Gemma and Jade have grown up to stories about the man. Rafferty once believed “Chuck Berry?” was the answer to almost every question. Who’s singing, Rafferty? Do you know who wrote that song, Rafferty?
Who is the President of The United States, Rafferty?
Rebecca comes home to stories about people in England, France or Sweden whom I’ve never met.
“Jan sent me a CD today!” I tell her. She has to work to find context.
“The guy in Iowa?”
But she is no longer listening. And who can blame her?
In my youth there had been a charm to it. My idol was somewhat obscure, his last big hit seven years old. Kids my age hardly knew him. My high school acquaintances followed the latest trends, but not me. I worshipped rock and roll’s first true poet and guitarist. His early recordings were as fresh in 1971— are as fresh today— as they were in the mid-1950s. My early fixation showed a sort of precociousness.
But I’m a grandfather now, with joint pain and whitening hair. Precociousness is no more.
I can still justify my admiration. In early 2012, Chuck Berry was honored with the Pen New England Award for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence. Pen New England is America’s oldest literary society. The jury included Salman Rushdie, Paul Simon and Bono. Caroline Kennedy spoke at the ceremony. Bob Dylan sent his regards. Keith Richards sat in the front row. Chuck, alleging deafness in one ear, couldn’t hear the remarks of presenter Paul Simon (Chuck called him “the announcer”) and told him so. Afterwards, in lieu of an acceptance speech, Chuck grabbed Elvis Costello’s guitar and surprised the organizers with a ragged, solo “Johnny B. Goode.” It was all sweet and spectacular, and well deserved, one of dozens of such honors he has received. So my admiration is understandable. He is a legend among legends— a giant not just of rock and roll, but of American art and culture.
But my problem is not as simple as admiration.
I edit myself constantly— even with family— so that I might appear less mentally suspect. One day on Facebook Peter from Sweden posts an old magazine spread showing the young Chuck Berry and his family posing in front of a 1950s style hi-fi. Berry’s son, Charles, posts a comment. “They still have that Silvertone console!” he writes. I’m thrilled by this potent bit of trivia. I react like an old CIA analyst to some tidbit from the Kremlin. “They” means that “they”— Chuck Berry and Themetta, his wife of more than 60 years— are still a couple who jointly own furniture and appliances. Their child perceives them as “they.” I like that. I am happy because— forgive me— in some more theoretical and perhaps less strictly factual sense, I, too, am his child, right? Glad to know dad and mom are together! I am equally moved by the fact that “they” still have that Silvertone! I’ve got my camera and drums from 1971, and the guitar I bought in 1975, and a scrap of metal that I picked up on Greenback Lane when I was 15. I keep things, and so, I learn, does Chuck! I’ve learned online that in addition to the 1950s hi-fi, he has his 1980 Caddy, his psychedelic sport coat, various guitars and the dates of all his concert appearances! I know from the movies that he has kept his old, disintegrating bus, charred scraps of personal history, and that in 1986 he had at least three well-preserved, tarpaulin covered 1970s Cadillacs in storage. He keeps what is important. I want to tell Rebecca about the hi-fi— but I don’t. Later I want to tell her again, but I don’t again. My self control is the product of fear. I imagine calling her, explaining the magazine spread, and then telling her that my internet friend Charles, whom I don’t really know, has said thus and such about an old hi-fi. She would feign interest through glazed eyes. She would think to herself “Who is this man that I married and who fathered my child?” I remain silent, but look again the next day, and smile.
A day or two after my “eureka” moment I do some internet research on imaginary friendship and discover a professor of psychology who studies the subject in a serious way. "I'm beginning to think it never goes away," she tells the Seattle Post Intelligencer. "It morphs into a different form." She and her colleagues interviewed 50 novelists about their characters and found that the characters took “a life of their own.”
That’s not exactly how it is with me. After all, my imaginary friend already has a life of his own. But it’s close. She found that “many of these authors developed personal relationships with the characters in their novels and had imagined conversations with them.”
I don’t have very many imagined conversations with Chuck Berry, although it does happen. It’s difficult to manage in a convincing way. To make it work I have to invent situations that put me in a position to actually talk to the man. That’s harder than it sounds. Just try. To up the level of difficulty try to figure out a reason why Chuck Berry might want to talk back, once you’ve put yourself in a position to utter inanities. (I eventually solved these problems. It took inspiration, and a measure of luck. Remind me to tell you about it.)
And to be honest, I’ve never been sure that I want to get to know the real Chuck Berry. He’s rumored to be difficult, to have quirks, to be short at times. If he were nasty to me it might compound my neuroses. There’s a YouTube video in which former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman says that he loved Chuck Berry until he met him. (I’m sure I don’t want to meet Bill Wyman.) Unlike Wyman’s, my encounters with the real Chuck Berry, though brief and reasonably shallow, have been wonderful. He has been attentive and kind. But who knows? Really getting to know the man might spoil it for me.
But there’s no doubt that I’ve constructed an ongoing “personal” relationship with him—or with an imagined facsimile. Indeed, everyone who really knows me has to live with Chuck Berry to some degree. They do draw lines. “I’m tired of your stupid Chuck Berry!” Gemma has told me more than once. Rebecca refused for nearly a decade to watch “the Chuck Berry movie.” Others, like Jade, just nod and wait for me to stop. But they can’t avoid him entirely. My stories keep coming. I keep plucking the same notes on the guitar. I keep writing my blog and watching YouTube clips.
Of course, people who are not like family simply don’t know. I don’t tell them. At best, cornered by circumstance, I might admit that “I’m a big Chuck Berry fan,” as if that explained it.
But it doesn’t. Being a “big Chuck Berry fan” doesn’t explain the dreams.
I dream about him regularly. In one recent dream I drove him around in my car. He was old, quiet, and a little sad, and wore his captain’s hat. He looked straight ahead through dark glasses. We parked and I told two women in a ticket booth that Chuck Berry was in my car. They were reasonably excited. He got out of the car to sit by himself on a bench near dark water. He returned to my car and was just about to answer my question about his version of the blues “turnaround” when Rafferty jumped into the bed and woke me. I narrowly avoided telling him that he’d interrupted an important conversation with Chuck Berry.
In another dream I watched from a balcony as members of my extended family came off the golf course with Chuck Berry. I remember my sister-in-law Liz, my brother Paul, and my sisters Ann and Maggie, all happy. Chuck, though, must have had a bad round. He was scowling from under one of those stupid golfer caps with a tuft of yarn on top as he pushed open the door of the men’s locker room and disappeared. (I felt left out up there on the balcony, though happy that my brothers and sisters were getting along so well with “dad.”) Oddly, this was not my only reverie about Chuck Berry as athlete. In 1977 or 1978, soon after I moved to Seattle and my brother Paul introduced me to the NBA, I dreamed that Chuck Berry had been an early professional basketball player. In my dream I watched grainy, black and white dream footage of the journeyman Berry executing a layup. “I never knew that about him!” I dreamt.
After looking at some of her research I find the psychology professor’s university e-mail address, send her a detailed outline of my psychosis, and ask if I am on the right track with the diagnosis of “imaginary friend.” She doesn’t respond, but later I find a description of a talk she gave where someone wrote that she was “exploring whether there is a similar kind of imaginary companionship at work in teenagers who idolize a movie or music star and imagine conversations with that person.”
I take that as a yes.