Most performers have a shelf life that is defined by the audience. When the records stop selling and the concert attendees begin to disguise themselves as empty chairs, it’s time for a musician to get that slot on the ball bearing assembly line or to teach piano lessons to suburban moms. (This is what’s known in the industry as the “health care versus cleavage dilemma.”) In any event, life gets trickier when the audience simply will not go away. At what point does a musician walk away from the applause and the paychecks?
In the past few years I’ve seen performances by Loretta Lynn, George Jones, and Merle Haggard that were, quite simply, embarrassing. These are legends that have not only lost their physical gifts but, in some cases, a measure of mental acuity as well. Does padding the inheritance fund tarnish the performer’s legacy?
Which brings us to Chuck Berry’s horrifically shambolic appearance in Fort Worth on 1 September. His guitar work was almost completely unlistenable (although he did have a few short moments where through either muscle memory or, less likely, brief bouts of caring about his audience that he sounded passable). He did not make it through the first verse of “Maybellene” or “Nadine.” He played “Rock and Roll Music” twice. He sprinkled old age anecdotes to the crowd between songs that rose to their feet for each simulated duck walk. The rhythm section was inept (they lost the back beat). When he walked off of the stage, exactly 59 minutes after appearing, it was a relief. It was an absolute train wreck of a performance.
Let’s get to the proof of purchase Chuck Berry is a legend/rock icon sentence. He is. That’s the only reason I went. I knew of his reputation as a musical mercenary all too well. However, walking into a concert venue, going right to the stage, and playing an ungodly untuned guitar for an hour shows inconceivable contempt for the fans, the majority of whom had coughed up $125 per ticket. The sad reality is that Berry is not only 85 years old, but he’s become the bewildered uncle at the family reunion that doesn’t know he’s repeating the same joke.
I have been officially ripped off by Chuck Berry now. I’m in the club.