Chuck Berry does not stroll about like the Michelangelo of rock 'n' roll, the man who wrote songs like "Roll Over Beethoven," Back in the U. S. A." and "Johnny B. Goode."
Nosiree. There's no air of legend here, though he's the man everybody from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to the little guitar-playing nurd up the street inevitably names as Mr. Influence.
There's none of the instant wit that in the late '50's used to come cascading out of the radios of America: "Boston, Pittsburgh, PA, deep in the heart of Texas, and by the Frisco Bay . . .
Sweet Little Sixteen
She's got the grown up blues
Tight dresses and lipstick
She's sportin' high heeled shoes
But by tomorrow morning
She'll have to change her trend
And be sweet 16
And back in class again. . . ."
He'll be reelin' and rockin' at the White House in the evening, but at the first Chuck Berry was all business yesterday:
He rolls off his TWA flight right up to the counter at National Airport to book a flight home 10 hours later, one hour after he is to have come off stage at 1600 Pennyslvania Ave. for the Black Music Association reception.
He's letting the red, hollow-bodied Gibson guitar that has accompanied him for a quarter century circulate around the luggage corral in its battered case, just like any other piece of baggage. He can tell you off the top of his head that it's been damaged four times, and he can calculate quickly the number of dates he played with a colleague of the rock 'n' roll pantheon, the late Buddy Holly. Answer: 120. He can't remember where it was in London in 1966 that he gave a concert and the Beatles came and sat wide-eyed in a box. And of his lyrics, which for 20 years have been hailed as wry celebrations of adolescent verve, he says only: "I like to make them rhyme."
If you were wandering around Lafayette Park yesterday afternoon, between 1:30 and 3, you could easily have mistaken Chuck Berry for any 52-year-old GS-9. He was wearing a brown three-piece suit and sunglasses, and when it got very hot he took his jacket off and slung it over his left shoulder.
And when pretty women walked by, Chuck Berry observed that he was very fond of women.
"I love those dresses with the slits in them," he said, "like that one over there at 12 o'clock."
And then he started to hunch over, and lift one foot over the other, nudging a companion in the process, looking like Groucho Marx in pursuit of Marilyn Monroe.
"I bet you thought I only did the duck walk on stage" he quipped.
Classic Chuck Berry: the duck walk across stage, the Gibson guitar still pumping out his patented staccato riffs.
And the world of his lyrics was always as instantly recognizable: a blend of male/female relationships and long-distance calls and school bells ringing and hamburgers sizzling and wanderings along the railroad tracks.
"I've always been a hobo," he said yesterday.
But you knew it from the songs: "Tryin' to reach a party tryin' to get in touch with me," "no particular place to go," "the poor boy's on the line." Humor with an underlying sadness. Not so much black as American; not so much a mirror of adolescence as timelessness. Trying to flag a ride by day, the joint rocking at night. By 1960, when Chuck Berry was tossed in jail on a Mann Act charge, he already had characterized a decade of lost, lonely souls as well as the beat generation.
In a city and an age when minorleague celebrities constantly plead the private-person defense and then tell all, Chuck Berry is an anomoly. If he paraded about with a tape recorder attached to his chest, broadcasting the hundreds of songs he has recorded, he would be stopped repeatedly.
As it is, he went virtually unnoticed yesterday. As his limousine driver sent by the Black Music Association, was taking him to his room at the Harambee House hotel, he asked where the chauffeur was going.
"That hotel is sort of uptown," the driver said.
"Well, I want to stay downtown," Berry said, and eventually directed the car to the Hay Adams, where the desk clerk registered no sign of recognition when Berry spelled his name. In the car, Berry had joked with the driver about idling away the hours until the concert and his return flight.
"What do you have to do today, Robert?" Berry asked his driver.
"Well, sir, they just told me to bring you to the hotel, and then they told me to do as you directed."
The driver held up a sheet that had the words: "as directed" scribbled across it.
"They don't know me. 'As directed' Why I'm likely not to show up at all. You know the way to New York, Robert? How about Philadephia?"
Wandering around the park, Berry said all he wanted to do was look at people. Most times, he said, he doesn't even really like to talk. Especially not do interviews. Once, when a television crew filmed him, he said he purposely made all his answers so sequentially.