Thursday, July 1, 2010

Like a Fading Memory: Chuck Berry: Rock 'N' Roll Music, by Howard DeWitt

Howard DeWitt is an author and professor and a pioneer of Chuck Berry scholarship. I own a copy of the first edition of his book “Chuck Berry: Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” but just got a copy of the Second Edition from the local library. I’d seen the second edition before, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, at a time when my Chuck Berry problem was in remission. By remission, I mean that I wasn’t totally obsessed-- but of course, when I saw a book about my man, I pulled it off the shelf and absorbed what I could while kneeling on the library floor.

Three things that I absorbed:

First, I saw instantly that DeWitt and I lived lives that were somewhat parallel geographically. He lived in Seattle, then evidently moved south to Central California. I lived in Central California and moved north.

Second, he attended one of the concerts I saw in California—a show at the Monterey Fairgrounds in the summer of 1974.

And finally—I think I met him there.

Memory is a funny thing. The meeting could be an invention of mine. But after the show I met a guy near the stage, somewhat older than me, who obviously shared a deep fascination for Chuck Berry. My memory is that this fellow spotted me, probably still delirious, and talked to me for a few minutes. It doesn’t take long to separate the fans from the true nuts. I don’t remember our conversation—only that it occurred, and that it was interrupted when a girl near me revealed a scribbled autograph she’d gotten on a tiny scrap of paper. When she saw how excited I was she gave it to me.

Those were the days!

The second edition is fascinating to me now in part because of hints about how closely my path and DeWitt's sometimes got to each other.  For example, it shows photographs of Bo Diddley with a San Jose blues singer, Guitar Mac, in (I’m guessing here) the early 1970s. If you read my other blog (here's the story!) you’ll know that once stood outside a San Jose area nightclub to watch Bo Diddley perform. I was too young to get in. It would be quite a coincidence if DeWitt saw or promoted that show.

And then there’s a picture and some discussion of Chuck Berry at a South Lake Tahoe Casino in 1982. I was definitely at one of those shows. Although professional it was the least impressive Chuck Berry concert I ever saw, simply because it seemed arranged and staged, big casino style. There’s a photo of Chuck Berry looking tired at one of the casino lounges. That’s how that show felt—expensive, and a little tired.

(I’m titillated, though, by the “news” from 1982 that I didn’t know—that Berry had four album sides of material that he was trying to sell to a label: one side of country, one side of blues, one of rock, and one of—well, he doesn’t say. Lordy, I hope it’s still around! I’d heard previously of a double album, but not the contents. Sounds like one I’d love to hear.)

All of this is why you ought to find a copy of Dewitt’s book—and especially and specifically this second edition, with its discography by Morton Reff. It’s a rough book, but with nuggets you’ll want. And scattered among the scholarship are rare photographs of Chuck Berry from throughout his career. The ones from the early 1970s look stunningly familiar and take me back.

Take me back, in fact, to shows like Monterey, the last of three full length shows that I saw in the early 1970s. (I saw a couple of Rock and Roll Revial shows around the same time, but they don’t fully count. Chuck would appear at the end to blow away the crowd for 25-30 minutes. I don’t consider them full Chuck Berry shows.)

The first, short and sad, was in Sacramento. It was short, and only partly sad, and fully satisfying. It got me hooked.

The second was two long sets at a tiny club in South Lake Tahoe. It was an outstanding performance, with a great backup.

And the third was Monterey, in 1974, after the success of The London Sessions.

DeWitt uses the show as an example of Berry’s fading glory. He talks about “mediocre concerts,” then says:

“An example of this occurred in Monterey, California, in the early 1970s, when a San Francisco oldies band, Butch Whacks and the Glass Packs, backed Chuck in a concert. After Butch Whacks and The Glass Packs finished their set, Chuck walked on stage and motioned to the drummer to start a song. Since the pickup band had not previously met Chuck, they had no idea what songs he was going to perform. After a forty-minute set, Chuck invited a portion of the audience to dance on the stage as he played Sweet Little Sixteen. Soon, almost a hundred people were dancing on the stage, and Chuck discretely exited the Monterey Fairgrounds. He was driving south on Highway 1 in his rental car when the concert ended. Chuck Berry’s disinterest in his concert performances, and his use of mediocre pickup bands often lowered the quality of his appearance in the 1970s and 1980s.”

I have no doubt about the veracity of that last line. I saw Berry at the end of the 1980s play with a band that was competent but boring, and that’s what the show was like. Same for the 1982 show at the South Lake Tahoe casino.

But my recollection of the Monterey show is completely different.

I know, for example, that Berry played at least 15-20 minutes before saying “with your permission, we’d like to start the show.” He came out first playing a long slow blues number—a luxury of long bent notes while he tinkered with his guitar and bent towards a monitor. After another number or so he did “Nadine,” one of his last big hits. He did it well but not great, probably on purpose, because it was only after that number that he said he would “begin our show.”

My memory after that—hours of music. The only songs I definitely recall are “Let it Rock” and “Reeling and Rocking.” (I passed him a note to play “Got it and Gone,” but he laughed.

I would suspect my own memory except for three things. If you check my earlier post about the show you’ll find a link to the Butch Whacks website, where the keyboard player calls the show one of his favorite memories and says they played more than two hours.

And then check the comments. The drummer read the piece and also chimed in. He, too, said the show lasted more than two hours.

What I know for sure is that I attended with three people who liked Chuck Berry, but not the way that I do. And they were fully satisfied.

I think it was a show where a revived Chuck Berry met a competent band (they did a show similar to Sha Na Na—i.e., 1950s music. They might not have been up to the best bands he worked with, but they did the job nicely.) He was happy and kept playing.

And there are other tiny inconsistencies. There was a significant break between the Butch Whacks show and the Chuck Berry performance. They got out of their Butch Whacks costumes and put on regular clothes. Someone gave away a car. We moved from the back of the yard to spots immediately below the stage.

DeWitt’s got the ending nailed, however. I have a strong fear that I was one of the 100 on stage. It must have been a terrible sight to see me dancing and carrying on. I have expunged it from memory, like a woman forgets childbirth.

And, as usual, Chuck did disappear in a flash. We have a photograph of the young cop who stopped us from chasing him backstage. My brother saw him get into a car and drive away. The girl got his scribbled signature.

Mediocre? Much of the crowd hung out by the stage afterwards. That’s where I may have met DeWitt. That’s where I got the autograph.

But all of this is just interesting—two huge Chuck Berry fans nursing very different memories of the same event. (As for memory-- my own is proven faulty. In my Go Head On post I write that the author of the book I'd read complained about the car giveaway during the middle of the show. Nope. Not a word about that in Mr. DeWitt's book. A figment of my imagination.)

The memories are sort of like my own instamatic photos of the show-- obscure and fading.

But Chuck Berry is a big enough man with a big enough career to support many different realities. Some people may know him primarily as a white suited singer from the fifties bashing out short portions of big rock and roll shows. Some might remember the 1960s revival with shows at Winterland and the Fillmore. People like me revel in the early 1970s. Others first met him in the late 1980s after “Hail! Hail!” Others only know him as an elderly gent at Blueberry Hill. And some people’s only encounter might have been a drab show at a casino or state fair.

Whatever—my view is that they got their money’s worth nearly every time. A piece of history, nearly guaranteed to eventually make you smile.

And a memory.