Here’s the situation: We’re sending a time capsule into outer space in the hope that it might be read/viewed/heard by life forms on other planets. You’ve been asked to include a rock & roll song. What would you choose? My choice would be made without hesitation: “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry.
Thanks to the thoughtful generosity of my wife and kids, I was able to check off an item on my personal Bucket List when Santa gave me two tickets to see Chuck Berry at BB King’s Nightclub in Times Sguare on New Year’s Eve. Since none of my family members were willing to brave the madness of Times Square on that night, I brought along a friend and colleague who laughs in the face of madness: Pete Gregory ’89.
I love Chuck Berry for his disarming simplicity – 3 chords about three topics: cars, girls, and high school. His lyrics are spot on. (Is there a better anthem on “teenagerness” than “No Particular Place to Go”?) And his guitar riffs are so ubiquitous that teenagers who have never heard of him spend hours mastering licks that they don’t even know began with him. He’s 85 and doesn’t do many shows anymore. New Year’s Eve 2011 was my chance! After a delightful early dinner with another guy who embraces madness — Ken Goris ’90 — we headed to the show.
As I wrote to some Facebook friends after the show, ’Twas a night to remember. In a number of places he just plain forgot the words to the very legendary songs he penned a half-century ago. (He even apologized to the audience a few times for it.) Then just when you’d start to feel sorry for him, he’d hoist that axe and rip off those classic riffs that he also created as if to say, “I ain’t done yet!” He was either playing the audience OR the memory in his fingers just took over to cover for what the mind could no longer remember. Pro personified.
He also showed that rock & roll defiance when the stage manager motioned him off the stage after his “last” number. (There were two shows that night and they wanted to clear the hall for the second one.) Chuck started to walk off-stage, turned and grinned at the audience, turned right and sneered at the management, then turned left to his band and said, “Let’s do one more.” Yeah!!!
John Lennon famously said, “If rock & roll had another name, they’d have to call it Chuck Berry.” How’s that for disarming simplicity?
“Hail, hail, rock & roll! Malcolm Gauld