|photo by Scott Stewart / Sun-Times Media|
Chuck Berry, 84 years old and, in my opinion, the Grand Architect of the great American art form we call Rock and Roll, gave a January 1st concert at Chicago's Congress Theatre where his age where his age, it appears, got the best of him more than once during the performance. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel art and architecture critic Mary Louise Schumacher was in attendance, and the frail on stage doings of an iconic rocker in his ninth decade were too much for her, as she reports here. It was such a sad display that she and her companion felt compelled to leave. Her resulting story is more a sulk than a report; although she is not the paper's pop music critic, you'd still expect her to apply more perspective and less woundedness into her column. It's gamy to announce yourself as a critic for a publication and then compose something that suggests your issues with mortality.
A great writer, a superb stylist, a keen scribe with a skewed perspective can be forgiven and even appreciated for a skewed, personalized accounting, but these geniuses are rare in journalism, let alone criticism, and most of us lacking an interesting way of expressing their fears and funneling their emotions into their columns adhere to the job description. It wasn't about Chuck Berry or his music, his lasting art, but how morose she felt as a result of going.
It might be sad to see a genius like Chuck Berry perform his brilliant songbook years beyond his prime, but reviewer Mary Louise Schumacher sounds more heartbroken that the musician/songwriter got old. She seems unaware that Berry's performances have, for decades, been erratic affairs. I've seen him three times in forty years of concert going, and found him sloppy and ill-prepared twice and inspired and exciting once. The film "Hail Hail Rock and Roll", a documentary about the rehearsals for a 60th birthday concert by Berry in St.Louis, is notable for the contentious arguments over event organizer and music director Keith Richards and Berry: Richards wanted a disciplined rehearsal time to do honor to Berry's songs while for Berry it was merely another money-grabbing opportunity.
Berry did get with the spirit of his own music, though, and the filmed concert sequences show the genius behind Berry's music, but it also gave evidence that the man had "lost his art" long ago. Schumacher, I rear, failed to go to the concert with reasonable expectations, as Berry's crankiness is generally well known. A pop music reviewer should know this and temper their judgment. It would have been another knowing touch had she made the distinction between Berry and The Work he has done; he may have lost his art as a performer, but the real art isn't lost to the audience. It exists in his songs, which are on record and which we can rediscover and marvel at our leisure. However tragic his late life may be, Chuck Berry's contribution to American Music is immense.