Dance Fever

Words are all right, but bodies are the truest way to express ourselves


| March/April 2001


Part I: King Charles the First

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.