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The Rearview Mirror
By Mick Polich - 05/11/2009 - 09:12 AM EDT

Like looking in your rear view mirror as you drive away, certain life events get further and further in the distance……

A couple of columns ago, my good buddy Wade Krieg touched on the subject of when to let go of things, especially in music. Because really, what is done is done, and there ain’t no time machine booking two-way (or one-way) tickets to 1975. Oh sure, we can reunions, and things to remind us of what was, and that can be a mixed bag. Of course, some people SHOULD be reminded of history, due to the fact they tend to forget what they screwed up on during the first rodeo!

I’m a ‘hanger’ – not in a constant, weepy state of nostalgia, wishing I could go back and visit the ‘old times’, but yes, I do get nostalgic from time to time, and I’ll hang on to certain time periods from my life(and looking back, a bit too long it seems, to some life periods). I think I’ve expected more to happen, to a degree, but what’s happened to me for music, art, and travels are far more than what I imagined. At some point, you need to figure if you want to live life in a state of constant surprise or constant disappointment. This involves getting far enough away from something that has happened to get a perspective on it, thus the ‘rearview mirror’ concept.

I remember as a young buck, it took about 5 years to get out of high school, so to speak – still hanging around, going to football games, seeing the old crowd hanging around also. Pretty common, although there is the lot that can’t wait to get on with life, and get the blazes outta there (I didn’t really start traveling around the country seriously until I was 35). One thing for sure: change is constant, and there is always constant change.

Seeing life in the rearview mirror is a good thing, even with regrets (and I doubt if there isn’t a person on the planet that doesn’t have a few of those babies lying around…..). Shoulda, coulda, woulda will always be with us, but figuring out what to do next, or handling what life holds for you, is another kettle of fish completely. 

And the truth is, our history IS sometimes the hardest thing to let go, so looking back can be painful. Your past can literally follow you around (think Elvis, Madonna, or George W. Bush). You can buried it, or celebrate it. A lot of us try to keep it going, especially musicians. I used to wondered about, quote – unquote, ‘oldies bands’, as we called ‘em ( that would be classified as ‘classic rock’, now in some circles). But back then (1965), it was all the pop groups from the 1950’s and early 1960’s, trying to make a living on the old songs – tours to state fairs, small bars, and auditoriums. Even as a young, music-impressed, dream -state kid, I thought, “Man, these suckers are OLD – what’s up with them? Why don’t they retire?” Well, Greg Fokker, soon you’ll be in the Burns Circle Of Trust, and you’ll KNOW what’s up with them, because later on, if you’re sooooo lucky, you’ll BE one of THEM!

So, why don’t YOU retire, hippie???!!!

For those in bands, there might be a rebirth (Spinal Tap, yes, thank you, class), or another hit waitin’ to get out and chart (Chuck Berry had his only number one hit with “My Ding A Ling”, about 15 years after the fact of his early chartered success).

Hey – Chuck Berry. Haven’t thought about him for awhile. In fact, let’s just move Mr. Berry into the forefront of the story – yeah, let’s do that……

Chuck Berry is a seminal figure in rock and roll – he is STILL playing his songs and touring at 83. John Lennon once put it, if you tried to give rock and roll another name, it might be Chuck Berry. A great example of the history and personality of Chuck Berry is shown in the excellent movie/documentary from the late 1980’s,“Hail, Hail Rock And Roll!” by Taylor Hackford. Not only is it an all – star tribute to Chuck on his then - 60th birthday. Charming, mercurial, aloof, controlling – there is a lot more genius to Chuck than what he’s given credit for, because basically, with a handful of hit songs, he helped jump-start an industry and a genre.

Yes, I said ‘genius ‘– Chuck Berry doesn’t quite get the credit, in my book, for helping to invent a music form that’s still going strong in spirit and reinvented strains of it’s initial, hard-hitting genre. I had mentioned Fats Domino, and Little Richard gets in, for sure, plus there are countless obscure early doo – wop, and r and b groups (like the 5 Royales) that don’t get the props for being cornerstones of the rock and roll art form. Chuck blended country honk, blues - based guitar playing with lyrics and subject matter that mattered to KIDS. Now, that’s been common for a long time, but back in the pre-Mesozoic era when they were songs for adults only, kids were starving for music to call their own.

Hey! Hey, Mr. Polich – what’s Chuck Berry got to do with the Zen - ism of looking in the rearview mirror??

Well, Goober, shut yer piehole and lissen, ‘cause I’m fixin’ to get ready to tell that!!!

With all apologies to Elvis (and basically brushing him aside for the sake of this article, because he’s always the obvious, but not the correct choice in my view, for the birth of rock and roll), Chuck Berry has been re-plying his style of music for about ¾ of his life.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, the majority of Chuck’s story needs no rehashing. From my era, I cannot think of one person that I grew up playing music with that didn’t delve into the Chuck Berry catalog of guitar licks, lyrical malapropisms, and roots-rock form to help mold their musical identities. You certainly couldn’t play in a cover band without knowing a few Chuck Berry licks on guitar. Given that aspect, all of us aspiring musicians got a musical history lesson, and learned some respect for various forms and arts in music genres that would have gone unheralded – like pre – electric, country blues, folk music, and old-time country styles. I’m gonna go ‘codger’ here for a moment, and stress that it’s some sad – assed stuff for a lot of young people who aspire to be complete musicians to not know their musical history. Everybody needs to get to some roots to understand where the trees came from, ya dig? We owe a lot as musicians to old world reels and waltzes, polkas, field hollers, and Irish/Scottish/Celtic forms that made their way with all the immigrants that help build the United States. What – you think all stuff we listen to today sprung up fully formed – just popped out of the ground, and said, ”Hey! HEY!!! Listen to THIS!!!!”????

Anyway, I digress (per usual) – after migrating up to Chicago to sign on with Chess Records, Chuck Berry would go on to record many of the early influential rock hits, such as “Maybellene”, “Hail, Hail Rock And Roll”, and the ever-maligned and revered “Johnny B. Goode”. Without Chuck Berry, rock and roll would have been an entirely different animal, indeed…..

The long and short of it is – Chuck Berry is still playing the hits that he made his mark with back in the mid to late 1950’s – his music is universally loved thru a couple of generations. And what better mark to have made, tapping into the pulse of young America - singing about school, cars, girls, and brown-eyed handsome men (one of the most sly nods in song to racial pride ever). Chuck’s watermark was in defining - as an African – American making his way into a business where the big money was on white performers who copped black music styles - himself as not only as a link for the old world blues and country musician and cultural scene folks, but a statement maker for the emerging civil rights movement.

And where is he today? STILL playing “Johnny B. Goode” and “ Reelin’ And Rockin’ ” around the world, a lion in winter…..

Chuck’s rearview mirror view is pretty darn big at this point – a wide swath in the rock and roll road.

Oh, he’s probably still Chuck The Businessman, Chuck The Weathered Road Dog – ever complex, ever defiant, but playing those watershed moments to the faithful that remember back in the day when Chuck was the strong – willed, young black man looking to break out of St. Louis, and make a mark with his hybrid fusion of a titillating new music form. Probably Chuck is now too old to care – hey, as long as the money is there at the end of the show, the pickup band plays the changes right, and there’s another show booked after the last one - things are cool, I would suspect, in Chuck’s universe. Many road trips, many gigs, many miles logged, guitar strings bending, notes blasting in that crazy Chuck Berry tone and fashion out of a Fender Twin amplifier (or whatever amp the promoter gives him to play thru). And, at 83 years old, who gives a royal rat’s rear? I’ve done paid the man, sonny – a lot more than you’ll EVER know.

So all this rearview mirror bid’ness applies to Chuck in this fashion: what is he leaving behind and moving on to? Do you need to move on musically, artistically, and in general life anyway? Apparently for Chuck, working the former hits on the road as per his modus operandi, seems to work o.k. for him.

Me? If I had to play “Johnny B. Goode” again, in the same manner that I did in my heavy music gig days, I would end up in a small, small room, in a small corner, mumbling to myself, and laughing hysterically at my own asides…..

Some people move on in the manner that they need to move on to, and sometimes that means staying put!

So, check it out – what are you looking at in YOUR rearview mirror as you drive forward up life’s gravel road?




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