Chuck Berry is from St. Louis, where he built an amusement park—named Berry Park, of course––so he could ride up and down the midway in a cherry-red Cadillac convertible, handing $10 bills to children as he smiled down upon them with his big, gentle grin.
It was 1980. I was 16 and trying to figure out why my country had turned its back on its most gifted black musicians. I had waited in line in the sleet for six hours to see Chuck at the infamous Louie’s Rock City—a small, dark biker bar owned by a second-rate mobster who’d been run out of Philly. The place had previously been a Polynesian restaurant, and Louie had done nothing to enhance the decor, which consisted primarily of wooden masks, tiki torches, and fake palm trees. The waitresses chewed gum and wore fishnet stockings and red, low-cut blouses; they circulated among the tables carrying cardboard six-packs of Budweiser, from which they’d plunk an unopened bottle on your table when you handed them a dollar.
Chuck came out, already grinning and panting and duckwalking, and when he played one of those unforgettable rock riffs with his long, bony black fingers, the place was alive in an instant. Tables were pushed away, and every one of us was up and dancing, together, as if we had arrived in the same pickup.
Immense, tattooed bikers hopped around grinning, and we all bounced off each other, and off the mask-covered walls and fake palm trees, and we sang and hollered rebel yells, and spun with our hands in the air. And all the mean folks turned sweet, and all the women turned beautiful, and people who would have passed each other on the street in silence and with eyes averted now danced together like family. All the gaps in the world had suddenly closed. We danced and laughed, and we smiled at Chuck, and Chuck smiled back.
An hour and a half into the set, as the small crowd reached a sort of religious ecstasy, a woman, drunk with joy and whiskey, climbed onto the stage and began dancing wildly. In a flash, an immense, muscle-bound bouncer—a man perhaps a third Chuck Berry’s age and three times his size—leapt on stage, grabbed the woman, and swept her quickly and forcefully back into the crowd.
I remember that Chuck had been grinning appreciatively as she danced, and I remember that he was in the middle of a searing jam on 'Carol,' and I remember that, in the instant before the woman disappeared, everything was right. But when she was pulled away, well, it all happened in a single breath the way the air is suddenly sucked out of the world when we hear of someone we love passing from it.
Chuck stopped cold in the middle of 'Carol,' his wide grin turning to a contorted frown. I saw the sweat pouring down his face, and the look of disgust coming over him, the disappointment and frustration. And I heard the towering wall of silence that followed those last few notes of 'Carol' off the stage, breaking us apart. Chuck lifted his guitar off its strap and threw it down on the stage––what a lovely guitar that was, too—he threw it down on the stage, and he said, 'If y’all can’t dance, I can’t play,' and he turned and walked away.
Part II: Civil Disobaudience
I grew up in the South, where it’s said that our preachers condemn premarital sex because they fear it may lead to dancing.
It’s a very recent idea that music, like an obedient child, is better seen than heard. The fixed seats in concert halls, the visual histrionics of MTV, the need for musicians to look good––all are very new on an earth that, for longer than we can remember, has been blessed by the reciprocal rhythm of music and dance. Music, like so many other things, is now left to the professionals, and we pay only to watch. The cold obscenity of the gaze replaces the playful tenderness of the embrace, and we are reduced from participants to spectators.
Part III: Speaking of Music
I do words for a living: I read and write and speak them all day long, and I pile them into cairns to mark the paths of my wanderings. I offer them to others, and I receive them from others in the form of gifts and curses. Words are in the air and under the covers, they’re on the tags in my clothes and on the backs of my cereal boxes and beer bottles. They find me in all my hiding places, and they tell me how to feel before I can even know what the feeling might have been.
But the world isn’t made of words at all. We need music and dance because they are languages the world speaks and understands––languages that are born of our daily conversation with the earth.
When we play music, and when we are played by it through dance, we do more than just talk. In the beginning was not the Word. In the beginning was the Song. And the Song made the path, and we played along it, full of admiration for the world, and we feasted on the beauty of the place, and then left scat on the trail, and the scat was words, and we left it behind us as we went, dancing.
From Whole Terrain(#9). Subscriptions: $5/issue from Dept. of Environmental Studies, Antioch New England Graduate School, Keene, NH 03431