Just last week, Esquire published this thorough and fascinating Chuck Berry article. Berry is notoriously wary of the media, so author Luke Dittrich couldn’t take a direct route to his subject. We spoke with Dittrich, a contributing editor at the magazine, last weekend about his super savvy journalistic methods and his thoughts on our hometown hero.
Jaime Lees: I was wondering if you’d ever lived here because there’s your Chuck Berry article, and I also read your Joplin article and it was amazing. So I was wondering if you were from here or if you had family here.
Luke Dittrich: Well, thank you very much. Yeah, the reason I have those two Missouri stories is because I went down to St. Louis to profile Chuck Berry and I arrived the day after Joplin was hit by the tornado. So I spent about a week reporting on Chuck Berry and I had planned to stay working longer on the Chuck story but then eventually just decided that I was going to sort-of put Chuck on hold and go to Joplin. It compelled me to go there.
So, the first thing that I wanted to ask you is pretty simple: how did you get the interview? Because Chuck lives here and he’s around but he’s still kind of a mystery to us.
Right, yeah, I went through a friend of his, Joe Edwards, who owns Blueberry Hill?
I contacted him, but before I went to Joe I tried to get to Chuck through his agent, but his long-time agent had just retired and I never heard back from him. He’d been Chuck’s agent for, like, literally 50 plus years — I think since the 1950s — so he’s probably an interesting character himself, but I never connected with him.
Then I went through another person who works sort-of licensing deals out for him, who works on the rights to Chuck Berry’s image and all that. So I contacted that guy and he said “Well, I don’t know. Even when I’m trying to get a hold of Chuck he only communicates through faxes and it’s this long ordeal to get to him and I’ll do my best but I can’t promise anything.”
And so finally, I knew he was friends with Joe Edwards so I called Joe up one day and Joe didn’t promise me anything but Joe said “I can promise you that I’ll get him a letter if you want to write up a letter. And I’ll either fax it to him or hand-deliver it to him.”
So I ended up faxing Joe a letter, addressed to Chuck Berry, laying out what I wanted to do and why I wanted to talk to him. And I guess it worked because about a week later Chuck said he agreed. And to be there at the following Blueberry Hill show.
How did you know to get a hold of Joe?
Joe has been mentioned as a friend of Chuck Berry’s in several other stories that I’d read so I knew that he was close friends with him. And I was kind of grasping at straws to figure out who to talk to, so I figured that he was worth a shot, and now it seems like he’s the perfect person to call if you’re trying to get a hold of Chuck Berry.
So why did you want to write about Chuck?
You know, I can’t honestly say that I’ve grown up listening to him or anything, because it was before my time that he was really at the top of the charts, but I’ve had a fascination with him for quite some time. Ever since I saw — there was a great documentary called Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n Roll?
When that came out it painted this fascinating and kind of enigmatic portrait of Chuck Berry as both a great artist and sort of a supremely complicated individual. So I found that very intriguing, and so I’d been intrigued by Chuck Berry. And after seeing that documentary, I bought some CDs of his and became a fan, really, of his music. And then I didn’t really think of doing the story until maybe a few months before the interview, because I’d read somewhere about his shows at Blueberry Hill or I saw some YouTube clips and I saw that it was just this very small venue, not the sort of venue that you would expect somebody to play who has had such a, you know, an amazing effect on American culture in general and world culture. If we are saying that — and I made it clear in the story– that it’s hard to actually say that he invented rock and roll, but he came as close to inventing rock and roll as any single individual has done. And his sound has influenced all of subsequent popular music. And the fact that this person has had this amazing influence…
Basically, he’s had as much of an influence on world culture today as any living person, I’d say, yet so many people aren’t even aware that he’s still alive. And he’s playing these monthly shows at this small place, probably not for huge tons of money. Anyway, that surprised and intrigued me and basically I wanted to see what he’s like in person. It was a treat to get to meet him in person but also to try to figure out what he’s getting out of this. What’s the father of rock and roll doing winding down his days, in a certain sense, playing this small club that’s very much like the small clubs that he launched his career in?
Yeah, I thought that was a good point when I read that in your article, it is like a lot of the places that he used to play. It might even be smaller than the places that he used to play when he was first starting out.
Yeah, have you seen him play there?
Yes, yes, I have. I go at least once a year. But it’s hard because… there’s kind of a weird relationship there. Being a St. Louisan we kind of forget that he’s there because he’s there every month, you know?
It’s amazing. I think it’s very similar to a lot of people who live in New York City who have never gone to see the Statue of Liberty, for example. It’s one of those things you’re so close to it that you kind of take it for granted.
Exactly. It changed a little bit after he collapsed on stage in Chicago. People were sort of like “Oh shit, I really need to go see him before I can’t see him anymore.” I think he still sells out every time, though. Every time I go it’s always interesting to talk to all of the people there. There’s always fans in from Japan, from Australia, from all over the world. And they spend tons of money getting here just to see Chuck and it makes me feel like a jerk for not going every month when it would be so easy for me to do. What’s the general sense that you got from the people at the shows? Do they think that these shows are adding to his legacy or hurting his reputation?
I think, ultimately, what’s important is that he’s doing it for himself at this point. I think he genuinely enjoys playing — it’s such a profound part of his being, his playing music — and I think it has to be. And as you can get a sense from the article, my actual interview with him was a challenge because he didn’t have his hearing aid in, so it was tough to get some of the answers from him that I might have wanted to get, had we been able to have a conversation that wasn’t compromised by a lack of a hearing aid.
And not to put words in his mouth, but I would think that it’s a joy for him to play and it must be a joy for him to play with his kids. And as well as for them. I think it’s something that they love doing. And nobody can expect an 85 year old man to be able do duck walk like he did when he was in his 30s, right? But I think the fact that he’s doing it, and that he still has passion enough to do it, and he does it in a braver way than most younger bands do, in a sense. They still never have a set list, it’s still a bit of a grab bag in terms of even the band members never know what they’re going to get. But obviously his performance or energy is going to change over the years. But no, I wouldn’t say that he’s hurting his reputation.
Whenever people are talking about did Chuck or didn’t he invent rock in roll — you mentioned this in your article — that the argument pretty much comes down to Chuck Berry and Ike Turner. And as a St. Louisan, that makes me super happy because as I see it either way I win — because we claim Ike as ours. I just think those two in particular are very interesting. I was glad to see Ike in there because they are both guys who are known not just for their music but for their possibly-not-so-good personal lives. I just think that they’re both fascinating characters.
Yes, they are. And who know if it’s mellowing with age or whatever, but he [Chuck] certainly was extremely nice and gracious with me. And I had no clue how… I’d obviously read a lot a seen a lot of stuff [laughs] about his previous encounters with journalists.
You brought a knife just in case…
Exactly, yeah! But he was disarming in that sense. He was easy to talk to but he just, unfortunately, couldn’t hear everything I was saying.
On stage he seems like every other sort-of winking dirty old man that I’ve ever met in my life. And I’m into that, that’s fine.
Have you ever gotten up and danced on stage at the end? I assume he does that every show?
Yeah, I haven’t gone up yet, that would make me sort-of nervous to do. But I do intend to freak dance on him one of these days. So did you have any other cool observations that you couldn’t fit into your article?
You know… I do have a feeling that like a lot of people of his level of fame he kind of avoid interviews and he’s very wary and cautious about the press and the media and all that. But I don’t think that he lives a particularly cloistered life. Like, I remember when I was trying to convince him to let me spend a couple of days following him around– and he turned me down eventually flat out– but also he was like “Oh, I’m not going to be doing anything. I’ve got some storm damage on the house” and he was going to go oversee the contractors who were fixing the roof over his garage and stuff like that. [laughs] So while he’s a very private man and still remains an enigma, I don’t think he leads a very diva-ish life when he’s out of the spotlight, you know what I mean?
But do you think he wears the sparkle shirts at home?
- link: Riverfront Times
Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth have separated after 27 years of marriage and now the future of the band is unknown. Their record label released this statement last Friday:
Musicians Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, married in 1984, are announcing they have separated. Sonic Youth, with both Kim and Thurston involved, will proceed with its South American tour dates in November. Plans beyond that tour are uncertain. The couple has requested respect for their personal privacy and does not wish to issue further comment.
It feels kind of gross to discuss this news. (And not just because the couple requested privacy.) It’s weird to think about their separation because Gordon/Moore were not just the biggest couple of the alternative generation but because they were also the most respected. To the outside world, they had the perfect relationship. They were in love, married with a talented daughter, and together they were one half of the greatest indie rock band in history.
But they never flaunted their bond. They weren’t always holding hands in band photographs or anything like that. In fact, in the beginning of the band, they seemed to make a point to stand apart from one another. Because of the careful, private way they carried their love, they seemed untouchable. And strong. They were held up by admirers as the perfect rock and roll couple, an example of how cool love and marriage could be.
Fans and journalists alike were respectful of their relationship. I’ve interviewed both of them, and I never had the balls to ask either of them about the other. In our conversation a couple of summers ago, Gordon brought up Moore and was very complimentary about him. She also spoke about her daughter, but it still felt inappropriate to ask her too much about her home life. It felt like prying — like if I got her to talk about it that I would be tricking her into doing something that I knew she didn’t want to do.
And, really, there was no reason to ask about her home life. Both Gordon and Moore are prolific musicians, writers, poets and artists. There’s plenty of interesting ground to cover. Together and separately, they are both workaholics, releasing a staggering amount of art in various formats. One of their accomplishments together is the release of seventeen studio albums in the bands 30-year career.
And any fan who has listened to the last few albums could have made predictions of this breakup. It would be a mistake for any outsider to claim that that these songs are autobiographical, but there is a definite story arc from “I Love You, Golden Blue” through to “Turquoise Boy” then “Antenna” and “Massage the History” on the bands last release, The Eternal. The last few albums seemed more somber, more contemplative.
Combine that with the fact that the other Sonic Youth band members, Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo, seemed to be actively building other lives for themselves outside of the band, and the potential demise of Sonic Youth doesn’t seem too shocking. Shelley is all set up as the drummer for Chicago-based band Disappears, and he’s been touring with them for a while. It would be easy to change the category on the Disappears from “other” band to “primary” band. And Ranaldo is suddenly everywhere. He’s started an official Facebook page, he’s making music and his website has become increasingly active- most notably with his photojournalistic endeavors. Ranaldo’s posts his photos on his website and it has become one of the best sources for his on-the-street documentation of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Gordon has been absent lately. Laying low, one would suppose. Moore had a personal blog where he would post his writings, photos of his daughter, tributes to poets he admired, etc, but the blog was deleted over the weekend. Moore is still active publicly, even conducting a thoughtful, funny interview with Henry Rollins about his new book on the day of the announcement.
Yes, the separation is hard on the fans, too. And that’s unfair to Gordon and Moore, but it’s the truth. It’s a lot of weight to put on one couple. Before, fans would think to themselves: Maybe my parents got divorced, maybe I just got dumped, maybe my marriage is a disaster, but Kim and Thurston were still together- so true love exists! Now admirers must accept that Gordon and Moore are just like us. Not an infallible supercouple, but two people who also have to deal with the consequences of unraveling love. (And if you think your ex won’t go away, try being together for 30 years, being known world-wide and having to deal with nosy journalists and fans.)
But perhaps Gordon and Moore can still be our role models. But instead of being part of the relationship that we most glorify, they can be an example to show us how to handle even the biggest, messiest, most heart-breaking of breakups with dignity.
And while they are unique in their place in fans’ hearts, but there have been quite a few other separations between couples who made music together. Below we explore some other famous inter-band rock and roll relationships with breakups and the outcome of each.
4. Jack White and Meg White of the White Stripes
These peppermint-colored cuties hit the scene in the late ’90s as a catchy throw-back garage duo. Back then they claimed that they were brother and sister, which was believable enough given their shared look — alabaster skin and black hair. As it turns out, they were husband and wife. They’d been married for a few years and actually divorced in early 2000, just as the White Stripes were getting super-popular. Jack later said that he invented the sibling story (and a few other fake back-stories) so that the press would focus on their music rather than their relationship. It was the opposite of Fleetwood Mac. Instead of exploiting their relationship, they denied it altogether. This, of course, just made fans all the more curious and throughout their career their exact relationship was the source of much speculation. The White Stripes officially disbanded early this year, but the Whites seem to have an okay relationship. Both had remarried and Meg even had her wedding ceremony in Jack’s backyard. Just this summer Jack announced his divorce from his second wife, model Karen Elson, but relationship downers don’t seem to put a dent his productivity. Jack’s latest band is alt-rock supergroup the Dead Weather and he continues to play with the jaw-droppingly talented Brendan Benson in the Raconteurs.
3. Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac
This is easily the most famous rock and roll breakup in classic rock. Fleetwood Mac, as a band, built its whole career on relationship turmoil. The classic album Rumours is a product of that turmoil, and in this case the lyrics were certainly autobiographical. In the band, there were two couples breaking up — not just Nicks and Buckingham, but also Christine McVie and John McVie. This charged atmosphere created some of the best SoCal tunes of the decade. It also resonated with listeners: Rumours has sold 40 million units worldwide. Back in the day, those songs really held a lot of meaning — both sadness and contempt. Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way” was particularly harsh on his former lover — it basically called her a slut (Which is debatable, honestly, since she slept with drummer Mick Fleetwood after the breakup with Buckingham). In any case, it was a scathing song that accused her of being a heartless skank. But it was a hit, so Nicks had to sing it on stage with Buckingham every night. Still, once the bitterness blew over, this is the one case where a serious breakup actually aided the longevity of the band. Now, whenever they’ve come together as Fleetwood Mac, they take every opportunity to play-up their former relationship, knowing that their old lady fans just love the sexual tension. Just watch the second half of the video for “Silver Springs” from 1997’s The Dance. The on-stage theatrics are out of control. And the fans love it. Since their heyday, all parties have had varying degrees of success in their solo careers. And if it’s broken down into a competition between Nicks and Buckingham, it’s hard to say who would win. Nicks is more well known but Buckingham is still mighty handsome and talented.
2. Ike and Tina Turner of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue
Ike Turner is credited as one of the inventors of rock and roll. In fact, he’s included in the short list as one of the dudes who (possibly) released the first rock and roll record. Yes, he was also a major jerkburger, but his musical pedigree cannot be stepped to. Ike met and hired a teenage Anna Mae Bullock as a background singer in the late 1950s. He gave her the stage name of Tina and the two began both a very successful career and a shit-tastic marriage. Ike was widely reported to be a controlling, easily angered woman-beater. Tina finally left him in 1976 and the divorce was finalized two years later. Ike got to keep all of the money, and Tina famously asked the court for one thing only: her name. They didn’t make music together again. Following their separation, Ike didn’t really exercise his talent. He spent some time in prison as a result of his drug addictions, and died in 2007 of a cocaine overdose. Tina, however, went on to build an impressive solo career on the merit of her distinctive voice, sexy legs and survivor status.
1. John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Even though everyone always hated on Ono, she was Lennon’s main musical partner in his life after the Beatles. She was also his partner in life. Like it or not, the two of them had one of the biggest, most well-documented romances in rock and roll history. She was an artist before she was even with Lennon, and she brought her vision to what they produced together. Against all odds, their partnership and love flourished. They lived as two halves of one whole, and Lennon wouldn’t do much without her by his side. What people forget, though, is that they separated for a while in late 1973. The couple had been under a lot of stress. Lennon was being skewered in the press for abandoning his nice, blonde, white wife and child for his weird, yelping Japanese artist. He was also facing deportation from a McCarthyist American government, who despised him for having a voice. When he spoke out against injustices or war, people listened, and he was considered a threat to national security. Also, Lennon had fidelity issues.
Faced with all of this pressure, the couple needed a break and Ono requested a separation. Lennon historians call this time period “The Lost Weekend,” but the separation really lasted for nearly a year and a half. During this time Lennon spent some months living in Los Angeles, hanging out with scenesters at the Troubadour and drinking far too much. When he was in LA, he was, by all accounts, a hot mess. Eventually Ono took him back, after which he seemed slightly broken, but happy in his relief. He had shed some of that famous Lennon ego and become a more humble, sensitive man. They were older, calmer, and they finally settled down together. And just when it seemed as though Lennon and Ono would live happily forever together in the Dakota, their time together was ended forever by Mark David Chapman and four bullets. The legacy of this relationship will live on in perpetuum as the rock and roll Romeo and Juliet. Ono has continued her own music career, and was recording an album with Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore just earlier this year.
- link: Riverfront Times