Berry taps into an ageless joy
Los Angeles Times
Jan 28 / 2002
By Randy Lewis
At 75, the veteran rocker thoroughly enjoys himself onstage - and says he's still learning. "Anybody would understand it's fun", he says.
Nobody batted an eye four decades ago when Mick Jagger suggested how silly it would be for him to still be singing odes to teen lust once he'd turned 50. His comment conjured what seemed, back then, a preposterous image of middle-aged men practicing what was created as a young man's art.
So how on earth did Chuck Berry, who turned 75 last October, manage to look and sound so gloriously ageless Saturday at the Universal Amphitheatre as he sang about "Sweet Little Sixteen" and ordered Beethoven to roll over once more?
His co-headliner, Little Richard, couldn't do it even though he's
six years Berry's junior. Rock's original wild man appeared game but
huffed and puffed his way through a set that only intermittently
transcended rote nostalgia, then left the building immediately,
scotching the scheduled musical meeting of two of rock's founding
fathers. Berry, on the other hand, was so full of vitality you wanted to
X-ray that old Gibson guitar of his to find the flask he must have filled at
the fountain of youth.
The spirit, spontaneity and energy rock's first poet put into his hourlong
set was all the more remarkable in light of decades of half-hearted performances in which he typically battled rather than meshed with
unrehearsed musicians hired for him in each town.
At Universal he was backed by a lively trio consisting of fellow
St. Louis musician Jim Marsala on bass, who has accompanied Berry off and
on for four decades, plus pianist Michael Clark and drummer Kirk Arthur,
both of whom have played with him regularly for some 13 years.
Evidently the monthly club gigs he's been doing back in St. Louis for the
last five years have reminded him that it takes a real band to
really rock. It also seems to have rekindled his passion for honest
expression in concert as well as his respect for his audience
and his own legacy.
"It must still be fun, because I don't have to hit a lick anymore", Berry acknowledged during an interview Thursday in his dressing room at "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" before a joint appearance that night with Richard. The implication was that fans will cheer this first-round Rock and Roll Hall of Famer no matter what he does, or doesn't do, on stage at this point in his career.
"What keeps me going is the fact that I appreciate that response", Berry
added. "Plus I'm still learning, and that's a big part of my life - to
learn. These guitar strokes I'm learning, still learning - yes, it's fun.
Anybody would understand it's fun". So much fun, in fact, that Berry
swears 2002 will be the year he puts out an album of new material
he's been talking about for the better part of Britney Spears' lifetime.
He also clearly still has fun with playing with words, something that sets
his richly detailed songs apart from often generic declarations of love
and longing common during rock's embryonic stage. That unyielding desire
for the specific came out in the interview, when he was briefly stumped
upon being asked whether it's harder to keep performing long after most of
his contemporaries have retired or died.
"Break down 'harder' for me", he said, with one of many laughs that also
contradicted his reputation as a man who endures interviews as if at
Restated to ask if he found performing more taxing, more tiring or as much
fun as when he was helping define the archetype of the electric guitar-wielding songwriter-performer in the mid '50s, Berry relaxed and answered.
"Yes, it's more tiring, but since I don't do it as much as I used to, it's
not really that much more taxing. See why I couldn't answer the question
He sighs, then adds, "Ahh, I should have been a son of Einstein", slyly
rolling his eyes at his canny syntactic analysis.
Einstein's name surfaces again later when Berry outlined the philosophy
that, despite his three prison terms and various personal and professional
quagmires, may have saved him from reaching the point of no return on the
road to self-destruction like so many other rockers.
"One of my realizations is that if you revel over joy," he says, "you're
going to ache over pain and get killed over hurt. Your span of feelings
are going to go just as far one way as the other. So when something real
good comes to you, take it and chew on it... Then when something bitter
gets in there, you won't feel too bad chewing it and smiling, because the
other one wasn't that good, so this won't be that bad... That's
mathematical, and I think Einstein would have agreed with that".
Few could argue that while much of the repertoire created during rock's
infancy can sound dated or corny, Berry's canon holds up magnificently.
That's due in large part to the fact that he wrote from the perspective of
an observer rather than a participant, and a gifted storyteller
never gets old or goes out of fashion.
Still, Berry says he's long past discussing hotrods and teenage romance.
"Now I'm writing about the life I'm living, and the life my generation is
living - and the generation right behind me is close to [that life], so
they can look forward to it". He quickly reels off a couplet from one new
song, "A builder built a temple / He wrought it with grace and skill",
noting, "Now that has nothing to do with "Come back, baby".
It's anybody's guess how Elvis would come off issuing warnings about his
blue suede shoes as he reached Social Security age, but on Saturday Berry
went beyond merely credible. He tapped in-the-moment joy singing of the
"rolling arthritis sitting down by the rhythm revue" in "Roll Over
Beethoven" all these years later.
"Years?" he said during the interview. "I got news for you - so far it's
life. Elvis' songs will always be there, and I hope mine will be after I'm
"But", he interjected with a twinkle in those 75-year-old eyes, "you can't compare that, because he's gone, and I'm not!".
Berry, Diddley, Little Richard honored in L.A.
May 15 / 2002
By Dean Goodman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In a rare public reunion of three of the greatest names in rock'n'roll, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley were toasted Tuesday for their "unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers".
The musical pioneers picked up inaugural BMI Icon Awards at performing rights group.
Broadcast Music Inc.'s 50th annual pop music awards black-tie dinner at a Beverly Hills hotel.
Rather than address the crowd, they let their timeless tunes do the work. George Thorogood, Jonny Lang, Mavis Staples and Ivan Neville took turns performing versions of such pop classics as Diddley's "I'm A Man", Richard's "Rip It Up" and Berry's "Living in the USA".
Afterwards, they took the stage to receive silver bowls inscribed, "In recognition of your unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers".
Lang, who covered Berry's first hit "Maybellene", marveled at the singer/songwriter/guitarist's poetic abilities.
"He writes books. He writes short stories", he told Reuters after the performance.
But Berry, 75, prided himself on giving one-word answers when chatting with reporters beforehand. How does it feel to be an icon, he was asked.
"Wonderful". These are one word answers!"
Are you excited about getting this award?
When was the last time you and Little Richard and Bo Diddley were in the same room together?
But he did reveal that he was putting all his energy into writing songs for an album that he hoped to release this year via an as-yet-unspecified label. Berry released his last studio album in 1979.
Diddley, 73, separately denied that this was the first time the three had hung out together.
"Oh no, man. I'm 48 years out here with these guys, you know?" (Diddley and Berry cut an album together in 1964).
He described them as his brothers: "We don't hug and kiss each other, but they're my buddies, you know?".
Like Berry, he is working on material in his studio, "so I can show 'em what Grandpa's doing".