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Fans of the freakishly charismatic, pompadoured creature Berry once portrayed -- both on-stage and in life -- would be hard-pressed to recognize him as he is now, roaming the aisles of a Montrose supermarket. His hair, once jet black, is now streaked with gray and combed straight back with minimal primping. Wire-rimmed glasses with Coke bottle-thick lenses have replaced the signature Wayfarer shades of old. A white-collared shirt hangs loosely over his slight upper body, one sleeve bearing the insignia of his new employer. This is Berry's first real job in as long as he can remember, and from the way it sounds, you'd think he's enjoying the stability.
"Actually, I'm comfortable with it," says Berry. "It's the first time in a long time that I haven't had a band, and I think I needed a break. My joke about it is: Whenever you're writing songs about writing songs, it's time to go get some new information."
Berry isn't fooling anyone, though -- least of all himself. His talk of settling down for good is noticeably noncommittal, and the twinkle in his eye that accompanies any mention of his musical future is hardly indicative of a has-been contemplating retirement. Berry would just as soon scale the Transco Tower as surrender his ongoing commitment to rock and roll, and all of its real and imagined trappings. The singer/guitarist hasn't played live in months, and it's safe to assume that, at 45, his best gigs are behind him. Yet he would have you believe that he's still very much in the game, even if the game is now very different from what it was when he first began.
To an extent, Berry is every frustrated rock star's favorite fairy tale -- albeit one with a decidedly mixed lesson. While most of us move past our dreams of rock and roll godhood when we realize that, well, we're probably not gods, Berry has stayed the course. He's continued chasing the rock dream unabated, living out the fantasy, taking his lumps. Simultaneously, and with equal amounts of enthusiasm, he embodies all that's romantic about the genre and all that's tragic. Berry has been repeatedly kicked around by the music he loves, and yet he continues to wave its banner. As a result, he's rock and roll's quintessential victim as much as he is its living, breathing endorsement. He is, quite simply, the man who wouldn't give up.
Part studied rock and roll traditionalist, part irredeemable lush, Berry has a passion for the genre's hard-driving musical basics and an obsession with its hard-living myths. As a result, his no-nonsense, historically correct sound has always been inspirational in the most primal sense. Old-school party anthems with substance, his best original tunes are steeped in a hummable familiarity, his lyrics propelled by blunt (sometimes X-rated) sentiments that encourage audiences to whoop it up, imbibe heavily, dance on tables, make general spectacles of themselves. And with his suavely bittersweet Eddie Cochran croon to help sway better judgment, somehow even dance-floor fornication seemed in line with the spirit of a Berry performance.
Rock and roll has always made the most sense to Berry at its least cerebral level, taking its cues from below the waist in the finest tradition of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Keith Richards. More than anything, says Berry, a good portion of the rock music of the last 30 years is guilty of taking itself a little too seriously.
"I hated that period when it turned into stadiums and Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles and Jackson Browne," Berry says. "That heady kind of stuff -- it just didn't rock. It was going in one ear and out the other, and not even touching my feet."
It's possible, though, that Berry is just as guilty of not taking his craft seriously enough, often treating the defining moments of his career -- the opportunities for widespread recognition -- with all the respect afforded a bad joke. Indeed, an account of Berry's life often resembles little more than a blurred patchwork of arguably insane episodes. Ask around town, and you'll uncover a wealth of fabled Herschel Berry exploits. There was the semi-legendary show when Berry -- then fronting his most popular group, the Natives -- set his guitar ablaze in front of an already volatile crowd, nearly inciting a riot; the gig on a Galveston beach in which the Natives played through a torrential downpour, refusing to leave the stage despite the very real threat of electrocution. Less flattering, perhaps, was the time when, after a night of heavy drinking with Joe Ely, Berry liberated one chair from the Rainbow Lodge parking lot and baptized another in urine.
Of course, all that was more than a decade ago. Much about Berry and his city has changed since then. The majority of the clubs that Berry used to light up are now long gone, as are the crowds he wound into a frenzy. Even if his humble interpretation of rock's roots seemed dumbed-down and obscene to some, when he was on his game, Berry oozed passion, personality and authenticity. At a time when punk and new wave were all the rage, a large portion of Houston's clubgoing public (more than a few Mohawked and skinny-tied types included) rallied behind its trashabilly savior, trends be damned.