I’ve been thinking a lot about Chuck Berry and rock ‘n’ roll and getting old and dying since Berry went to the great jam session in the sky last weekend.
I didn’t grow up listening to a lot of Chuck Berry. My youth was spent listening to his musical heirs, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and so many others who heard what Berry was doing and were inspired to grab a guitar.
Little did I know at the time, but the first 45 I ever spun — a four-song single by the Beatles that I still have — featured a Berry composition, “Roll Over Beethoven.” That was my first favorite song, at least until “Hanky Panky” came along. Or maybe it was “I’m Henry VIII, I Am.”
Berry really hit my radar first when I saw “American Graffiti.” So much of the soundtrack felt schmaltzy and ancient, far removed from my mid-‘70s teenage world, but when “Johnny B. Goode” came on in the stoplight scene where John Milner lets the air out of the water-balloonist’s tires, I got a jolt. I don’t think I yet recognized that Berry planted the seed from which rock music grew, but I knew I liked it.
A few years later I got involved in my first band, the Steve Miller Band. So, no, it wasn’t THE Steve Miller. It was a guy I had worked with mounting tires in the Montgomery Ward auto shop who invited me to get my guitar out from under my bed and come make some noise.
One of the guys we jammed with, Bill Stixrud, had a serious Berry fixation. He had a red Gibson ES335 guitar, just like Chuck, and I laid the foundation of my guitar playing learning Berry songs from Bill, who was a little older than us — and wiser. I’m pretty sure every band I’ve been part of since then has played “Johnny B. Goode,” if not as part of a regular set, then at least for fun in rehearsal.
I started wondering whether Berry had ever played in La Crosse, and was told by some colleagues at the paper that he had. So I went to the archives room at the La Crosse Public Library, where they helped me go through the files covering at least 30 years and came up with nothing. I couldn’t believe it. Had the Tribune really not covered a Chuck Berry show?
Even more unbelievable, when I was in the archives room trying to track down the Berry concert, an older man piped up. The man, Mickey Law, told me he had gone to visit Berry in prison in the early 1960s, when he was 15 and living in Springfield, Mo., where Berry was locked up for 20 months for violating the Mann Act (transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for “immoral purposes”). The prison was mostly full of inmates with medical problems, and Law said they had the plenty healthy Berry sweeping up.
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Berry seemed bitter and didn’t want to talk about music with him. Law remembers Berry sharing one bit of advice with him: “Stay away from white women.”
I figured my next step in search of Chuck Berry had to be Dave’s Guitar Shop, and that paid off. One staffer there had been to the concert, which he recalled was in 1982, but I didn’t nail down the date until Doug Connell, the Tribune’s former librarian, stopped in the library archives and figured out it was Dec. 14, 1982.
Somehow, the archives had missed clipping out coverage of the Chuck Berry concert 35 years ago. Maybe it was all the chaos around the holiday season or something. When I saw the Tribune’s stories about Berry, I kind of wished they hadn’t been found. The scathing review, written by a very young staff member, asserted that Berry, at 56, was too old to be rockin’ anymore, generalizing that all rockers should give it up before they get old.
I don’t think the reviewer realized that Berry was playing with an unrehearsed band of local musicians he had never met before (missed a good story there) and that he broke two guitar strings in the course of the concert and kept on rocking’. He didn’t even get a sound check in before the show. There certainly could have been reasons why Berry’s concert might not have been as richly satisfying as his records, but age wasn’t one of them.
I’m 56 now myself, and I would consider myself beyond fortunate if I could perform — or even breathe — for another 30 years the way Berry did. And, hey, some of the best rock concerts I’ve seen in my life have been by people past age 56. I saw Paul McCartney last year when he was 73, and he still had a great voice and carried himself with the swagger he had as a young Beatle on top of the world.
Greg Haskell and Dennis Roesler, two of the local musicians who backed Berry back in 1982, are still playing four-hour sets at area bars and staying up way past the 10 o’clock news, and they’re in their mid 60s.
So I have two words for aging musicians (and regular readers of this column know all too well what’s coming next):
Rock on …