By Shawn Carpetbagger
We had reached the end of the driveway. My dad laid on the horn. If the “No Solicitors”, “No Trespassing,” “Private Property”, and “Keep Out” signs didn’t scream “I want to be left alone,” the “Trespassers Will Be Shot” most certainly did. Chuck Berry duck-walked out the door; he looked wild-eyed and pissed. That wasn’t a guitar in his hands, it was a rifle and he was pointing at me. A white flame shot out of the barrel and I felt a sting in my chest. Chuck duck-walked back into his home, smoking rifle in hand. I was in total disbelief. I put my hand on my chest and pulled it away. My palm was dripping with blood… my own blood. I closed my eyes but when I opened them again, I was staring down at my own tombstone:
October 14th, 1977 – July 21st, 1994
Killed by a shotgun blast from rock n’ roll legend, Chuck Berry.
My dad let up on the horn for a few seconds and then let it blast again. It rattled me out of my daydream and back to reality. And then the door opened; but maybe I should back up a bit.
As I sit here at my computer, drinking Budweiser, brewed in St. Louis, Missouri by the Anheiser-Busch company, I realize that it is almost ten years to the day that the story I am about to tell you occurred. My parents are divorced and my brother and I would spend a week out of every summer with my dad in St. Charles, a working class suburb of St. Louis, located on the banks of the scummy Missouri River, which makes every day punishably humid.
My dad is a real character. “Angry, white male” is a good descriptor. He is union and proud, enjoys classic rock, beer, pornography, and really loses it in rush hour traffic. Despite the fact that he has never met him, Pat from the Riverboat Gamblers does a dead on impression of my dad. He does this bit where my dad tries to explain to my brother and I how he has pissed off his (now ex-) wife: “Guys, if Kathy seems pissed this weekend, it’s because she’s not talking to me right now.” If you ever see the Gamblers, this impersonation is worth the price of admission alone.
Most days on vacation with Papa Carpetbagger were spent indoors, on the couch watching cable television, as my dad ranted and raved about the latest verdict on Judge Judy or the topic on Ricki Lake. Apparently, this quirk is genetic, because my wife often asks me to leave the room when she watches her favorite television shows because I can’t shut my mouth and keep myself from making smart ass comments, but I digress.
Needless to say, this routine became mind-numbingly dull especially when I thought about what I could be doing back home, namely party hopping from satellite to satellite in Chicago land and getting loaded with my pals. Nobody has ever accused my dad of being the most perceptive or sensitive guy, but even he could tell that my brother and I were bored to near tears. “Hey guys, want to go to Chuck Berry’s house?”
My dad’s Master Plan is that we would drive by Chuck’s home, Berry Park, in Wentzville, Missouri, located about a half hour outside of St. Louis. Maybe we would get lucky and he would be out getting his mail and we could stop him to get his autograph, a picture, maybe even a quick chat. I own a total of three autographs: one from the Dictators’ “Handsome” Dick Manitoba, one from the New York Dolls’ Sylvain Sylvain, and another from former St. Louis Cardinals catching phenom and major league journeyman Todd Zeile. In all three cases, I felt weird about asking for the autographs, I never saw the point in them. And I was certain that this hair-brained scheme would amount to us driving past the locked gates of Berry Park and turning right back around to head home, but once my dad has an idea in his brain, it’s impossible to talk him out of it.
We hopped into the car and hit the road for Wentzville. On the way there we passed the abandoned building that was once the Chuck Berry owned restaurant, Southern Air. If you are familiar at all with the infamous Chuck Berry piss video (“don’t kiss me baby, you smell like piss”), you know that Chuck has a thing for water sports. His pursuit of piss was a costly vice. A female patron of his restaurant was sitting on the toilet, happened to look up at the ceiling, and noticed a camera lens peeking down at her. According to a Southern Air waitress, Berry had filmed as many as 200 females, including two or three minors, using the women’s restroom. Chuck avoided prosecution by compensating his victims. A note to aspiring restaurant entrepreneurs: These things are not good for business, as Southern Air shut down soon thereafter.
I’m sure you couldn’t even get within a mile of the mansions of rock n’ roll “legends” who used Berry’s tunes as a blueprint like Paul McCunt…er, McCartney, or dinosaurs like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. These second generation rock n’ rollers had become filthy rich while Berry, due to a naive country boy’s business sense and a heathen’s sense of morality, isn’t nearly as wealthy as he deserves to be. But here we were in my dad’s Dodge Aries, cruising down this anonymous back country road, on our way to Berry Park– it was all very unglamorous. It was a typical rural back road, lined with barbed-wire fences, the occasional cow or horse, and modest country homes that had seen their better days. Finally, we had arrived at Berry Park.
Berry’s home was nice, but was not very fitting for a rock n’ roll legend of Chuck Berry’s magnitude. The Berry Park sign was partially obstructed by overgrowth as there hadn’t been a concert on this property in years. My dad brought the car to a stop and we took it all in. The gate to his home was wide open, so we got a good glimpse at his property. I could see his home, his garage where he kept his vintage cars. And as I expected, Chuck Berry wasn’t in his bath robe fetching the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from his driveway. He wasn’t anywhere to be seen. “Well, I guess it’s time to go home.”
The Aries’ tires screeched as we sped past the open gates. “It’s time to meet Chuck!” My dad had a faraway look in his eyes, like the time he downed his Xanax with a six-pack of Bud Light. He chuckled to himself as we sped down the driveway, my brother and I trying to figure out exactly what the fuck he was up to. We reached the end of the driveway with a screeching halt. My dad laid on the horn.
Again, no answer.
I thought about all the signs on the gate. I’m sure this shit doesn’t fly with an aging rock n’ roller who by all accounts is bat shit crazy. And then the door opened.
An older woman, huddled up in a bath robe came out of the house and made her way to the car. She seemed nervous as she looked into the car. I immediately recognized her as Chuck Berry’s secretary of many years, Francine Gillium, of ambiguous racial stock, from the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll. She couldn’t have felt much comfort as she took a look at each of us. My mustachioed father was still perming his graying hair at that time and looked like a creep. My brother was a fourteen-year-old marijuana dealer with the requisite stoner ‘stache. And I was a sixteen-year-old punk rocker, complete with Black Flag t-shirt and freshly shaven head. “Can I help you?” She gulped and waited for the eventual home invasion.
“We’re here to see Chuck!” My dad acted like he had known him for years and this was perfectly normal and appropriate. “Well, he is performing in Las Vegas this weekend. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave the property.” Francine tried to come off stern and authoritative, but she sounded terrified. “Tell him Tom P. and his boys say ‘hi!’”… She huddled up in her bath robe and quickly made her way back into her home.
My dad fumbled around for his video camera. This wasn’t one of your new handheld camcorders, this was one of those video cameras connected to a battery powered VCR unit. He pressed record and began to narrate our encounter. He zoomed in on Francine with “that’s Chuck Berry’s secretary of thirty years, she just kicked us off the property.” He scanned over to Chuck’s garage, “and that is where Chuck keeps all of his convertibles…” I noticed some movement over by a group of small buildings at the end of the property.
“Dad, we need to get the fuck out of here!” I pointed at the rather large redneck speeding toward us in a golf cart. Francine had called security on us. My dad turned the camera toward the oncoming security guard. “And here comes someone to arrest us.” He shifted the car into reverse as my brother yelled at him, “Dad, you asshole, get us out of here!” My dad swatted back at him in the backseat as he tried to film the oncoming security guard and drive in reverse at the same time. He lost control of the car and backed into a ditch. “Holy shit!” We screamed in unison.
The redneck was gaining on us and I noticed another golf cart on its way, with an even bigger country bumpkin behind the wheel. In a move worthy of Steve McQueen, my dad spun the Aries out of the ditch in a 180 and floored it out of the hole we were stuck in and off of Chuck Berry’s property just as the golf carts were closing in. As we drove away, the security carts followed us on the opposite side of the fence line. We waved to them as they angrily pointed us to leave and never come back.
A week later, at home in Naperville, Illinois, home to a future school shooting, coming to a high school near you, I get a phone call. It’s my dad and he is excited. “You wouldn’t believe who I ran into at the airport!” The past week had been so surreal, I already knew the answer.
“Chuck Berry!” He answered before I could chime in. He had been to the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport to pick up my aunt and uncle who had taken a second honeymoon in Hawaii. As he was waiting for their flight’s arrival, he noticed our pal Chuck, guitar case in tow, hurrying out of the airport. “Chuck! Chuck!”
Chuck Berry turned around. “Chuck! Chuck!” My dad ran after him. I can only imagine the scene, Chuck Berry turning around to see what this crazy white man was going on about. My dad recounted the whole story about our visit to his property the previous week. Chuck apparently humored him. He went on and on about how his boys were rock n’ roll fans and would love to meet him. “How would you like to meet with Chuck Berry and get your guitar signed?’
I was psyched. I had just recently started to fuck around on guitar again and besides aping Ramones and Rip Offs records, I picked up on Chuck Berry leads as well. Of course, I’d love to meet Chuck Berry and talk shop with him. “There’s only one catch.” Oh, Christ!
“I told him you have leukemia.” Of course, you would. I told my dad I didn’t exactly know what having “leukemia” entailed. I rubbed my shaved head, that would pass for a recent chemotherapy session, but beside acting “sick,” I didn’t know enough about the illness to pull off a convincing acting job. “I don’t know”…”we’ll just tell him it’s in remission.” I can’t say that I’m totally sold on the idea of karma, but I’m sure if it exists, I’d eventually pay for pretending I was suffering from leukemia. “Alright, I’ll do it!” I agreed after deciding that Chuck Berry teaching me the duck walk and getting my Harmony guitar signed was worth the potential karmic leukemia I would suffer from years down the road.
The next week, I got another call from my dad. Chuck Berry had given my dad a business card and told him to call the number on the card to set up a meeting. I had gone over what I would say to him when we met, what I would ask, I was ready. “You wouldn’t believe it…” He sounded upset. “The phone number he gave me doesn’t work!”