Dammitt. Chuck Berry just passed away at 90 years of age ‘after ‘an illness’ as the press likes to put it. Once he finally stopped performing about 5 or 6 years ago, I figured it wouldn’t be too much longer.
That legendary vitality of his finally wore down.
Almost all of the old rockn’rollers have passed on to that Great Concert in the Sky, and when they’re gone something unique will have gone with them.There’s always was an ageless quality to Berry, something about that old spine and leg catharsis that still seemed young, powerful and ageless. Jerry Lee has it too and now in his eighties, he’s pretty much just what he always said he’d be…the last man standing.
Two personal memories of Chuck Berry…two sides of the same coin.
A hot, humid summer night on the road, checking into a hotel in the Midwest, the name and exact place lost in the memory banks. Not a roach hole or a five star, but the sort of moderately priced place you stay at if you’re on tour and trying to keep the costs down.
And who should I see checking out and headed towards the door with a guitar case and a small, black, travel bag in hand but Chuck Berry.
I’d seem his show a few times, so I walked over, ascertained that it really was him, and introduced myself politely. I told him what band I was playing with and made a remark about how much I loved his music. The response? “Thanks, kid” and then out the door..no smile, no chit chat, no handshake, no nuthin’. It was as if I had insulted him somehow, it was that detached and frigid.
I shrugged, and went back to the hotel desk.
Take two…a night at the Aquarius theater in Hollywood, at a filming of the old TV show, ‘In Concert’. I was there courtesy of a backstage pass from the manager of one of the eminently forgettable bands set to be filmed that night, some of them with actual records on the radio.
Loads of roadies and plenty of heavy duty equipment. Marshall stacks, huge drumsets, big hair, flashpots and pyrotechnics, nubile young ladies checking out the bulges in the spandex, a slight smell of marijuana in the air, schmoozing and those little white lines laid out backstage…a typical concert scene for the times.
One by one, the bands came on, did their shtick, and they all got a nice, enthusiastic response from the crowd.
And then out walked a fifty-ish Chuck Berry…one small Fender Twin amp, one guitar, and just like always, an obvious pickup band consisting of a bass player and a drummer, probably hired for scale from the local union for that night’s show.
What happened next was sheer magic.
Chuck checked his tuning..and then he did one of those metallic signature intros to ‘Johnny B. Goode’, and the left foot came down.
Within ten minutes, he had the whole theater shaking, literally.
Most of that night’s audience were probably still in diapers or not even born when most of the songs he played that night first came out. And I’d bet a lot of them didn’t even know who he was. But there was something magically seminal about it that just connected, something dangerous, sexy and energizing that settled over the audience like a cloud.
Security tried to keep people from crowding the area in front of the stage and dancing in the aisles, but it was a losing battle and they just gave up after awhile. And me, I just stood in the wings, watched, listened and marveled.
This was the true, anarchistic spirit of rock ‘n roll unleashed and it didn’t sound like an oldies show in the least..it sounded new, wild and untamed, and I could catch a glimpse of how it must have hit the teenyboppers at places like the old Brooklyn Paramount right between the eyes back when Chuck, Jerry Lee, Buddy and Elvis laid it on them in the fifties.
One guy, a guitar, an amp and a two man rhythm section. It was perfect. The original Brown Eyed Handsome Man en extremis. I can only imagine what he was like in the 1950’s.
He finished and walked right by me and I just nodded and smiled. He kind of jerked his head at me in acknowledgement, but I learn quick, so I wasn’t about to say anything more.
The band that appeared after Chuck Berry finished with that crowd looked positively tired and ill by comparison. They just seemed glad to just get the whole ordeal over with. A real, actual case of the rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu perhaps, and I betcha it wasn’t the first time Chuck Berry gave that particular version of the disease to somebody scheduled to follow him on stage.
I have a soundboard tape of what went down that night, and it’s one of the things I still crank up and listen to when I want to remember what real live rockn’roll sounds like.
So long, Chuck. Rest in Peace, and thanks for the music.
Rob Miller writes for Joshuapundit. His articles have appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Washington Examiner, American Thinker, The Los Angeles Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The San Francisco Chronicle, Real Clear Politics, The Times Of Israel, Breitbart.Com and other publications.