Sunday, January 2, 2011

Roll over Beethoven Tell Chuck Berry The News…Aka Legends Last Stand…AKA Duck Walk Off The Deep End…aka We Still Love Chuck.

Chicks told Casey, You better move man,
This is only a one night stand, Casey wasn’t in time, but he was dancin awhile
Till a cramp caught his leg and he had to change his style.”
--‘Too Pooped to Pop’ by Chuck Berry, 1960.

It was opening night of 2011, the start of my 31st season here on earth, and the one, I will finally blog full time for. Welcome fellow travelers.  New Years Day is a point of reflection, and always a chance for new beginnings, although most of us see it as it truly is; an extra day off of work and a chance to sober up after drinking away the past years joys ,and woes.  

A few weeks ago I noticed the legendary Chuck Berry was playing the Congress Theater in my sweet home of Chicago, Illinois.  It was billed as “Chuck Berry’s Winter Dance” and in my mind I had visions of a 1950’s high school gymnasium-styled dance, which may only exist in cinema, and the minds of a dying breed of baby-boomers.   

I knew Chuck Berry was 84 years old, but I still had hope that maybe this night -- would be his night.  In my dreams Chuck Berry would come out see the crowd of young faces mixed with old fans and ride the energy possibly one last time in the twilight of his fully lived life, on the first night of 2011, to a crowd of 3,000 people who loved and cherished this American icon. 

Chuck Berry carved the modern sound of music having just about every major artist of his era giving him credit including; the Beatles, the Rollingstones, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys (‘Surfin’ USA’  took the melody of ’Sweet Little Sixteen’ forcing the boys to give Berry co-writing credit on the song to avoid a law suit), and even as late as AC/DC who’s Angus Young reintroduced fans to Berry’s signature ‘Duck Walk’.  He was in the opening class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and yet  no one questioned the selection of a man, who only had one song reach number one (the novelty My Ding-A-Ling,”) yet has had just about every major honor bestowed upon him including playing for everybody from Presidents to small town workers all across our great land.  Chuck is a pioneer, a legend, and history will shine its light fondly on him without question.  

For as talented as Berry is as a performer the man himself has always been of questionable character.  Notorious for bad sounding live shows that never met expectations due mainly to Chuck Berry’s refusal to hire a touring band in favor of picking up local performers, at little to no cost; is as legendary as his sound.  With different bands every night, Berry fans were never really knew what they were going to get. When Ole Chuck and his house band didn’t click, it was a disaster.  When they did click, it was magic and defined some of those tales of Rock & Roll lore that has span his fifty plus years as a touring musician.  

Chuck Berry was arrested for arm robbery before music, and did time for tax evasion later in his career as he likes to be paid in cash, and didn’t always share with the IRS, and you and me.   Chuck also has a few sex scandals in his past including transporting an under aged girl over the border and allegedly secretly videotaping the girls bathroom stall at one of his clubs.  If you take the time to search it out you can also read some bizarre and weird Chuck Berry fetishes that may or may not exist.  

So I knew the risk, but one night while l was twice mellowed on Gentleman Jack and wild smoke, I ordered up four tickets to witness this historic night of music.  I figured why the hell not?  Get a little stoned, wonder into a movie theater that at one time sat 3,000 people (back in the days when movies/air-conditioning could draw that kind of crowd,) and even if Chuck isn’t 100% I would still dance to his music live -- for the first and last time as this master would display his craft.   To me it was a gamble worth taking in a world where the house always seems to win, and the chips seldom get cashed as winnings and a way out.  

While the weeks dragged on through the holidays on my interest peeked as I downloaded and lived through his music; listening to each of his songs as they helped me fight off my seasonal depression. Berry’s years on the legendary Chicago record label Chess; were masterpieces, and one of the finest catalogs of music ever made.   It was an artistic renaissance and he was riding the wave while leading the charge.  

Despite my interest in the show, I didn’t find much interest from any of my friends in seeing this moment in history.  Perhaps they knew what I didn’t, or didn’t want to say what we all already knew –Chuck is really old and this could be a disaster.  Sadness seems to follow me, stalk me, and has surrounded me my whole life.   Sometimes I feel like I’m the curse, and I fear casting my black cloud on others.  I feel like I spread it like a flu, so I lock myself away in quarantine which keeps me distant from a lot of people I love.  Yet sometimes I wonder if it’s me who seeks the sadness and not the other way around, as I often walk into tragedy ignoring all the warning signs on the approach.  I knew I would find a story at the Chuck Berry concert, but I had no idea it would become a national news story as well. 

We smoked up before the show and ventured into the Congress Theater at 2135 North Milwaukee Avenue.  Immediately you could tell the show was poorly run and the vibe was already weird.  It was as if nobody cared and nobody wanted to be there.  After pushing through angry old faces that all looked as if they worked for the city’s Streets and Sanitation department, we entered the historic theaters main floor.  Built in 1926 and showing every sign of its age it’s still an awe inspiring architectural dinosaur of a long gone era.  Like what our children might feel walking into the shell of an old mall that once was a central part of our lives, now stands as a ghost town, and a reminder of greed  along with the progress of man.  With DVD’s, On-Demand, and readily available temperature control the need for a 3,000 seat theater has faded into another chapter of America’s past culture.  Thankfully the theater was turned into a concert hall (although the acoustics suck,) and its purpose remains, even if for just a little bit longer.  

The crowd was mixed between old men with beards, hipsters with beards, punks with shaved heads, ska kids with annoying clothes, an annoying guy with a stupid hat wearing shorts and flip flops, Ronnie Woo-woo, and the most beautiful blonde girl I have ever seen dressed in the shortest skirt with a red rose in her hair begging for me to fall in love and live happily ever after or go to jail Chuck Berry style as she may have been under age.  Everybody was interesting.  It was as if a major television network held an open casting call for all the worlds’ character actors, weirdoes, and wise guys.  Greasers, bikers, a guy dressed like pee-wee Herman, and well dressed black men with oil drenched hair and wing tip shoes.  It was a time warp, or more honestly really just warped. 

The stage was nothing as I expected, as it was bare with just a drum set, a few guitar stands, and a keyboard.  The only thing that made it a ‘Winter Dance’ was a small artificial Christmas tree only decorated with a strand of white Christmas lights to the far left end of the stage.  It was pathetic and made me angry wanting to yell profanities and curse the world.  I was starting to feel let down already, and I think everybody in the theater was hoping for the best while preparing for the worst. 

After killing my munches with a dried out slice of  bad concert frozen pizza my fellow traveler  Erick managed to finagle a few arm band bracelets that allowed us into the VIP section of the show which had an open bar in the theaters old projector room in the far back top of the venue.   This turned out to be the biggest scam of the night (they charged the people who paid a shit load of coin) as the projection room was so far back you could hardly see anything and the sound was terrible almost to the point of not being able to hear.  Not to mention it was about 100 degrees up there as heat rises while the line for the open bar was a good twenty minute wait for small cups.  Plus they ran out of ice.   Beggars can be choosers while Gypsies alone in the palace. 

But we were sitting now, not standing which was a relief, and could see the stage as the opening act bored the crowd into absolute submission.   They were a ska band with about as much excitement and energy as a Christian Rock concert on a holy night PBS special.   It was as if Ben Stein booked them.  I opened up the window behind us letting a little bit of ridged Chicago air into the aged theaters ‘VIP room’ as a rat running through the ally caught my eye entertaining me far more then the shit head opening act.

Soon the suffering was over and the legendary Chicago Rock & Roll disk jockey "The Wild I-tralian" Dick Biondi brought his booming voice to the stage, calming me as he’s done since I was in my mother’s stomach waiting to be born again.   A Chicago icon, a local legend, and when he started into his speech on Chuck Berry I knew something was wrong.  He kept prodding us to give Chuck the love and respect he deserves and reiterating his age over and over almost to make a point as to what we were in store for. 

The band started playing as the now packed crowd cheered wildly as a tall lean old black man with the longest legs I have ever seen strolled on stage wearing a sparkling red shirt and a captain’s hat.   He kicked right into it with “Roll over Beethoven” and everybody was just happy to see him.  It was clear the band and him were not on the same page, as Berry was clearly out of tempo and playing slow.

We kept waiting for everything to click and magic to happen.  The crowd never lost faith in him as he tried and tried song after song often times not getting further then a verse.  From where I was watching I had a hard time hearing the legend speak, but I heard him once or twice clearly say, “I’m struggling….I’m struggling here.”  But he kept on trying and finally played a song all the way through and appropriately enough it was ‘My Ding-a-Ling”.   

About a half hour into the show everyone was sad as we watched this man fight to perform like an old boxer far beyond his prime still thinking he could win the title.  He would pick a few cords of Johnny B. Goode before giving up knowing he couldn’t do it justice and trying something different.  I went to the back window to smoke my blues away and when I returned I was not only high but also confused.  

“Why is everything in slow motion,” I kept asking over and over to anybody around me who would listen.  I didn’t understand as when I looked around the room everybody was moving in real time but yet on the stage it was all very strange and slow.  I knew I wasn’t that high and started to panic thinking maybe I was having a stroke.  

“Why is he in slow motion it’s like a time machine,” I kept saying.

Finally I realized Chuck Berry was passed out, head laying on the keyboard as the band kept playing in a very slow tempo trying to figure out what was happening.   Everybody was. The band didn’t want to stop.  Nobody wanted the music to die, but it needed to.   Soon a flood of staff surrounded Berry, just like an NFL game when a QB goes down.   They were checking on him and trying to get him to become responsive.   They helped him to his feet and the crowd clapped a sympathetic serenade to an old man who once serenaded the world.  Some fat guy told us the show was over and the crowd started to scurry away like the rat in the ally before the show with tears in their eyes as we just witnessed what could very well be the death of Rock & Roll, and the final good bye of a living legend. 

My friends and I were chilling refilling our free drinks when all of a sudden like a beacon of light, on a dark night, while lost at sea the man reemerged from the back with the lights sparkling bright off his red shirt.  With no band behind him he walked over to his guitar, picked it up, and started to tune it.  In one of the coolest visuals I have ever witnessed I watched as hundreds of people rushed back into the theater gathering around Chuck’s feet waiting for his triumphant return.   It was touching, yet sad, yet inspiring, yet tragic and soon it was over as his doctors rushed back on stage and took his guitar away in a clear moment of the reality of age.  His entire life was spent surrounded by people begging him to put the guitar in his hands and now suddenly they were doing everything they could to keep it away from him.

They took him backstage again as the promoter came out to tell us that Chuck is being checked out and if he’s ok he wants to play some more.  The crowd cheered. We waited as a strange man name Victor approached me with tear s in his eye.  He began to tell me that he just arrived to the United States from Uruguay, and the first thing he did was scour the papers for some live music.  He saw Chuck Berry’s name and decided like I did this would be an amazing way to kick off the New Year, and for him his new life the land of the free in the city of corruption.   

Victor told me how he has not been in the US for over 17 years , not since he was a child, and today was the first time he had a Mountain Dew in that span and how moving it was to drink one.  “It tasted like freedom,” he told me.  He kept saying how he can die happy after watching Chuck Berry play in Chicago.  I agreed with Victor as he shared the same feeling of virtually very person in the theater.  Erick was talking to a black guy while waiting in line for a drink who told him he would buy the overpriced ticket he bought tonight again, “even if it was just to watch Chuck Berry tune his guitar.”  He too was right, as we waited for the old man to return all the while hoping he was ok.

About twenty minutes later from the back emerged the Rock God who this time went straight for the mic.  He apologized and wanted to play another song but pointed to the fact they took his guitar away.  The nurse came in from the back with an angry look on her face as Chuck Berry promised us to do his famous Duck Walk regardless of what the doctors say.  With no way to stop him, Chuck Berry Duck Walked across the stage while playing air guitar as the audience cheered madly with a happy spirit of redemption on an otherwise cold night.  He waved good bye and the show was over.  

An hour later Bobby Reed had the story posted on the Sun-Times website, and an hour after that the story hit the Associated Press which sent it national to all the major News outlets.  “Chuck Berry Collapses at Keyboard at Congress Theater in Chicago.”  Some stories painted it as the end of Berry but I don’t think that’s the case, as he played two shows the night before in New York on New Year’s Eve.    He simply collapsed from exhaustion, as he is 85, and we all can only hope to be that lucky.  Rock & Roll by most accounts is dead as the sound that once defined it is now hard to find on the radio as pop is now king.  American culture is in trouble as our economy weakens so does out output of what the world is watching. 
Chuck Berry took me on an emotional roller-coaster that maybe I needed even if it wasn’t through his music.  Even if it was to remind me that artists are only temporary, and to enjoy their output before it goes away because it doesn’t come back.  The sound can remain, but the creation is unique to the artist, and their vision, and Chuck Berry was 20/20 in the way he saw sound.    I wish him the best in 2011 and I hope for the best for myself and my fellow travelers.  New Years day is a chance for new beginnings, as we also take a moment to reflect on once was.

I think Victor had it right when he said with tears in his eyes, “we got to see Chuck Berry in Chicago on New Year’s Day and in my whole life I will never forget that.”  Damn right Victor and welcome to America – you’re one of us now.

AFL 2011

“His mother told him 'some day you will be a man,
And you will be the leader of a big ol' band
Many people comin' from miles around,
To hear you play your music when the sun go down,
Maybe some day your name will be in lights sayin
'Johnny B. Goode' tonight”

--Chuck Berry, Johnny B Goode.

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