Twilight of the Guitar God

The aged Chuck Berry, going deaf and no longer capable of remembering lyrics or guitar chords, is “being paraded like a circus freak” through South America by people who want to cash one last check against his legendary name, an Argentine rock critic wrote last week in an angry review of a show at Luna Park in Buenos Aires.

Forewarned by the reviews of the shows in Argentina and Uruguay, the rock critic for Chile’s La Tercera attended the show in Santiago anyway, as did thousands of other fans.

In the end, Chuck Berry, 86, the world’s first guitar hero, the ancestor of everything that we call rock and roll, the lodestar for people like John Lennon and Keith Richards, was reduced last night to two feelings. The first is the one you get when grandpa, all aches and shakes, says something funny at the weekend barbecue and everyone laughs a little bit uncomfortably.

The second one was like on one of those nights at the Vina del Mar Song Festival, when the audience decides to put a band’s blunders aside and forgive the poor sods.

These were the two impressions that intersected at the guitarist’s concert at the Movistar Arena, in front of 5,000 people–the stage was set up in the middle of the crowd–and one of the worst shows ever reported in the history of big local events.

This is an objective judgment that was obvious from the beginning. After an introduction in which he threw in a few sentences in Spanish, the musician launched into one of his greatest songs, Roll Over Beethoven, but before he was halfway through the song he started to stumble over the lyrics, and ended the song essentially babbling. Trying, perhaps unconsciously, for a rematch, he performed the same song again near the end of the concert. Later, on School Days and Rock and Roll Music, his guitar was out of tune, and it was up to others to keep the show together; and not only his accompanying band of four musicians. By far the most embarrassed of the night were his three representatives and his daughter, the harmonica player Ingrid Darlin Berry-Clay, all of them in a cluster to one side of the stage, ready to jump in and pull the great man out of the quicksand when needed. The situation worsened at the opening of My Ding-a-ling: “I can’t remember the chord,” Berry said, while trying to pluck at his guitar. As she had done throughout the night, his daughter appeared with her deafening harmonica to plaster over the blunder.

At the end of the show, a few minutes after playing Johnny B. Goode, his manager tried to usher him off the stage, but he insisted on continuing to play. He succeeded for several minutes, with his manager hovering at his side, a presence who finally succeeded in getting him to release the microphone; one of the strangest scenes in recent memory.

All of this sounded very much like what had been forewarned from Argentina last weekend, where a similar picture had emerged. Although, perhaps conditioned by the brutal reviews the audience seems to have left the Movistar Arena yesterday with a third overall feeling: “It’s Chuck Berry; it doesn’t really matter what kind of state he is in. It could even have been worse.”

The rock and roll pioneer arrived yesterday at 2:10 pm on a commercial flight from Montevideo. He was met by only a single television camera, which set off the nervousness of his entourage, who began to push the cameraman. His manager ended up exchanging blows, pushes and rather big words with the cameraman, causing the singer to break into a run, making a beeline for the black Mercedes Benz that awaited him.

“I feel great to be here again,” the Maybelline singer told La Tercera later, after arriving at the Hotel Intercontinental. Asked about his erratic performances in previous stops on the tour, the American, who nowadays has a certain amount of difficulty hearing, would say only that “I have been feeling good throughout the [South American] tour; it’s like playing anywhere else.” His son, guitarist Charles Edward Berry Jr. is somewhat more eloquent: “It is always an honor to play with him, and he seems very well to me.”

One thing seemed to preoccupy him much more during his first hours in the country: the charges on the hotel bill. Over the course of yesterday afternoon, he came down to the front desk of the Intercontinental three times to dispute items on the bill. Moreover, coordinating with the movements of his troops seemed to overwhelm him at times. As they all headed out of the hotel toward the left, the singer drifted off toward the right, his gaze seemingly lost.

Claudio Vergara