Dance Fever

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

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

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,

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