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By Allison Babka
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Somewhere around the middle of the long, long list of things that make Radar Station sad, somewhere between kitten torture and the demise of the bustle in ladies' skirt fashions, is the fact that St. Louis rock icon Chuck Berry doesn't get the respect he deserves in his own hometown. Sure, he's got a bronze star on Delmar, his monthly gigs at the Blueberry Hill Duck Roomalways sell out, and Gov. Bob Holden and Mayor Francis Slay are scheduled to present him with "proclamations of his greatness" at his big birthday bash at the Pageant on Oct. 18. These honors notwithstanding, when your garden-variety St. Louis hipster utters Berry's name, it's likely to lead to a crack about coprophilia and underage girls, not a serious discussion about his astonishing musical legacy.
It's partly his own fault. Anyone who's seen Berry in concert recently is painfully aware that he phones in his performances more often than not, seldom bothering to rehearse with his pickup bands or even tune his guitar. No one held a gun to his head when he outfitted his employee bathrooms with hidden video cameras. No one forced him to record the staggeringly stupid novelty jingle "My Ding-a-Ling." But what does it say about the kitten-torturing, bustle-slighting world we live in that this infantile paean to Berry's illustrious pee-pee remains his all-time biggest hit, bigger than "Roll Over Beethoven," "Little Queenie," "Maybellene," "Nadine (Is It You?)" and "No Particular Place to Go"? What does it say about us that we'd rather make poop jokes than talk about the poetic brilliance of lyrics such as "with hurry-home drops on her cheeks" or "as I was motorvatin' over the hill" or "campaign-shouting like a Southern diplomat"? Indeed, we're mindless sheep, too busy playing with our own ding-a-lings to appreciate the legend who duck-walks among us.
In the end, of course, it doesn't matter whether we make dumb gibes or issue proclamations. Berry's legacy is right there on his records: those slithery, wild, scabrous guitar licks; those groin-grinding jump rhythms, that heady elixir of honky-tonk and R&B -- the very essence of rock & roll, in all of its primitive, spastic, id-centered glory. Without Berry's quicksilver genius, rock music as we know it would not, could not exist.
Radar Station had the singular pleasure of interviewing the brown-eyed handsome man in person last week, when he met with us at Blueberry Hill. At nearly three-quarters of a century, Berry looks dapper and alert. Wearing a black windbreaker and his signature captain's hat, he sits at the head of the table, in front of an uneaten basket of hot wings and a glass of what looks like orange juice. He urges us to move closer -- not because he's trying to get fresh with us but because he's a little hard of hearing. Radar Station (who suddenly feels too cute to be 9,460,800 minutes over 17) finds his gallantry irresistible, if absurd. He fixes his cloudy black eyes on our face and, when asked how he'd like to be remembered, politely informs us that he doesn't care. "People's opinions can't be altered," he observes cheerfully. "Realizing this, I've found much pleasure and peace." Asked to name his favorite song, he says, "It's just like kids -- how can you say you love your boy more than your girl, your angel more than your brat?"
Berry doesn't seem to mind being interviewed, but he doesn't like to indulge in freeform reminiscence: "A guy came in, some college student. He set down a hand tape-recorder, and he said, 'Chuck, I've been waiting for this moment for six years. Go ahead and talk.' I said, 'Well, then, we're done now. You ask the questions -- I'll answer anything you ask, but I'm not just going to talk. You can even ask me what kind of underclothes I'm wearing, and I'll tell you.'" Radar Station, a helpless literalist, takes the bait and asks him. "Good ones," he responds with a wide, sly grin. "Briefs today, but I own a variety."
Having established this important information, we ask whether he has any comment on the lawsuit his longtime pianist Johnnie Johnson filed recently, wherein Johnson claims that he deserves co-writing credit on most of Berry's classic songs. "It's not Johnnie that's doing this," Berry says sadly. "I've known him 40 years. Someone inspired him to go along with him and seek their desire to try for an easy dollar. At the Pageant's grand opening, I talked to him for 20 minutes in the dressing room. At that time, I didn't know [about the lawsuit]. If I would have known, I would have popped the question: 'Hey, baby! What's up with that?' But he never said a mumbling word."
Berry, who intends to keep rocking for the next 20 years, isn't holding grudges. Besides playing out regularly, he's recording a new album, which has been on the back burner since 1978. He claims he's written nine new songs, but he doesn't want to estimate a release date. "I thought last March, but I might as well not predict anymore. It will take the application of time, will and effort," he says. Berry's daughter and son, among others, will probably back him up. "I have to let them do something, or else I'll pay family dues," he cackles. "Even Keith Richards or Johnnie Johnson -- I'd welcome them if they wanted to play. A lot of people would be surprised. All I want is a good song."
Chuck Berry celebrates his 75th birthday on Thursday, Oct. 18, at the Pageant, with special guest Little Richard.