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Duck Walker turns Eighty Duck Walker turns Eighty
by C.J. Michaels
2006-10-19 10:14:38
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The man who rocked the fifties into high gear has become an octogenarian. Unlike his peers, however, he seems to care little for audience appreciation and the fingerpicking genius who gave us the likes of 'Mabelline', 'Roll Over Beethoven' and 'Johnny B Goode', has all but disappeared. What's taken his place is an image of the legend, grinning and posturing on stage, thrashing out bland rhythm guitar and shouting tuneless lyrics.

At my first Chuck Berry concert, at the original Lone Star café in New York, I was drunk. I doubt that anyone would empathize if I tried to blame him for that, but it's true that he always insists on closing the show and comes on late.

The narrow layout of the Lone Star, with a bottleneck where the stage and bar faced each other along the thinnest part, made it difficult to move around. Once in place, in the sweet spot by the bar, it was necessary to stay put or get relegated to the distant ends, where sound was poor and visibility virtually nil.

The place filled early and I had a couple of beer-fueled hours until the spotlights narrowed and picked out a white-suited Chuck Berry duck-walking on to the stage, thrashing an unidentifiable rhythm from his big red guitar.

For forty-five minutes exactly, he played all the favorites, from 'Sweet Little Sixteen' to 'No Particular Place To Go', but all were punished and tortured. 'Roll Over Beethoven', his entrance song, came across as a staccato rendition with the words giving the feeling that they'd been pushed out under duress and the guitar sounded more like a Dave Edmunds beat than any of Chuck's distinctive riffs.

Did I hear the concert through drunken ears or see it through blurry eyes? Was it that the interior of the Lone Star wasn't conducive to good sound? Both are true, but the simple fact is that he wasn't much good.

There were no boos or catcalls, but plenty of overheard comments from people on either side told the same story of disappointment. When did he go off the boil? Why? What caused the man who'd become an icon, helped to anger a generation of parents and whose music was instrumental in easing race relations, to lose his touch?

I remember those harsh days at school where the “guy behind you won't leave you alone” and I've driven into the sunrise, bleary-eyed after leaving a girlfriend, down the “New Jersey Turnpike in the wee wee hours.” And who can forget the scene in American Graffiti with John the greaser leaping over and around the car with the fourteen-year-old, as Wolfman Jack's fictitious radio station belts out 'Johnny B Good'?

The fifties and sixties represents a very special era in popular music; one of musical and social change unlike any other. The rock 'n roll that blasted across teenager's car radios, transistors and record players is more than just a collection of oldies. For those of us brought up on forty-fives and who remember cassettes as a monumental advance from the eight-track, it's more than a memory of times gone by.

Live music from artists of those days captures the imagination in much the same way as a good novel transports the reader to another world. Performers still working often record new and very different material, but generally remain true to their original sound when they play their old songs.

Through the '80s and '90s, I saw a great many fifties and sixties acts in intimate venues around New York, where the audience was merely feet from the stage. Artists such as Dion, Carl Perkins, Charly Gracey, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and others, performed at their best in places like, Tramps, Chicago Blues and the Continental Club. All played their sets as they might have decades earlier and gave the audience what they wanted. What they'd paid for.

I'm not a cynic and I don't expect artists to not move on musically, but the Chuck Berry problem wasn't that he presented new material – it was simply a soulless, lackluster performance. It was as if he treated his presence on stage as a job he no longer wanted but could still wring some money from and, to me, that night at the Lone Star felt like betrayal.

Admittedly, my first vision of Chuck Berry was through beer goggles but, at other concerts throughout the '80s and '90s, I saw nothing different besides the venue. He's much the same on live albums and, the only exception of note is the 1986 film Hail Hail Rock 'n Roll, produced by Keith Richards as a 60th birthday present to the man who'd been one of his early his inspirations.

In the film, Richards makes his own references to Berry's stage shortcomings. He attributes them to a mix of laziness, financial tightness and his refusal to rehearse with the house bands, who he always uses in preference to touring with a stable combo. Perhaps he should.

I admit that I haven't attended a Chuck Berry performance for several years and so he might have injected some semblance of his old self back into his stage life. I hope so, I really do, but I'm skeptical.

What's that line from 'Schoolday' – “Deliver me from the days of old”? Nah – bring 'em back, Chuck.

 
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Asa2006-10-18 19:54:47
During a trip to Disney, my Dad, brother and I lipsynched and performed to Johnny B. Goode. I put so much energy in to my performance, a la Michael J Fox in Back to the Future, that I felt physically exhausted come the song's end. I was perked up when I saw a large crowd had gathered outside the window to watch my antics!

Perhaps our home video of it shoud be uploaded to YouTube some day...


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