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When We Get to Surf City
A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams
By Bob Greene
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Bob Greene
All rights reserved.
Chapter One The rental car, for the moment, was just a speck in the distance, and things this wonderful are not supposed to happen in a man's life. I caught sight of the car when it was maybe a hundred yards away, its tires kicking up big clouds of brown dust on the rutted and narrow dirt road by the side of the crowd of forty thousand people. From where I stood on the stage, the car, and the dirt access road, were to my left. The sun was just starting to dip; the people in the crowd, in their shorts and T-shirts and bikini tops at the end of a broiling June day near the banks of the swollen-almost-to-overflowing Ohio River, were on their feet and dancing to our music. We were singing "Barbara Ann"- . . . Ba-ba-ba, Ba-Barbara Ann, Ba-ba-ba, Ba-Barbara Ann ... -and the people out in the audience were singing right along with us, forty thousand voices joining ours, and that's when I first saw the car. There was a chance that Chuck Berry was inside. And I found myself hoping against hope that he wasn't. That's why I'm telling you this-to give you some idea of the extent of the joy. I was hoping that Chuck Berry wasn't in the car because if he was, it would mean that we would have to leave the stage. The others onstage hadn't noticed the car yet. Maybe they weren't looking for it; maybe I'm the only one who for whatever reason always seems to have one eye constitutionally searching for trouble. But the others-Jan, Dean, the four guys who in addition to me were backing up Jan and Dean-were unaware of the car, drawing closer with each passing second. We had been told that Chuck was an apparent no-show. That's why we were up here and singing for the second time today. Not that we minded. It had been an afternoon so bright, so warm, so awash in beginning-of-summer sun that no amount of time on the stage was going to feel like enough, no number of songs were going to feel sufficient. An early-June afternoon bursting with the promise of summer days and summer nights to come, one of those afternoons that fills you with the illusion that against all odds you can be a kid again-that you can get back summer as summer had existed when the music you were singing right now had been brand-new, when you had been brand-new yourself. But when you had been brand-new yourself, in a world that had felt constantly new, you could not have conceived of ever standing on the same patch of land as Chuck Berry, of ever breathing the same air, never mind hoping that a car just entering your line of sight did not carry him inside. After we had first played earlier in the afternoon and had finished our set, we had been in the backstage area having ribs and sandwiches and beer while some of the other acts on the bill-Sam the Sham, Little Eva, the Marcels-had performed. As we had been getting ready to go back to our hotel we could see that the promoters were getting jittery. They had been whispering among themselves; clearly something was wrong. What had been wrong was Chuck Berry-the absence of Chuck Berry. He had been signed to be the headliner-he was supposed to close the show. But he hadn't appeared, and no one had been able to find out where he might be. The promoters had made some calls and had been told that Berry had apparently missed all of that day's flights out of St. Louis; he had not been in contact with them, and it was nearing his time to be onstage. So the promoters had hurriedly called Dean Torrence aside and conferred with him. They had asked if Jan and Dean would do a second set to close the show, and Dean had said yes, and thus here we were. And there, to the left of the sea of bare, sunburned arms that were waving in the southern Ohio air as we sang, was the car, moving toward us, and I could see through its windshield that it contained only one person: the driver. He hit the brakes and brought it to a halt directly to the side of the stage, throwing one last billow of thick dirt toward the sky. He opened his door and stepped out. Chuck Berry. Dean Torrence was in the midst of his falsetto-he always loved singing this song, he was in his fifties now and sometimes there were songs, I could tell, that he sang just because the audience expected him to sing them, songs he just as well could have done without, but this wasn't one of them, he never seemed to tire of it-and he was singing Oh, Barbara Ann, take my hand, and I thought I should let him know. Why I had to be the bearer of these particular bad tidings, I'm not certain. He was going to find out anyway, soon enough. No one was making me do it. But then, no one was making me be here in the first place. I let my right elbow nudge Dean's left arm, careful not to hit his lime-green Stratocaster as I did it, and he looked over at me, not breaking his vocals-... you got me rockin' and a-rollin'-and I motioned with my head to the area below the stage. Chuck Berry had walked around to the rear of his rental car, and now he popped open the trunk and pulled out his battered guitar case. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, but invisible clouds covered Dean's eyes as soon as he saw what I was seeing. The others in the band weren't aware of it yet, weren't aware that our day-the glory part of it-was about to abruptly end. They were still singing-... tried Peggy Sue but I knew she wouldn't do ... -some of them making eye contact with women in the first few rows of the crowd, and they didn't know. Chuck Berry climbed a short flight of metal stairs until he was on the stage, to the side of the drum kit and behind the equipment crates so he was hidden from the audience. Singing, I wheeled in his direction, just wanting to take in the moment. There was that skinny, sharply angled face of his, a mirror reflecting all the aspects of the lifetime he had led: rough-edged, angry, incarcerated, uncompromising, suspicious, solitary, profane, stubborn.... Went to a dance, lookin' for romance.... I sang the words, and he caught my gaze, and I couldn't help it, I burst out laughing, this was too much, this was too great. What are the chances that this could ever happen? What are the chances that the day will ever come when even though you're not much of a singer at all, you're singing in front of forty thousand people, you're singing the songs you grew up loving with a band you grew up loving, guys who, deep into your life and theirs, have against all probability become some of your best friends in the world, guys with whom you perpetually travel America in the hopes of finding the best parts of summer again.... What are the chances that you'll be singing a song in the June heat, and that even as your voice booms out of the speaker towers and sails into tens of thousands of ears, your eyes will be looking into the eyes of Chuck Berry, and he'll be watching and listening? How can such a moment ever come to pass? I knew this would be it for the day; I put as much as I could into the vocals, because I understood, with Chuck on the skirt of the stage now, it would be ending for us. At least for today, it would. But there would be others: day after day after summer day. That was the gift. The seven of us at the front of the big wooden stage sang it one last time: Ba-ba-ba, Ba-Barbara Ann.... I was still half turned so I could see the wings, and Chuck Berry shot me one of those cold and wary Chuck Berry squints that meant: What are you looking at? And I thought: Don't you know? I'm looking at you, Chuck. I'm looking at you. ... saw Barbara Ann and I thought I'd take a chance.... I decided to take my own chance. So as I sang the words I smiled in his direction and nodded my head in time to the music. And Chuck Berry, after a flicker of hesitation, returned my grin, and nodded back, and, with his eyes locked on mine, for a few brief seconds he sang along. There were moments, moments like that, when it seemed the gifts would never stop. Excerpted from When We Get to Surf City by Bob Greene Copyright © 2008 by John Deadline Enterprises, Inc. Published in May 2008 by St. Martin's Press All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Excerpted from When We Get to Surf City by Bob Greene. Copyright © 2008 Bob Greene. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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