"Maybelline, why can't you be true?
Oh Maybelline, why can't you be true?
You've started back doin' the things you used to do" Chuck Berry
The Washington, DC area must be the best place in the world for an appreciative audience. The Dresser has noted on other occasions that DC audiences stand up for whatever and whomever they like--let's not get into the difference between like and love--and probably the act of standing causes a wave reaction when exuberant audience members block the view of those sitting. On October 22, 2010, she realized a long time wish to see and hear Chuck Berry perhaps similarly to people assembled at North Bethesda, Maryland's Music Center at Strathmore. In any case, this audience jumped to its feet as soon as Berry, dressed in bell-bottom trousers, a flaming orange shirt, and a white captain's hat, stepped on stage. The added bonus was the Dresser's favorite blues and boogie woogie keyboardist Daryl Davis was also on the bill. No matter how many times the Dresser has seen and heard Davis play "Caldonia," she still marvels about how fast and agile his fingers are. Let it be known that Davis, who limited his opening performance to piano, keyboard, and singing, and his band: the stick-flipping Adolph Wright drums, the passionate Del Puschert on sax, Mark Neary on guitar, and Cha Cha Mundo on bass also got a well-deserved standing ovation.
WHO SAID BERRY HAD TO DUCK WALK?
In the case of Chuck Berry, the audience was clearly paying deference to the legendary songwriter and performer who established the model for how rock and roll would distinguish itself from rhythm and blues. Individuals called out happy birthday, knowing that Berry celebrated his 84th on October 18th. People were kind as Berry noted his various slips that he chalked up to age. He also said he was thankful that no one booed. Those who came to hear the house rock out--his back-up band was quite able: Daryl Davis on piano/keyboard, Adolph Wright on drums, and Jimmy Marsala on base--got barely one verse of his most famous hits like "Maybelline" and "Little Queenie." "Nadine" was not only lacking its lyrics but it was off key and geriatric in tempo.
Granted an octogenarian should not be expected to duck walk--remarkably Berry still does a modified version of his famous squat hops on a mostly straight leg, but not to remember his block-busting jukebox hits? On the other hand, Berry recited several stanzas of a long poem until his nose started running and broke his concentration. This "not remembering" defies recent neurolinguistic wisdom in which educators set grammar rules to old folk tunes to help elementary school children learn grammar, medical students learn herpes facts sung to the tune of "Sound of Silence," and creative therapists organize senior citizens for extended vocal performances to keep them sharp and active.
LOOKING FOR THE QUEENIES
OK, so Berry was improvising lyrics ("one little kiss for an old time used-to-be" or "Oh, baby, what's wrong with you?") and filling in with jokes and anecdotes. However, everyone, including his band members, tried to make sense of what he was buying time with. For the last number, "Johnny B. Good," he invited eight women on stage and probably much to his disappointment none of them were teenage queenies. And just to be fair, the mic-ing for voice for both Berry's and Davis' performances was unacceptably fuzzy.
So what was the problem? Was Berry too tired to perform or just bored out of his gourd from years of performing the same numbers? The Dresser's seatmate thinks Berry, like lots of elderly folk, can now only do one thing at a time, so forget singing, playing guitar, leading the band with his upraised leg, flirting with the little queenies, and duck walking. He can recite a poem but he can't be the Berry of rock and roll legend.
BEHIND DOOR #1
Back in the early 1990s when the Dresser was getting very practiced in the skills of six- and eight-count swing dancing, she and two her bosses were sent to St. Louis, Missouri, on USDA business. The Dresser heard on a local station about a beach blanket jitterbug party out in the 'burbs of St. Louis and convinced her female associates to go after work. By mistake, they first landed in a dirty nightclub offering lap dances for women, followed by finding the boring jitterbug party around the corner. Much to the Dresser's dismay, she heard when she got back to her hotel room that Chuck Berry was celebrating his birthday on the other side of St. Louis and that party was the place to dance and rock out with the old wild man.
In the poem "John Wayne Among the Nightingales," J. H. Beall provides an alternative portrait of the long revered songbird. Perhaps the Dresser in attending Chuck Berry's Strathmore Hall concert had once again wandered into the wrong door.
JOHN WAYNE AMONG THE NIGHTINGALES
These wretched birds do me
great injustices where I walk.
The ground heaves away
beneath my feet, and the sky
becomes a dusty blue.
I sniff the dry air.
At night, their sounds fill up
all spaces, and I cannot breathe.
I wake from this dream.
My sheets are damp grass.
The birds are close then.
If I could reach them, or pick
their dark shapes out against
my sights, their feathers would flash
briefly, frail bones breaking
under the mere echo of my gun.
By J. H. Beall
Copyright © 2010 J. H. Beall