The death of Chuck Berry took me down another tricky backroad. On one side of the track towered that startling music and its profound capacity to change. The other offered a flickery anthropological history of a certain epoch in recreational ethanol consumption.
When Kym Bonython brought Chuck to play the Apollo Stadium in the early ’70s, I think ’73, my favoured reds were from Kaiser Stuhl and Seaview. But to attend an affair of state of the order of a Chuck Berry show my tincture was always Jim or Jack. I was unabashedly influenced by Keith Richards, whose limo preference then was Southern Yell, which we couldn’t get.
I’d moved on from Mildara Chestnut Teal oloroso and the trippy Seppelts Sedna Tonic Wine for official occasions. That latter tincture was a handy 22 per cent alcohol Para Port infused with all sorts of exotic herbal stimulants from the Andes, whose name was Sedna backwards. It made one go forwards very quickly. You could buy it off the shelf at the pharmacist.
And I’d got well past my Stones Green Ginger phase.
They were indeed backward, backwoods sort of ways. Young Aussie blokes trying to work life out on the edge of the bush. Cityfolk mistook me for a hippy, when I was in fact a throughbred hillybilly preacher’s kid still pinching the Old Man’s car, which was full of my brothers’ shotguns and Bibles in case of Sundays, with liquor under the driver’s seat when he was away preaching in Dixie or Belfast or somewhere.
My mate Stephen “Stuart” Sprigg was the Littlehampton publican’s son who’d saved me from drowning in the bapstising pond in the Bremer when he was the Callington publican’s son. He was drummer in our little thrash trio out the back of the bottom pub in Mount Barker. The publican’s son there was our other guitarist Chris Mitchell. I reckon Chris drank cider. He was a surf nut. Stuart drank Coke with one spirit or another. Hand-crafted Ready-To-Drink, see? Like poured from one bottle to another in the car. There were no glasses.
Stewart and Chris spent all day behind the bar pouring another RTD precursor, the Hock, Lime and Lemon. This was whatever was in the riesling with Johnston’s Oakbank Lime Cordial and lemonade in a 15 fl oz “pint” glass with ice.
With soda you had the choice of less sugar, which you don’t get in a tin. Still a great drink in summer.
Another member of the consortium was also a drummer: Thredgold the train driver. He drank big bottles of Southwark Bitter.
Girlfriends, who were mainly alpha-females and often nurses, were into Saturday-night exotica. Like Tia Maria or Cointreau, or if you wanted to identify with Janis, Southern Comfort. Sweet tawny port tipped in a bottle of lemonade. Sam Wynn’s Marsala and Coke. Sweet as.
Because those were the chilliest Cold War days, vodka, considered a communist drink in my neck of the woods, was out. The chic white spirit was Bacardi Rum. Originally a Havana outfit, Bacardi was already establishing a new head office in the Bahamas before Fidel Castro nationalised everything Cuban in 1960. But if you hated them Communists you got your girlfriend Bacardi. She was already old-fashioned, but jeez, Brigitte Bardot drank Bacardi. Every daughter of a Bible-basher I knew had a haircut like Brigitte Bardot.
Fortunately, husky-voiced malt-whisky enthusiasts were beginning to emerge with feminism.
So what’s changed? The gender-based preference list has certainly smudged. A helluva lot of hairy fully-growed men in blue singlets drink the sweet muck now.
But if Chuck was to stand up again and play in a basketball stadium with those acoustics Frank Zappa called “not too swift” a year later, I reckon he’d do pretty much the same thing he did that night.
First, he met the band. There was never a rehearsal. A few locals would be introduced to him and he’d give them brief instructions. My night the poor souls walked on and began an impromptu 12-bar instrumental that went pretty well for about seven minutes when Chuck was introduced by the Big Voice man but after 12 and 15 minutes the blues were slurring, Chuck was still below decks and the full house was off its head with screaming anxiety. Things were getting brittle.
Twenty years later, when I got to know Kym Bonython during our time deliberating over the Bouquets and Brickbats Awards on the Civic Trust Jury, he told the story of what went down backstage that night.
A bit of a whiff of it came on Monday when Spence Denny filled in for Ali Clarke, the estimable Adelaide ABC Radio 891 mornings announcer. Spence talked about Chuck. John Carlini called. He was Chuck’s hired bassist for one Adelaide show in 1976.
“We met him five minutes before we went on stage,” John said. “He came up to me and he said, ‘Who plays the bass?’ and I said, ‘Well, me’, and he said, ‘Well I want you to do da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, and I said, ‘What? Every song, sort of thing?’ and he goes, ‘Yep. That’s all I want you to do’.”
By the time Chuck made the stage on that show I saw, the da-dum, da-dum was falling to bits but up he came eventually to suddenly bedazzle the whole goddam hall. I dunno, 30 or 40 minutes of his hits. It was astonishing. Then he left but as the mob lost its top he avoided a repeat of the earlier mess, came back on, did 15 minutes of totally mindless My Ding-a-Ling and vanished.
My Ding-a-Ling? C’mon. He didn’t even have to play the guitar.
There was no secret about how Chuck demanded a last-minute stack of raw cash before he’d strap on that Gibson and go upstairs to work. I can’t recollect the grim details of Kym’s account but it had to do with the talent deciding at the last minute that there wasn’t enough folding in the suitcase so he focused his attentions on a young woman against the wall while Kym scoured the wallets of his mates in the front row to round up a little more consideration.
The photos show that later that night, our cross-eyed entourage ended up drinking beer from large bottles. Obviously having done my whiskey, I was back to the oloroso. This photographic record has since been destroyed.
Kym was probably back at his joint paying his mates back and serving them stiff drinks. But like Chuck, he was never a drinker and stayed straight all his life. I suppose they both had enough risk without it.
I could go on 10 times that long writing of Chuck Berry’s influence. His music and the American naïve poetry of his lyrics. His audacious showmanship. His guitar. His misogyny, which many still see as mere villainy.
But I’ll leave the last line to the bloke who led me by example to American whiskey, who on waking to the bad news simply tweeted:
"One of my big lights has gone out.”
– Keith, 3/18/17 pic.twitter.com/I86dHlvN5W
— Keith Richards (@officialKeef) March 19, 2017
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