Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Bye Bye Johnnie

On September 2, 1995, I went with Lori and my friend Paul to the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We'd bought the "special" tickets that allowed us to tour the museum during the afternoon a few hours before the show. Well, ok, Lori and I had the tickets, and in true rock and roll form we managed to slip Paul in with us. We went downstairs to the museum, stopping first at the Chuck Berry exhibit. That was mandatory.

We eventually found our way to the Springsteen exhibit. I was looking up at Garry Tallent's bass guitar when Paul blurted out, "That's Garry Fucking Tallent!" Yes, it was a nice guitar! "That's Garry Fucking Tallent, right there!" At which point I realized I was, in fact, standing next to Garry Fucking Tallent, under Garry Fucking Tallent's bass guitar.

By this point, I knew that Garry, along with Bruce Springsteen and the rest of the E Street Band would be opening up the concert that evening by backing up Chuck Berry for "Johnny B. Goode." Springsteen had told a story in the film, Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll about a 1973 gig in which the E Street Band had backed Berry. Bruce recalled, "about five minutes before the show was about to start, the door opens, he comes in, he's by himself... and I said, 'Chuck, what songs are we gonna do?' and he said, 'We're gonna do some Chuck Berry songs.'" Bruce went on to describe the show, and how the band was in a panic throughout the show: "What song is it? What key?," and that they were running to Garry, because only Garry knew all the keys that Chuck used.

So here I am, standing with Garry Tallent by Garry Tallent's guitar, and I couldn't resist: "Is it true you're opening the show tonight?" "Yes, me and Chuck!" He was smiling. Then I asked, approximately, "do you have all the keys?," and he gave me a look, like, "that never happened."

Later that night, the opening of "Johnny B. Goode" was fine.
But Garry couldn't save the closer of "Rock and Roll Music," and you're not likely to find a youtube for it. As Nils Lofgren recalled in an interview for the Hall of Fame, "Somehow, a minute or two in, he... shifts the song in gears and a key without talking to us... So, we're all like… trying not to make a train wreck, and it's tricky. Okay, what key is he in? Let's start playing there... We’re all looking around at each other, the cast of characters and the backup band; these are pros, decades in. We are making these horrible sounds, collectively, in front of a stadium, sold out. We’re looking at each other like, ‘This can’t be happening, right? We’re not creating this thing we’re listening to. Yes, we are.’ At the height of it, when no one has any idea how to fix this... he leaves the stage, leaves us all out there playing in six different keys with no band leader, gets in the car and drives away... I don’t think the two of us [Bruce and Nils] have ever participated in something that godawful musically since we were probably 13 or 14. I didn’t even start playing until I was 14."

I can't find a youtube of that one, and while I'm not sure I can name the best thing I've ever seen from a major act on a rock and roll stage, I'm pretty sure that's the most memorably wretched. Maybe not the worst, definitely the most memorable.

On October 27, 2012, I took my then 15-year old son to the American Music Masters concert in Cleveland, honoring Chuck Berry. Aaron was just learning guitar himself, and this would be an evening with the stars paying tribute to the pioneer. My friend Lauren produced the show, and I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase seats in the front row of the balcony.

This was a great night all the way around. I took only short videos, snippets. Chuck himself came out for a couple songs at the end. His comment that stayed with me was, "I'm 86 years old and I'm happy to be anywhere!"

These late career shows, long after the days of his major hits, almost seem to leave Berry as icon.

But really, Chuck was the father of the music that I know as rock and roll. John Lennon and Keith Richards worshipped Chuck Berry. When I went back to learn the roots, it was in substantial measure by buying -- and more or less memorizing -- The Great Twenty-Eight, hearing the interplay between Berry's guitar and Johnnie Johnson's piano, and trying to learn at least a little of the story.

Berry is remembered for the duck walk, and for the cheesy novelty song that was his only #1 hit. But I don't know that there is a rock song, anywhere, that's better than "Promised Land." Lyrically, musically, and performance. Though there might be some Chuck Berry songs out there that'll qualify.

There will be one last Chuck Berry album, titled simply Chuck. The first single was released for preview today.