After 58 years, the Brown Eyed Handsome Man still packs them in.
These past few years I’ve been on a musical heritage kick. My goal has been to see as many living music legends as I can before they (or I) join the choir eternal. It all began when Paul McCartney came to town a few years ago and I somehow landed free tickets. Like most people, I’d never gotten to see the Beatles — and with the demise of John and George I never would. Seeing Paul was the closest I was going to get. For an old man (I think he was 64 then), Paul was in good form, though he seemed to take advantage of the long ovations between Beatles chestnuts to get his wind.
Soon after that, I got to see was Charlie Louvin of Louvin Brothers’ fame. After the show we got to sit around the fire with Charlie while he told classic stories of Elvis and Hank. Good times.
I can kick myself for not seeing Johnny Cash before he walked the line for the last time. And Waylon Jennings. I think a Grateful Dead concert would have been fun, if only for the freak show value. Sadly, I’m going to miss Loretta Lynn this weekend (though my girlfriend will be there), but I hope to catch her (and Merle Haggard and George Jones and Billy Joe Shaver, etc…) the next time through. I also missed Leonard Cohen, when he came to town recently, though my brother was there. What did he think? “Best…show…ever.” If there is a next time, Leonard, I am there. He also got to see Frank Sinatra not long before Old Blue Eyes took his last bow. If only I had started my musical heritage kick a few years earlier.
There are some artists I know I should see, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. Bob Dylan is one. I would’ve given my right arm to see Dylan when I was in college, but back then he was too good to tour. Now he comes to town every summer and plays at some minor league ballpark with Willie Nelson. I know he is supposed to be in the midst some kind of great comeback, with several Grammy winning albums of late, but I just don’t enjoy the new songs, and I don’t like what he does to the old songs (i.e., sing them). I prefer to remember him as he was.
The Rolling Stones is another band I am not going to see, assuming the Stones ever tour again. It’s not just that they haven’t put out a good album since Some Girl (this heritage kick of mine is about the whole career, not “what have you done for me lately?”), it’s more that tickets would be outrageously expensive and the crowds would be overwhelming. Same goes for The Who and Bruce Springsteen. It’s tough to be on a musical heritage kick when you dislike crowds.
SO I WAS UNDERSTANDABLY excited when, for Christmas, I received tickets to see Chuck Berry. When it comes to the Brown Eyed Handsome Man, I really had no excuse. Chuck plays every third Wednesday at the Duck Room at St. Louis’ Blueberry Hill, which is just a half-hour from my house. And yet I’ve put it off and off, something you really shouldn’t do with an 84-year-old musician.
Berry is different from all of the aforementioned artists (with maybe the exception of Dylan), because he was an originator. Here’s how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s website describes Berry’s influence: “While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together.” Rolling Stone puts only Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley ahead of Berry on its greatest all-time artists list, and it is just plain wrong about Elvis. The King might have been a better crooner, but Chuck was the better musician, performer, and songwriter.
People from all over the world show up for these once-a-month gigs, featuring Chuck and his son Charles Jr., and his daughter Ingrid. And like all of his monthly shows, this Berry show sold out months in advance.
So, how’d he do? Well, he played like an 84-year-old living legend: he had trouble with some solos, he forgot a few lyrics, but when he finally broke into “Johnny B. Goode” toward the end of the set everything seemed to come together. On that one song, Chuck Berry was perfect. He even managed to perform a modified duck walk.
It was fifty-eight years ago that Chuck Berry began playing with the Johnnie Johnson’s Sir John Trio at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis. If rock and roll has a birthplace, that is probably it. I’ve been by the corner of 17th and Bond where the Cosmo Club stood. It is a weedy lot, strewn with broken bottles and bricks. There isn’t even a plaque.
But who needs a plaque when you still have the real thing?
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