Friday, December 7, 2012

Berry and the Bucs: When World's Collide!

A Brown Eyed Handsome Man Indeed

So, I’m devouring Bruce Pegg’s 2002 biography of Chuck Berry, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry.” I recommend it highly – it’s a really good, well researched book – and it’s under 2 bucks on Amazon! Can’t beat that. Anyway, I’m reading about the making of the 1986 Taylor Hackford-directed Berry picture, “Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll,” and I come across this passage, recounting an event in the fall of 1986:

Then, with a week to go before the film crew’s arrival, Berry left rehearsals for Pittsburgh to play a show at Three Rivers Stadium after a Pirates baseball game.  It was to be the highlight of a dismal, losing season for the ball club; to make up for their 62-94 record, the club had hired Berry and the Four Tops to give their fans something to cheer about during their last home game.  But as fate would have it, the game went into extra innings, past the time Berry was contracted to play. As was now his established custom in situations like this, Berry got back into his rented Cadillac and headed back to the Pittsburgh airport without playing a note.
 A reference to the Pittsburgh Pirates, right in the middle of a Chuck Berry bio. I admit it caught me my surprise!

But I loved it! Two of my worlds were colliding; my rock and roll world, which is defined by my deep abiding love of the Rolling Stones (and by extension, Mr. Berry), and my baseball world, defined by my deep and abiding…hmmm…tolerance of?...patience with? the Buccos. How neat was that?

True enough, Chuck’s classic “Sweet Little 16” mentions Pittsburgh in the first stanza, so there’s already that connection…but it was kind of fun to see how the Buccos made their way into the story.

As I read it, I began to have distant memories of the event. I remembered reading about it in the local papers and via a quick Google search, it’s easy to recap the circumstances. It was September 28, 1986, the last day of another dismal Pirates season.  Berry was contracted to play “no later than” 5:00 PM; the game, which the Buccos lost in the 11th inning, went to about 5:45; Berry hopped into his car and went back to the Airport; and the Four Tops played an extra few songs to make up for Berry’s absence.

The Pirates considered suing Berry for breach of contract – they had paid him $10,000 in advance – but in the end the two sides settled out of court and the incident passed, just one more unhappy chapter in the saga of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

It’s interesting to reflect on the incident though. The first thought that came to my mind was how little the Bucs have improved since the mid-1980s. Take away a few years in the early 1990s and since the 1979 World Series, they have been pretty consistently terrible, for a long, long time! It also reminded me of how assiduously the Pirates have relied on concerts, fireworks, and the like, to draw in fans - as opposed to actually paying decent ballplayers.

The story also well illustrates the accuracy of the widespread perception of Chuck as being kind of a jerk.  Certainly, that comes out in Pegg’s book. Pegg is in fact pretty sympathetic to Berry, noting his struggles to overcome racism, his experiences with shoddy promoters and the like, and his little promoted generous acts.  But he also paints a picture of a guy with an enormous chip on his shoulder, motivated to the extreme by the almighty dollar, angry at the world, and unable to stay out of trouble with the ladies – or the law.  And it’s true, he can’t - Berry has gone to jail three times, once for armed robbery, once for tax evasion, and once for violating the Mann act, which restricted the transit of minors across state borders. He seems like a bitter man.  This is the same characterization that comes out in the Hackford film, which if you havent’ seen, well, you should.

One thing is for sure – Berry is a complex character. But for me, it’s ultimately about the music, and I do love the music.

To my regret, I never saw Chuck Berry in concert. He’s given up singing, though still performing when he’s able, but to be fair the man is approaching 90. I am pretty certain, though, that back in the 1980s, shortly after I had moved from Pittsburgh to the Washington DC area, I has a brush with him. I was picking up an order at a Chinese restaurant and Chuck walked in behind me. 

I said hello. He didn’t say hello back.

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