By Jay Craven
Editor’s note: Filmmaker and arts impresario Jay Craven has been telling his story of the day and night he spent trying to get Chuck Berry to honor his contract and perform in the Northeast Kingdom. He continues his story this week, where he left off — getting Chuck Berry to finally agree to get in his car and drive to the St. Louis airport. But time was very tight and Jay has to promise he’d come up with an additional $2500 to motivate Berry to make the trip to Lyndonville.
Time was wasting and Chuck Berry was still negotiating—even after I agreed to his terms.
“You just be there at the airport to pay me the cash and lead me to the venue,” he said.
“No problem,” I said.
“And you do not object to the fact that I am tape recording this conversation, right?” Berry asked.
“Fine,” I said. “But the St. Louis flight leaves in a half hour.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I drive fast.”
I asked Berry to call the Catamount office if anything went wrong along the way or if he missed the flight. He laughed and didn’t reply. “I’ve got to get moving,” he said.
I hung up the phone. The guys standing beside the plumbing van outside the West Barnet Store stared at me, expectantly. One spoke up. “So, is he coming?” he asked.
“It’s not over,” I said. “But we’re making progress.”
He asked where he could get tickets. I took his order and called it into the Catamount office. I told our marketing director Kiah Caldwell that the show was “on” and I provided the details. She said that no one would be available to drive to the airport so that I’d have to do it, despite the fact that my driver’s license was suspended.
I’m not proud of this fact and it’s the only time I’d been suspended — for ten days due to a speeding ticket I got outside Newport, driving up I-91. I had been headed to Montreal to pick up the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which was performing with Paul Simon’s Graceland concert, and were then coming to Vermont to perform a show for us.
I became anxious, thinking how I’d have to drive illegally but I didn’t know what else to do to get Chuck Berry to Lyndonville. I then remembered my six year-old son, Sascha, still down at Harvey’s Lake. I set off to meet him and take a quick swim.
With any luck, Chuck Berry would catch the plane, make the connection, and arrive in Burlington at 6:30 p.m. for the two-hour drive to Lyndonville. And I’d make it to the airport, driving carefully to avoid detection. Then, Berry would follow me in his rented car and we’d roll in at precisely the right moment for him to take the stage at the fairgrounds, after the completion of a half-hour set by the opening act.
But the saga wasn’t over yet.
I arrived at the Burlington airport in plenty of time to meet Chuck Berry’s scheduled 6:30 p.m. arrival from St. Louis. And I’d driven very carefully.
I made my way to the airport waiting room, where people were gathering for the US Air return flight to Pittsburgh. I noticed some of them reading that day’s Burlington Free Press article, “Chuck Berry Does It His Way,” which was based on an earlier Burlington concert I’d produced, where Berry blew off rehearsal, arrived at the last minute, and traveled under an assumed name, making it impossible to track him through airlines, rental cars, or hotels. I’d convinced the newspaper to run the story, since ticket sales were slow. But now, just hours before showtime, the phone was running off the hook.
At 6:10, Chuck Berry’s airline announced a half-hour delay. This was bad news. Berry was scheduled to take the stage at 8:30 p.m. in Lyndonville. If he arrived at 7 p.m., I could maybe get there by 8:45 — fifteen minutes late. Hmmm.
The plane didn’t arrive till 7:10. I was very nervous that we wouldn’t make it to the concert in time. People disembarked from the plane, but there was no sign of Berry. Playwright David Mamet, who lives part-time in Cabot, walked off. I asked him if he’d seen Chuck Berry on the plane. “Nope,” he replied.
I waited. A few more stragglers came off the plane; then the stewardesses. Then a co-pilot. My heart sank.
Then Chuck Berry strolled off — like he had all the time in the world. My furrowed brow gave me away. He walked straight up to me. “So, where’s my $2500 in cash?” he said loud enough for everyone to hear.
I said I had it. He then opened his briefcase right there in the middle of the passenger lounge. “Let’s count it to make sure,” he said.
Dozens of people watched me count out a fistful of twenties and fifties. Some looked at the Free Press article and stared at the rock icon standing ten feet from them. Berry counted the cash and whipped out the contract he’d failed to send back. He signed it and said, “We’ve got a deal. Where’s the car?”
The rented Lincoln Town Car was gassed and ready to go. Berry took the keys and pulled out a pack of Kools. I don’t smoke, but he offered me one. “OK,” I said. I coughed from the harsh menthol. “Can’t take it?” Berry asked.
“Follow me,” I said. “We’ve got a two hour drive.”
“We’ll make good time. Don’t worry,” he said.
I led Berry onto I-89 south and accelerated to 65 mph, careful to observe the speed limit. Almost immediately, Berry honked his horn, flashed his lights, and pulled up alongside my old Saab. “Let’s go!” he said. “What’s wrong?”
I accelerated to seventy, but Berry wanted me to go faster. He cruised up fast behind me. Honk! I accelerated to about 75 mph. I squinted for any sign of state troopers.
Berry still wasn’t happy. He pulled up hard, bumping my car. I pushed the gas, but Berry made another run at me. I was soon traveling 90 mph, pursued by Chuck Berry. He passed me and gave a long hoot. I was sure we’d both get pulled over and thrown into jail. There would be no concert.
TO BE COMPLETED NEXT WEEK...............
Jay Craven directs Kingdom County Productions, where he makes films and produces the Kingdom County Presents performing arts series. He will be presenting performances by the spectacular dance/illusion troupe Momix (Sat. Oct. 13—Lyndon Institute) and comedienne Paula Poundstone at the Haskell Opera House (7:30pm, Friday, November 2.) Tickets and information at the Catamount Arts Regional Box Office (748-2600 or CatamountArts.org).