BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
Chuck Berry was cranky. He hadn’t seen a contract for his scheduled nightclub appearance, and he wasn’t about to step out of the airport limo that had brought him to the club. The club had sold tickets for two dinner shows, but Berry wasn’t going to do even one show until he saw that contract. The club manager was in a panic. He had two sold-out shows on his hands and the possibility of refunds loomed.
The crisis was averted when the manager phoned the agent’s office in Los Angeles, found to his great relief that the agent was burning the midnight oil, and had the contract faxed to him pronto. There it was in black-and-white: Two one-hour shows starting at 10:00 p.m., with a 45-minute break between them. Berry had one more condition. He would have to be paid in cash, American cash. He didn’t trust that Canadian play money.
I don’t know if the manager was able to round up the needed American cash. Likely not, given the hour of the night and the fact that banking machines had yet to be rolled out nationally in Canada. But Berry was ready to rock and that was all that mattered. The 51-year-old icon of American rock ’n’ roll was set to take the stage with a backup band from Seattle that he had never played with before and wouldn’t be rehearsing with before he went on. Did that matter? Not to the band members I talked to. Like every rock ’n’ roll band in the business, they had cut their musical teeth on Chuck Berry’s guitar riffs. As Robert Christgau of The Village Voice had written, Berry taught George Harrison and Keith Richard to play guitar long before he met either, and his songs were still played by “everyone from folkies to heavy-metal kids.”
I didn’t expect to get an interview with him. Berry was notoriously reclusive. He had stopped talking to reporters after they wrote about him serving 20 months in prison in the early 1960s for transporting a 14-year-old girl across U.S. state lines for “immoral purposes.” “When I realized they wanted to write about the man, not about the music, that’s when I shunned them,” he said. People close to him said he was an obsessively private person, arrogant, bad-tempered, and given to chasing away reporters and photographers from his farm in Wentzville, Missouri. So I was surprised when he agreed to a short interview before his first set. “Now I’m ready to talk,” he explained.
I found him cautiously friendly, somewhat reserved and non-committal. But he opened up as the interview proceeded.
Berry told me he was still writing songs, and recording an average of two albums a year. What did he write about? “The same thing I always did: about life,” he replied. “I write very plain, simple basic tunes that a lot of people can understand. About life as I saw it, or lived it.”
What did he think of disco music? “It’s just rock ’n’ roll with a different name.”
Would he ever think of recording a disco song himself? With all the sweetened orchestrations characteristic of the genre? “There are no violins in my music. No sirree! And you can put the emphasis under the ‘ree.’”
Would rock ’n’ roll still be around 50 or 100 years from now? “If people live and think then as they do now, not only will rock ’n’ roll be there, but it will be connected to the circumstances of the day. In the past, rock ’n’ roll came about because of circumstances relative to the times, and those same circumstances could one day take it away.”
What was his philosophy of life? “Now, you’re talking my language! How much time do you have?” The club manager, who had sat in on the interview, was starting to get nervous again. The serving staff had told him that the crowd out front was getting impatient, wondering when the star of the evening was going to appear.
Berry wanted to briefly answer my question. He said he lived by a set of maxims that constituted his basic philosophy; a philosophy he planned to enunciate in a book some day. “It will be called something like The Truth of Chuck, and it will tell all about the how, the why and the when of Chuck Berry,” he said. “But I want to read Roots (the Alex Haley family-history novel) first, because that will help me finish my book.”
He wouldn’t talk to me about the jail sentence or about any other personal matters. Berry was saving those for the book. He had kept a journal for 20 years and had made notes of “all the things they got wrong when they wrote about me.” He was amazed that the newspapers had written so much about him over the years, because he thought of himself as a musician, not a celebrity. His book was already partly written, he said, and he was looking for a publisher.
His performance, when we finished our short interview, didn’t disappoint the fans. His famous duck walk, where he hopped on one foot while heel-stomping with the other, was still in place. So were the tunes – Roll Over Beethoven, Johnny B. Goode, Sweet Little Sixteen – and the immediately identifiable vocabulary of guitar licks that had inspired two generations of musicians to become rock ’n’ rollers. “He still offers his cynical paeans to teen romance with the sly air of a perennial hustler,” I wrote in my review.
Berry finished his book while in prison. In 1979, he was jailed for four months in California for tax evasion. His cash-only policy finally caught up with him.
The book, Chuck Berry: The Autobiography, was published in 1987. Berry didn’t hold anything back. He wrote about the three years he spent in reform school for auto theft as an 18-year-old high schooler, and the 20 months he served in a Missouri jail on the vice charge. He said the system had treated him unfairly because he was black, yet he didn’t seem resentful. He had used his time in prison to good effect, writing such songs as You Never Can Tell, No Particular Place to Go and Nadine.
Although he collapsed on stage a couple of times in his 80s, Berry never stopped performing. Currently, at age 87, he is still going strong. According to his website, he’s featured monthly at the appropriately-named Blueberry Hill club in St. Louis, Missouri.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2014
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