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Chuck Berry: Old-Time Music Grows Old

By James R. Beniger

I first notice him standing under a single fluorescent light in a back corner of the shadowy basement night club. His black raincoat is still buttoned to the collar, and a battered brown guitar case hangs at his side.

He is talking with two other Negroes, apparently his managers. While his voice is too soft to hold my attention, my eyes keep returning to his tired mouth and tired face.

The light glistens on the greasy jet-black ducktail precariously perched atop his head. Everything about him is adolescent--the lithe body, the tapered green slacks, the pointed brown loafers with black tassels and black socks. Everything, that is, except his ancient face.

It is the Psychedelic Supermarket, a damp basement garage just off Kenmore Square. No more than a dozen people sit at tables near the stage -- mostly teeny bopper couples with happy-colored beads and sad faces. Two workmen in cover-alls are folding up unused tables and chairs and dragging them past the three men.

The sound system screams psychedelic music. "I'm so glad, I'm so glad, I'm so glad." He stares at his feet, trying not to notice the workmen. "I'm glad, I'm glad, I'm glad."

Album covers line the near wall. The Electric Prunes, Surrealistic Pillow, Fresh Cream, The Grateful Dead--all call out in glaring psychedelic script. Yet there was something in that ancient face of 36 years, smiling weakly in the shadows, that recalls a younger, simpler time.

A time when songs sold in single 45's, and album covers could be read. A time when teenage idols dressed in pink-sequined tuxedoes and sang of schoolrooms and malt shops and juke boxes. A time when singers could have names like "Buddy" and "Elvis" and "Chuck"--"Chuck Berry."

Buddy Holly died in a plane crash. Elvis Presley retreated to the drive-in movie screen. And Chuck Berry stands here in the basement. "I'm glad, I'm glad, I'm glad." The workmen continue to drag furniture away, and Chuck Berry disappears.

More people filter in now--perhaps 50, perhaps a hundred. Chuck Berry passes through the rcowd of hippies, still in his raincoat, and no one notices. At a table near stage, a flatchested teeny-bopper with flowing blonde hair drags awkwardly on a cigarette and scowls dumbly into space.

"He started it all, you know," she says nervously, not breaking her stare. "Rock 'n Roll, I mean." She flicks an ash onto the floor.

No, Chuck Berry didn't quite start rock 'n roll. It had been part of the colored rhythm and blues tradition of the St. Louis in which he grew up. But you could say that he gave rock 'n roll to the Whites--and he should have known that he'd never get it back.

On stage, a new acid-rock group called "The Butter" is playing a new acid-rock number. It is a most unbutterlike performance, with a wailing lead singer who rips at your eardrums and a bass you can hear through your elbows on the table. The blonde is dancing quietly in the backstil smoking, still staring.

She must be too young to remember the spring day in 1955 when the world first heard Chuck Berry. Maybelline was the number, a new recording of the Negro rock song, Ida Red. It took three weeks to climb to the top of the national hit parade. Rock 'n roll was here to stay.

Chuck Berry slips on stage midst the buttered bedlam, carrying a greasy red guitar. Someone is aware enough to start a smattering of applause. Berry does not acknowledge this, but squats with his back to the audience and tugs at an amplifier cord. Quickly he tunes his guitar, places it back in its case on the edge of the stage, and again disappears.

He began singing in his high school glee club during the War. When his interests turned to rhythm and blues, he purchased a six-string Spanish guitar and an instruction book. Three years later, he started a small combo that played the cheaper clubs around St. Louis. The receptionists at four recording studios rejected him before he finally signed with Chess Records. After Maybelline, he went from a $14-a-night stand in East St. Louis to a thousand-dollar matinee in Cleveland.

As the dying screams of The Butter melt away, a fat boy in a blue pull-over sweater strolls on stage with a hand-mike. His introduction is an endless chain of bad jokes that is finally interrupted when Chuck Berry steps awkwardly on stage. This time the applause is polite, if only a burst of relief.

Dressed in a white shirt, waist-hugging black jacket and black tie, Berry seems grotesquely out of place. Behind him stands The Butter, squirming self-consciously in non-conformist natty tweed, marred corduroy and blue denim.

"Are you ready on the right?" Berry

There was once a time when songs sold in single 45's...when teenage idols sang of schoolroomsandmalt shops... A time when... asks the audience almost disinterestedly. "Are you ready on the left?" He looks up and growls into an overhanging red spotlight, "Get ready for 45 minutes of sheer rrrrrock."

The blonde titters and edges forward indulgently. She is here to gawk at a historical figure, and hardly expects to be entertained. Despite her flower-print and beads, it is not difficult to imagine her someday attending concerts for her own self-improvement.

Chuck Berry drops clumsily to his knees to retune his guitar. An old man with pointed loafers and a ducktail--what is he doing holding an electric guitar and talking about rock 'n roll? He seems to belong on a park bench somewhere, drinking wine from a paper sack.

Suddenly he leaps to his feet and breaks into Nadine. The lights bathe him in gently pulsating psychedelic color. Behind him, The Butter hurry to catch up with some left-over noise from their last acid-rock number.

As The Butter establishes the big non-Berry beat, Berry closes his eyes and hangs his head. His fingers break idly into stray chords from Roll Over, Beethoven, and finally he half-heartedly picks up the lyrics:

Well, I'm gonna write a little letter, Gonna mail it to my local deejay; Yeah, there's a jumpin'est record That I want my jockey to play....

"Beatles," the blonde nods knowingly. No, Chuck Berry, I want to tell her--written and sung by Chuck Berry when the only Liverpool sound was the bellow of an ocean-going tanker.

My heart's beatin' rhythm and my soul keeps a-singin' the blues;Roll over, Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news.

He lifts his head back now, chin sparkling, and sets the whites of his eyes writhing in the flashing light. Rising stiff-legged to his full height, he jams his guitar into his crotch and jerks back and forth--riding his wooden horse for all it is worth.

"He must be up on something,"the blonde gasps, momentarily losing her cool. "I wonder what he's up on." Music, I want to say, as the red and green lights flash faster and faster, battering the Rocking Horse Winner into Oh, Carol and a different time and place.

Oh, Carol, don't let him steal your heart away; I'm goin' to learn to dance if it takes me all night and day. Oh, Carol...Carol...Carol...

He glides abruptly to the microphone, blinking his eyes faster and faster to keep up with the lights. Jerking from side to side, he is a ragdoll puppet, a Chaplinesque hero from an old time movie, a haunting Zombie back from the dead.

Maybelline, why can't you be true? Oh, Maybelline, why can't you be true?You done started back doin' the things you used to do.

Then for a moment the stroboscopic lights catch his pulsating body, freezing it in uplifted emotion. Harder and harder it works, trying to break the bondage of light.

Just let me hear some of the rock'n roll music, Any old way you choose it;It's got a back-beat you can't lose it, Any old time you use it; It's gotta be rock'n roll music, If you wanna dance with me.

The hippies stand up and move to the stage. He has them now--but he is no longer there. He stares wide-eyed into the red spotlight and, reaching up, flicks it dumbly on and off, on and off.

Sometimes I will, then again I think I won't. Sometimes I will, then again I think I won't. Sometimes I do, then again I think I don't...I looked at my watch and it was quarter to five; We were rollin' like a Mustang on a four-day drive. Reelin' and a-rockin', rollin' 'till the break of day....

While his mind is somewhere else, his hands are not. His hands, his hands, look at his hands. Old hands, as old as his face. His left hand stiffly fingers the notes, his right hand bangs out the beat on the side of the guitar. Occasionally it slides down to whang out a chord.

Sweet Little Sixteen, she's just got to have 'Bout half a million framed autographs. Her wallet's filled with pictures, She get's 'em one by one,Becomes so excited, Watch her, look at her run....

In the background, pulsating egg yokes and mustard stains move about in the gloom. Berry jiggles the guitar on his hip and wades into the microphone. An epitaph flashes onto his ancient face, "Pyrex--Made in U.S.A."

Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans, Way back up in the woods among the evergreens, There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood Where lived a country boy named Johhny B. Goode, Who never learned to read and write so well, But who could play a guitar just like a ringin' a bell. Go, go, go, Johnny, go....

Berry crouches over his guitar and, spread-eagle, machine-guns the audience. The blonde's head is bobbing, now--a convert. No one is dancing--you can listen to this.

People passin' by, they would stop and say, Oh my, but that little country boy could play....

He stands firmly beneath the fierce red light, tip-toes up to reach the high notes. Perspiration streams down his face. Suddenly he drops into the famous Chuck Berry walk. Knees spread, guitar slung at his ankles, he hops across the stage on his right leg--left leg flailing, head bobbing. The audience that wouldn't be caught dead with his records roars in his face.

His mother told him someday you will be a man, And you will be the leader of a big 'roll band; Many people comin' from miles around To hear you play music when the sun goes down. Maybe someday your name will be in lights, Sayin' Johhny B. Goode tonight.

Finally his head drops, his legs go limp, his guitar pick falls at his side-- and he sings School Days, slurring over parts that he has forgotten.

Hail, hail, rock'n roll, Remember me from the days of old; Long live rock 'n roll, The beat of the drumst is loud and bold. Rock, rock, rock 'n roll,The feeling is there, body and soul....

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