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.”
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.
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.
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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