Sunday, October 28, 2012

No Particular Place to Go

As the curtain races toward the ceiling, there he is, standing in the flesh. Black pants, black shirt, white sailor hat that has become ubiquitous in his later years perched atop his head, his wrinkled hands clutching a guitar that appears far too heavy for him, his fingers strumming along to a song that surely sounds much too loud. He looks different than the pictures — partly because the most prominent ones were taken some 50 years ago — his skin a bit darker, his iconic smile slightly weaker. He seems a little confused, to be completely honest, slightly overmatched by the music, the stage, the force of the moment.

And the entire crowd rises to its feet, whistling and hollering and slamming their hands together in pure and genuine appreciation.

“Hello.” You see him mouth the words but can't quite hear him, standing just out of range of the microphone a few feet in front of him. His left arm pulls the neck of his guitar a few inches higher as his fingers rollick up and down the frets, a man that looks an awful lot like Chuck Berry launching into a song that sounds fairly reminiscent of “Johnny B. Goode.”

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It's impossible to designate one person as the creator of rock 'n' roll music, just as it's impossible to diminish Chuck Berry's role in the whole ordeal. He certainly didn't invent the genre or the culture surrounding it all on his own, but he was there on the ground floor, a sure-fire member of the First Continental Congress of Rock if there ever were one. His influence is found in nearly every musician of popular music that has followed, from Paul McCartney and Keith Richards to Kanye West and Carly Rae Jepsen. We know this because they told us or because we can hear it in their songs; nothing new is ever truly original, always impacted in part by something that preceded it, traced back to the very beginning. Rock 'n' roll would no doubt still exist whether Chuck was involved or not, but it certainly wouldn't be the same.

This is why Berry received and deserves his recent honor of American Music Master via the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. He was a member of the hall's initial induction class back in 1986, an honor as warranted as it must have been obvious. The only natural step was becoming the newest recipient of the hall's most prestigious award, earning him a weeklong celebration titled Roll Over Beethoven: The Life and Music of Chuck Berry, all culminating at a tribute concert paying audible homage to his incredible legacy.

The outpouring of respect and reverence proves to be the most memorable part of the final evening, with each original Chuck Berry song sandwiched between words of unconditional gratitude from the musicians in attendance. And that's the way it should be. The event, and honor in general, are ultimately about celebrating the man that made it all possible (“it” being rock music), whether by those like Ronnie Hawkins, Lemmy Kilmister, Darryl DMC McDaniels, Merle Haggard and Ernie Isley who were all there in person, or by those like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen who have esteemed him with their own talents over the past many years. The greatest thing you can say about Chuck Berry is that he's responsible in part for the legacy of all those previously mentioned, among countless others. None of it exists without Chuck's influence. His fingerprints are all over rock 'n' roll, his reach extending to the farthest distant corners of popular music. He's everywhere. Elvis may forever be known as the King, but Chuck Berry built the throne.

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After a good three hours of performances by just a small fraction of those he touched, this is what we all came to see. This is the man that put the butts in the seats.

Berry stumbles through what is simultaneously the sloppiest and most beautiful rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” that has ever graced my ears. Every person that shuffled across the stage that night could have delivered a version that sounded superior, though none would have felt even half as satisfying. It's not important that Chuck is no longer the man he used to be. What's important is that he ever was in the first place, and that he stood on stage tonight just long enough to give a kid like me the chance to see him do it live yet again. Closer to 90 years of than age than he is to 80, he's a shell of what he once was, which is more than plenty for those of us in the audience.

“What's my next song?” he turns and asks with a confused look, just seconds after the amps belted out the final strum of his first selection.

Right. “Reelin' & Rockin'.” He knew that, of course. Relying on adrenaline and decades of muscle memory as he strums along, a gruffly voice tosses in mangled lyrics here and there. The number of songs he has left in those fragile fingers can't be high, his voice on a steady pathway to being completely shot. But his eyes still dance and his smile is close enough, and you get the sense that he relishes the chance to be out here just as much as we all do to see him. As long as he wants to keep picking up the guitar and waltzing up to the mic, I doubt he'll hear any complaints.

Berry lurches to the end of his second and final song on the evening. It was almost as if he payed tribute to himself, fittingly, his performance brief and scattered enough to serve as him covering the past as opposed to revisiting it. But we don't mind. We wish he'd play longer, but are eternally grateful that he played at all. We'd probably stand and cheer for hours if that's what he wanted. It's the least we could do for a man that has given us all so much, one way or another.

“Very happy to be here,” he shouts out, that smile looking more and more like the one in those pictures from over half a century ago. “I'm 86 years old. I'm happy to be anywhere.”

Anywhere. Everywhere. Same difference.

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I eventually separate myself from the hoard of people pushing through the doorway — black and white, young and old, Motörhead and Merle Haggard fans bunched as one. The night sky is chilly and dark and peppered with tiny drops of rain, growing ever quiet the farther I get from that lone saxophone player standing on the corner.

Strolling the few blocks to my car, I enjoy the walk and the solitude — or maybe just don't think about it at all — surprised at how quickly I arrive at my parking spot. Sitting alone on the side of a red-bricked street and sheltered by leaves still clinging to their branches for at least a few moments longer, I slide into my automobile and turn the engine, flipping on the headlights while resisting a sudden unexplainable urge to roll down the window and hang my left arm out over the side.

I make a right at the first stop sign, my wheels returning to the customary blacktop, my eyes glancing up at the glowing lights in the rearview mirror, dimmer and dimmer by the second. The streets are noticeably empty. I press heavier on the gas pedal, presumably heading back home, though I can't quite say for sure.

Cruisin' and playin' the radio. No particular place to go.


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Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Load-Out

There are reasons for what happened to the Cincinnati Reds in the 2012 MLB Playoffs. There are explanations and even excuses for squandering a 2-0 series lead against the San Francisco Giants by dropping three straight games at your home ballpark. Advancing in the postseason would have been preferred, obviously, but boy if this season wasn't a heaping pile of steps in the right direction. I mean, the Reds pulled out an impressive 97 victories, running away with the NL Central division like Usain Bolt racing the cast of The Biggest Loser. The squad was one mere win away from taking their opening-round playoff series, a position that plenty of other ball clubs would have gladly traded fates for while watching the games from their sofas. Regardless of how it ended, it was still a great season. Plus, there's always next year.

That's one way to look at things. It's probably the best and most rational point of view, really, considering the fact that sports are just entertainment and those losses were just games and this season was the best the team has had since winning it all in 1990. There are real issues in the world today, like the election and the economy and education and probably something else important that starts with the letter “e” if I thought long enough. As my 8th grade math teacher used to say, “It's not tragic, but it's not good either.” If the worst part of your day is a baseball team ending its season sooner than you had hoped, well, you probably have to chalk that one up in the “not too shabby” column when everything is said and done.

All of this is true.

Except that sports have become much more than entertainment in today's culture, and the money that's going in (and coming back out) is stacked far too high to just dismiss these games as trivial or unimportant or something with which to pass the time. Sure, there are things in life of much greater importance, and at times we do lose sight of that when it comes to our athletic rooting interests. But the old cliché of “don't tell me that sports don't matter” has some validity to it. Maybe it's because of the communal aspect and triumph of human spirit and the joy and togetherness and interaction it spawns among family and friends and relative strangers. Or maybe it's just because we like sports and want our teams to win. I assume the answer falls somewhere between those two. Either way, “It's just a game” is never something uttered by the winners.

And that's why the Cincinnati Reds' complete and utter collapse in the NLDS totally sucks. We the fans can offer up all of the explanations and excuses we want — Johnny Cueto got hurt, Joey Votto's knee still isn't 100 percent healthy, Mat Latos got jobbed on what should have been a called third-strike — but that in no way diminishes how disappointing the series and, subsequently, this season ended up. Yeah, winning 97 games and a division title is great. But if it's followed immediately by blowing a seemingly in-the-bag lead and laying a giant turd in front of your hometown fans for three straight days, what's the point? They don't hand out diamond-encrusted rings for a strong regular season. This isn't fat camp.

I could easily roar off on a lengthy tangent about this simply being another example of how dreadful Cincinnati sports have been for the better part of my lifetime — how everything after the 1990 wire-to-wire Reds has been nothing but failure and incompetence, with the few flickers of improved-but-ultimately-fleeting success the only things separating us from Cleveland sports fans. I could drone on about putrid seasons by the Reds and Bengals, playoff berths that ended far too quickly, and Kenyon Martin's shattered fibula. I could drum up all of my feelings about Stanley Wilson's coke binge or Carson Palmer's busted knee or the absolute and irreversible breakdown of Ken Griffey Jr.'s entire body over a multi-year span. But I'm not up for it. Whether it stands alone or is tossed on the massive pile of Cincy sports suckfests, the Reds collapse hits in a place that hurts. Yeah, there are more important things, but it doesn't change the outcome of this one. It's not tragic, but it sure isn't good either.

Longtime Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty wrote post-choke: “The Reds still should be playing, and they aren’t. They were outhit and outmanaged. They let die a once-in-a-generation chance. ... It’s darned near impossible to duplicate the sort of season the Reds had, to make the playoffs this year. The karma, the chemistry, the health. It doesn’t align like this much, for small-money teams.”

Doc is right. The last 20 years is proof enough that entering the playoffs with a legitimate chance to win is not a year-to-year thing, at least for the majority of teams. It's not even a semi-regular thing. For the Reds, this was the first time in 22 years that a World Series ring would have been anything short of miraculous, assuming any championship is to begin with. And yet, the Redlegs let it slip away in dramatic and demoralizing fashion. Maybe the team, the fans and the city will all have that same chance again next October. Unfortunately, history suggests otherwise.

Jackson Browne once sang, “But the only time that seems too short / is the time that we get to play.” This holds true for the 2012 Cincinnati Reds, in spite of all the good — and there was quite a bit — that came along the way.

But hey, at least there's always next year. Which is both the best and worst thing about sports.


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