Sixteen years ago, roughly on the occasion of his 75th birthday, I flew to St. Louis to talk to Chuck Berry. This was per our arrangement. Chuck said there would be none of those long confessional conversations where “the writer moves into my house and watches me brush my teeth in my pajamas.” Instead, I was to travel to Old St. Loo at one-month intervals, chat for a couple of hours at the Blueberry Hill club and then go home. This worked well, for a while, Chuck always appearing at the appointed place and time. Chuck might have developed a reputation over his matchless career for some nasty habits, but lack of punctuality was not one of them. Through thousands of gigs, no matter how remote the venue, Chuck was always there, on the dot, as long as the money was up and his three standard contract demands were fulfilled: a Lincoln town car at the airport, a Fender Bassman amp and an “able” pick-up band, as in, a band “able to play Chuck Berry songs,” which should go without saying, because how could any band be a band if it couldn’t play Chuck Berry songs?
So it was a surprise when Chuck did not show up to our last meeting. Reaching him at his home at Berry Park outside Wentzville, Missouri, Chuck was cheerfully unapologetic. He said he hadn’t forgotten our date because “I never forget anything.” He simply decided he had other, more important things to do. At the moment, he was just finishing troweling a little cement on his front doorstep. After that, he planned to pull up a chair on the lawn to “watch it set.” “Call me capricious,” said the man who once allegedly flicked the ash of his cigarette down Keith Richards’ shirt, adding that we both knew he’d already given me “plenty.”
This was, of course, accurate. Over lunches of chicken wings and coleslaw, Chuck, captain’s hat upon his head, had reprised his singular American journey. He had even let me drive his Toyota Avalon, albeit briefly. The Avalon was a serious letdown after all that detail-rich automotive phantasmagoria described in tunes like “No Money Down” and “You Can’t Catch Me.” But there was a purpose to it, Chuck said: “In a Toyota, the cops don’t stop you as much.”
Did the cops actually stop him, even now? I asked.
“Shit, yeah,” Chuck replied, with a flash of sternness. “They stop me. They’ll let me go after they see it’s me, but they stop me. Always have, always will.”
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That was another thing Chuck gave me, the horse’s-mouth testimony that even when you’re the Father of Rock & Roll, the cops will still stop you for being, as Chuck said, “a color other than white.” Asked if he had ever gotten over the way so many white groups, the Beach Boys and Beatles included, made fortunes out of his music, or the fact that, like Muhammad Ali, years were taken from the prime of his career after he was busted on the rarely invoked Mann Act (a law prohibiting the transport of a woman across a state line for an “immoral purpose”; Charlie Chaplin, pegged as a communist, and the brash black boxer Jack Johnson were similarly accused), Chuck said, “Get over it? Not really.”
Chuck told me that, outside of his family, the last thing he ever wanted to see on this Earth was the number “1 million” inscribed in his bankbook. No doubt he achieved that, which maybe squared things up, to a degree. It is also sweet to hear that the record he’d been working on for the past couple of decades will come out in June. The song list contains a tune called “Jamaica Moon,” which brought a smile to my face, owing to an incident that occurred during our visits. At the time, Chuck had not been in a commercial recording studio for 17 years. He’d been fooling around at home, but now he wanted to make “a real record.” Admitting to some nervousness, Chuck entered the studio with boxes full of old sheet music and reel-to-reel tapes. One page flew out and fluttered to rest at my feet.
It was the original sheet music, with Chuck’s penciled notations, for “Havana Moon,” one of my all-time favorites. Not at all like the more familiar “Chuck Berry songs,” “Havana Moon” tells a vernacular story of a local who falls in love with a beautiful tourist on a tropical island. The local spends most of the tune waiting for his love to return, only to have dozed off when she actually arrives, not waking up until he sees her boat head “for horizon.” It always gets me, that one, but before I could pick the sheet music from the floor, Chuck snagged it and jammed it back into its box. It was a good song, Chuck said, but he’d grown to hate it. “It never made a dime,” he said, attributing the lack of sales to “Fidel Castro, the whole communist-Cuba thing down there.” He said that one day, if he got around to it, he would rewrite the song as the less-controversial “Jamaica Moon,” and put it out on a new record. It was nice to see he found the time.