My first ever favourite song was Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry (recorded January 6th, 1958). We had one of those early ’70’s funky round pedestal-style record players with the speakers that looked like bowling balls, and I would stand in front of that machine and play Johnny B. Goode over and over again (occasionally swapping it out for Let’s Twist Again by Chubby Checker featuring Dee Dee Sharp, but not very often).
Every time Johnny B. Goode came on the radio my mom would yell to me, “Hey Todd, they’re playing your song!” and I would run into the room and sing along; I knew every word (even if I had – and still have – several of them wrong).
I can even remember sitting down one evening at the kitchen table and penning a fan letter. “Dear Johnny B. Goode,” it started, “I really, really, really like your song.”
When my mother noticed what I was doing she explained to me that Johnny B. Goode wasn’t a real person, it was just a made up song by some guy named Chuck Berry. I was so disillusioned I crumpled up my first fan letter* and threw it in the garbage.
(When The Gong Show hit the air it was some time before I realized that Chuck Berry and Chuck Barris were two different people. I had a very confusing childhood)
So, when it occurred to me that Chuck Berry was still alive and kicking (and occasionally touring) I watched his meagre tour schedule closely. He seemed to play a gig a month at his manager’s club in St. Louis and I considered using my airmiles for a quick in-and-out, but when he announced a one-off show in Easton, Pennsylvania on November 5th, 2011 that coincided with a nearby Dead show I grabbed a pair of tickets and filled the gas tank.
I like those old American theatres that seem to exist in almost every small town, and it’s good to see so many of them enjoying a renaissance. I took my soft seat near the back of the State Theatre and watched as the town’s mayor led the opening band through a set of ’60’s three-chord standards.
After the shortest of breaks Chuck Berry’s band came on stage. This wasn’t a thrown-together local support act; Berry’s own son was in the band, and the bass player had been playing with the legend for decades.
Moments after the chugga-chugga music started the hall was filled with a gawd-awful buzzsaw sound of overdriven guitar. I immediately looked to the guitarist, thinking he was tuning up and the sound was accidentally going out through the mains at full volume but no, I was wrong.
Out walked the man, the legend, one of the originators of this great thing called rock & roll music: Chuck Berry, and it was him and his big red Gibson 335 making all that horrible racket.
As the inevitable thunderous welcoming applause died down the room was filled by the random demented quasi-music of a band obviously hitting nothing but speed bumps. After two minutes of wrangling through and around Roll Over Beethoven Berry slammed his left leg to the floor and signalled a full stop. The crowd screamed their appreciation prompting Chuck Berry to announce that they were going to blow the roof off of the place.
His second number seemed to suggest that things weren’t going to improve. His voice was in fine form, though lacking the power of his younger days, but Berry’s too-loud whacked-out guitar (un)playing was the elephant in the room that upstaged all attempts at musicality.
And it wouldn’t get any better. Song after song Berry would intersperse every verse and every chorus with the most atonal non-guitar playing one could imagine. His solos were off the hook bad, I mean this was some seriously messed up stuff we were hearing.
A song might last three minutes or it might last just forty-five seconds, each number ended abruptly when Chuck slammed his right foot to the stage. The drummer kept his eyes on Berry’s leg for the whole show.
A couple of odd things happened. Midsong Chuck strolled to the side of the stage and pulled a man from the wings. He walked the man over to the keyboard player who was in the middle of a solo and introduced the two men. The surprised keyboard player shook the stranger’s hand and at Chuck’s request gave up his seat to the newcomer, who jumped right into a solo of his own.
Um, did Chuck Berry just fire his pianist in the middle of a solo? The guy stood beside his gear with his arms crossed, watching this stranger take his place. It was one of the oddest things I’ve seen at a show. After the song the personnel returned to normal and the surprise guest returned to his place in the wings.
During another song Chuck engaged some audience members who had implored him to tune his guitar (the guitar was fine, but I can understand that some people would mistakenly attribute his off-key playing to the instrument itself). As Berry spoke to the guys in the front row he obviously forgot he was supposed to be singing a song, and two of his band members jumped in and started waving their hands in his face, telling him to keep singing.
That’s when it dawned on me: Chuck Berry has dementia.
He’s long had the reputation of calling out his songs in different keys night after night, so in his mind none of his songs are in any particular key. I’m guessing that every time he looks down at his fingers to tear into a riff he forgets what key he’s supposed to be in, so he might play a quick riff in G, stop for a millisecond before tossing out another riff, this time in C#, and finishing off with a whomp-dee-whomp-dee in F#, all pretty sloppy and all over a song in the key of Bb.
Frankly, dementia explains everything. Not only does it explain his atrocious playing and his odd, easily distractive behaviour onstage, but it also explains how he can keep going out on the road and playing like this before a paying audience; he must forget that he’s forgotten how to play the guitar.
Not that there wasn’t occasional flashes of the Chuck Berry I’ve always known and loved. Every once in a while (about a twelfth of the time?) serendipity would place the guitarist’s fingers on the right fret and a glimpse of the greatness would slip through, before being immediately shattered by another unfortunate stab in the dark.
After the show I joined about twenty others in the parking lot behind the theatre hoping the meet the legend. Unfortunately we were shut out, Chuck was rushed out the stage door and placed in the back of a rented Nissan. He ducked down and pulled his hat over his eyes as the car sped past like it was full of Presidents of The United States. Weird dude.
Back at the hotel one thing that kept crossing my mind was whether or not this had been a standard Chuck Berry show or if something unusual was going on. Which means if I ever get the chance to see him again I’ll probably end up buying a ticket just to find out.
Sometimes I wonder what’s wrong with me.
*My second and final fan letter was to The Fonz. I sent it when I was in Grade 3. I was old enough to know that The Fonz wasn’t a real person, that he was a character played on TV by Henry Winkler, but I clearly wasn’t old enough to realize he wouldn’t fall for the old “I told all my friends that you’re my uncle so could you please come to Moncton and stay at my house next weekend…” trick. Though I believe they may have used my letter for a future plot line.