In his prime, Herschel Berry entertained hordes of feverish followers at nightclubs all over Houston. But these days, he makes do as a Randalls Peapod man. Five times a week, the city's former ambassador of feel-good rock and roll punches in at Peapod headquarters, prints out the day's grocery lists that have arrived from subscribers via e-mail and goes to work overseeing a small, cart-wielding crew of professional shoppers.
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.
By the mid-1980s, when certain of the more riotous Natives performances had already become the stuff of legend, a national breakthrough for Berry seemed obtainable. Then ... nothing. Personalities clashed, ripe chances shriveled, windows of opportunity slammed shut. The collapse of Berry's rock and roll dream was as subtle as it was all-consuming.
Berry, to put it mildly, is in a bit of a financial bind these days, thanks to a combination of mounting debts, poor planning and plain old bad luck. "I really feel like I've been through this series of weird stuff," he says. "Just in the past three years, I've been in four car wrecks; someone tried to steal my car, but they got caught and caused $1,000 worth of damage to it. I was riding my bike through the Heights one night and got knocked on the head by some gang kids ...."
The litany of misfortune continues for a few more seconds before Berry stops short and laughs. Not one for bouts of self-reflection -- or self-pity, for that matter -- Berry would rather focus on the here and now, filing his most recent round of hard times under "valuable life experience" and moving on. After all, he did stumble upon a free set of wheels recently, a 1968 Ford Ranch Wagon given to him by a generous friend, so maybe his luck is changing for the better. True, the thing putts along at a Model T's pace, but Berry plans on fixing that, just as soon as he can pay off his auto insurance.
"And the irony of it all is that I ended up teaching comedy defensive driving," he says, referring to a job he acquired after taking the course himself to erase a traffic ticket from the only one of the four accidents that was his fault. "The woman running the school is one of the most naturally funny people I've ever met. She needed a couple of teachers and asked me if I'd be interested in doing it. So I gave it a whack."
A few months later, the program trimmed its staff, and Berry was laid off. The Randalls gig came along soon thereafter, when Berry wandered into the chain's Westheimer at Shepherd store looking for work. He'd expected to be bagging groceries, but Randalls had other ideas. "It's just one of those things where one thing led to another," says Berry.
Berry now lives on West Main, in a cramped space tucked away behind a modest home owned by an unemployed medical worker. The rent is cheap, and it's easy to understand why -- the place is essentially a garage with a kitchen. Berry's record collection fills one wall, while autographed album covers of the Kinks' Sleepwalker and Joe Ely's Musta Notta Gotta Lotta -- souvenirs of better times, when Berry was not only a fan but (to an extent) a contemporary -- are tacked up on another. Leaning against a wardrobe on wheels are the taped-up remains of a guitar smashed by Pete Townshend (another of Berry's heroes) at a 1968 Who concert at the Music Hall. The room's lone piece of furniture, a ratty love seat, is missing its cushions, which are lying on the hardwood floor wrapped in a sheet, a setup currently serving as Berry's bed until he can scrounge up money for a mattress.
Berry has invited a guest back to his place under the pretense of handing over a tape of 1995's Mr. Madness, the last album (so far) he's done. But he has another motive, and it loosely involves Elvis Presley. One of Berry's pals is a screen printer who's made some rather unusual "Elvis" T-shirts, and Berry happens to have an extra one handy. On it is a picture of a couple having oral sex; behind them on the wall is a velvet portrait of the King, mike in hand. The only color on the largely black-and-white image is splotches of red on the woman's genitalia and on Presley's lips. Berry thinks the shirt is brilliant.
But then again, subtlety has never been Berry's strong suit. "The Thrill of Underwear," "Let's 69 (Greek Girls)" and "100 Women" are just a few of his more brashly pornographic tunes that gleefully juggle winking innuendo with outright bad taste. Then there's Berry's retouched version of the famous Lee Harvey Oswald assassination photo that graces the cover of the Natives 1985 release Live with It. It depicts the grimacing Oswald clutching a microphone while Jack Ruby jabs his gun into Oswald's gut with one hand and holds an acoustic guitar in the other. Even Oswald's police escort comes ready to play: He's equipped with a Gibson Flying V electric, strap and all. Live with it, indeed.
"I want people to go, 'Eeew, how could you write a song like that?' I wrote it for you," he chuckles. "Rock and roll should have a little shock value left without getting into Marilyn Manson and all that demonic stuff. It should be a little naughty. I mean, my God, I'm not doing anything that hasn't been done."
In his mind, Berry remains the kid who could never pry his eyes away from girlie magazines long enough to make it to class, a walking hard-on who refuses to grow up. As a result, with decades of bad behavior under his belt, Berry is never at a loss for a wild reminiscence. An obvious favorite is his somewhat hazy recounting of the last time he ever got behind the wheel drunk. Berry's eyes light up when he tells the story of how, 14 years ago, he and Joe Ely had just finished a show together at Fitzgerald's when they decided to have a nightcap. One drink led to a few drinks, and a few soon proliferated into way too many.
"We got behind the bar and were swapping drink recipes," Berry remembers. "I left, and for some reason I got on the freeway, which is weird because I lived only about three miles from the club."
He was hungry, so he got off 610 and headed for the Rainbow Lodge. "The next thing I remember is waking up with my wife opening the car door and my head flopping backward. I'm looking at my four-year-old son upside down, and he's like, 'Hey daddy!' I was asleep in my car in front of the house. I couldn't tell you how I got home, and that was the scary part. My wife said, 'What's that chair in the back seat?' "
And there it was: a tall, wooden chair with fancy floral upholstery. "It took me three days to remember where that came from," he adds.
Apparently, Berry had snagged it from the Rainbow Lodge. "I had pulled up to valet parking," he says, "and there were two chairs for the parking guys, and I pissed all over one and stole the other."
Not long afterward, Berry and his wife, Molly, divorced, though that was hardly the reason for their parting. In fact, Molly barely remembers the incident. Through 12 years of marriage -- and the birth of a son, Hudson, and a daughter, Eva -- there had been many similar episodes of excess, some of them inspired, some ridiculous, some even reprehensible, and most attributable to the lifestyle Berry and his wife had chosen for themselves, in which rock and roll often took priority over all else. Eventually, says Molly, the two broke up for the sake of the children.
"It's real hard when he's on-stage and there's girls throwing themselves at him," she recalls. "He's a very devoted musician, I'll say that. But he's really not responsible. I loved him very much, but I hated him, too. He slept all day and he'd be up all night."
"He's got that day job, now," she adds. "That should be the death of him."
Today, the two live within a block of each other and remain close. Her ex-husband visits daily, Molly says, and spends time with Hudson, 16, and Eva, 13, almost as often. The pair's extended courtship began in 1964 and predates the day when, at 13, Berry found his calling in the local surf group the Malibus. According to Molly, both were 12 when they met, and after dating around a bit, they officially became boyfriend and girlfriend at 17. The two came of age in the West University area, within a few miles of where she and Berry now live.
"I was a druggie bad girl; he was a druggie musician," Molly recalls with a hint of pride.
While Molly made it through Lamar High School and went on to study art at the University of St. Thomas, Herschel, who describes himself as sort of a nerdy troublemaker back then, dropped out in the tenth grade, after a run-in with a coach. "I went to my doctor and told him I hated gym," says Berry. "He was a cool guy, so he gave me a note to get out of gym for the whole year. It said I had a back disorder that they could neither prove nor disprove. So I walked the track every day, which was fine with me. I like a nice stroll; I just don't like, you know, bombardment, which is probably a fun game if you don't wear glasses.
"Then, this stupid shit coach they used to call Bullwinkle decided that I had to suit up for roll call. I refused. The principal backed the coach, so I said fine, suspend me. They did, and I never went back."
Berry's parents were none too pleased with their middle child's decision to make his suspension permanent, but they had little choice but to roll with it. Innately experimental, Herschel wasn't so much a rebel or a bad seed as he was a thrill-seeker. Rock's dominance of the youth culture of the late '60s, not to mention the pull of hippiedom's "anything goes" credo, were too alluring for Berry to pass up. After running out of ways to punish their son short of tying him to the bed, the elder Berrys resigned themselves to his wild-man status, while secretly hoping that he would eventually shape up and become a model son. He never did.
"I was always off doing my own thing," says Berry. "My curiosity factor was high. Somebody was always calling up going, 'I caught my kid and your kid sniffing glue' or 'I caught your kid and my kid doing something.' I'll try anything, and that still gets me in trouble today."
If anything steered Berry out of harm's way as a teenager, it was his workmanlike devotion to his music, which kept his mind and fingers occupied with something at least slightly constructive. His ornery streak -- not to mention his weaning (courtesy of his parents) on C&W and, to a lesser extent, the blues -- meant that he first gravitated to the grittier pop sounds of the day. "The song that got me was 'I'm a King Bee' [from the Rolling Stones' 1964 U.S. debut, England's Newest Hit-Makers]," he remembers. "From then on, I was a Stones fanatic."
Other than his sister Mary, a singer and harpist, Berry was the only one of the six children to seriously consider a career in music. He taught himself how to play electric guitar using an instruction booklet that came with a German-made model given to him by his parents. And his abandoning school in his mid-teens left him free to pursue it full-time. Along with British Invasion bands such as the Stones, the Who and the Kinks, Berry took a shine to surf music, going for the instrumental bravado of Dick Dale and the Astronauts over the harmonies of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. Toe-head culture had caught on big around Houston, as it had most everywhere else in the mid-'60s and, more than ever, Galveston -- its Gulf swells perfect for beginners -- was the place to be. Berry and his first group, the Malibus, dove headfirst into that scene.
By the time surf music's popularity expired along the Gulf Coast, Berry had found work as a rhythm guitarist for the World, nothing more -- but nothing less -- than a fierce, high-volume bar band with a distinct rockabilly twang that mixed the occasional original with covers of tunes by everyone from the Coasters to the Velvet Underground.
"Basically, we were just taking [other people's] songs and playing them big and loud," says Berry of the group, which he joined in 1968. "I don't think anywhere we played back then exists anymore. Our first gig was at this hippie bar on 11th and Studewood called Crunchy Granola. We learned our first lesson as professional musicians there. We helped the owner actually build the stage. We came in that night and played, and then he didn't pay because we were too loud. Welcome to the music business."
After the World's lead singer left, Berry moved into the slot, backed by David Wintz on lead guitar, Chris Lesikar on bass and Nick Galmiche on drums. That lineup lasted four years before the band members split in 1972 to go on to other projects. Wintz co-founded Rockin' Robin Guitars; Lesikar moved on to Pin-Ups and the Checkmates and now owns a local frame shop and gallery; Galmiche did time in both T.C. and the Cannonballs and the Fontaines before moving to Indianapolis, where he now works on a gambling boat. Berry, meanwhile, continued his search for his rock and roll vision.
Like his soon-to-be wife, Molly, Berry had an interest in art -- drawing, in particular. That led to work as a security guard and exhibit installer at the Contemporary Arts Museum, jobs that helped pay the bills in the mid-'70s, when Berry's bands seemed to come and go as frequently as the roach-infested dives they played. He also took up picture framing on the side ... and stepped up his extracurricular indulgences a few notches.
"I took a lot of LSD," Berry says simply. "I was out there having fun, basically."
He was having so much fun, in fact, that music was beginning to take a back seat to his wild life. "We were like redneck hippies. We still liked our George Jones, even though we were on acid," Berry recalls of his social circle in the early to middle '70s. "I remember this one night that me and three [friends] drove all the way to Rio Grande City on a whim. We were going to the peyote fields. We went walking across this ranch land to an oasis in the middle of nowhere, and we looked down and there was all these peyote cacti. So my friend just picked up a cactus, cut off the roots and started digging out the core and chopping it up. We chowed it down and had this wonderful day."
But while Berry may have been distracted, his focus never strayed completely from his music. He began taking recording classes at Huey Meaux's Sugar Hill Studios, studio tutorials that inspired Berry to set up a tiny home studio and get serious about writing and recording his own compositions.
During this period, Berry also worked for Charlie Helpinstill -- a.k.a. Ezra Charles -- helping to make Helpinstill's new invention, a patented pickup device for the piano that aided in the amplification of the instrument. For a while there, Berry recalls, it was just him and Ezra doing all the work. Then business exploded when superstars such as Elton John began placing orders, and Helpinstill had to bulk up his staff. By that time, Berry was immersed in music again, laying the groundwork for what would be his most famous project, the Natives.
The Natives' beginnings couldn't have been more casual, emerging out of a leisurely collaboration between the younger, hungrier Berry and Rock Romano, a warhorse of the scene working to get his life back on track. Berry had been a Rock Romano fan for years -- Romano had enjoyed some minor late-'60s national success with the pop group Fun and Games -- and by the mid-'70s, he had become a follower of Romano's jazz/rock fusion outfit, Smokin' Fitz.
Berry had met Romano earlier, after Romano's Fun and Games experience soured. The older performer was sharing a house with singer/songwriter Mike Sumler when Berry first entered the picture. "Every other Sunday we would get together, somebody would cook breakfast and we'd have this sort of community thing," Romano recalls. "And Herschel would always be there listening to records with Mike. They were these young kids who were just off into music big-time -- the Who and the more rockin' side of late-'60s music."
The two lost touch in the early '70s but re-established ties in 1977. That year, Berry had gone to see Robert Gordon with Link Wray at the Texas Opry House, and he was juiced by the pairing of aging guitar icon Wray with young-punker-turned-rockabilly-revivalist Gordon.
"He was going, 'Look man, it's the old dude and the young cat, and you could be Link Wray and I could be Robert and we could combine the old stuff and the new stuff,' " recalls the 52-year-old Romano, who's seven years Berry's senior. "It was a generational difference, really. I had already had a career as a pop artist and failed. And by that time, Smokin' Fitz was beginning to disintegrate."
Though the Berry/Romano pairing never happened, the two began jamming together at Romano's Montrose home, and those informal sessions produced the lineup of what would become the Natives: Berry on vocals and guitar, Kip Milwee on guitar and the powerhouse rhythm section of Romano on bass and Wiley Hudgins on drums. Within a few months, the Natives were off and running. Romano was close to Anderson Fair manager Roger Ruffcorn, who began booking the band weekly. Soon, a normally mellow folk club used to hosting the likes of Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith (both of whom, of course, went on to bigger and better things) became the unlikely site of the Natives' raucous, incendiary live performances. "We were the bastard stepchildren at Anderson Fair," Berry remembers.
In 1981, Anderson Fair co-owner Tim Leatherwood called on the Houston Chronicle's Marty Racine, who profiled the Natives in glowing terms, giving the band a publicity boost. The group's local profile ballooned from there, the crowds at their shows growing larger and more unruly week by week.
"A lot of what we did was white noise with a beat, and I can't overemphasize that it was totally insane," says Hudgins, who now plays drums with Beans Barton and the Bi-Peds. "By the end of the night, no one was in control. [One show] at Anderson Fair, Herschel squirted lighter fluid on [his guitar], set it on fire and continued to play. While all of this is happening, the bass player and the lead player laid their guitars against their amps -- so it's giant feedback -- and they picked up drumsticks, and all three of us were playing this wild, primitive beat on the drums."
"Herschel's running around like a crazy man with this flaming guitar, and he rips it off and begins smashing up a table with it," Hudgins continues. "The goddamn thing is still feeding back while all of this is going on. He tears this table up, and the room starts going crazy. People start grabbing chairs and throwing them into a pile on the floor. I literally saw thousands of years of civilization just stripped away; suddenly, everybody's back in the caves again. One of the owners came running out screaming, 'It's over! It's only a show! You're not going to burn down the club tonight.'
"I still have the nut of that guitar hanging in my kitchen."
After a year and half, Romano left the Natives to form Doctor Rockit. By then, the group had found a niche in the Texas nightclub circuit. "During peak time, we were playing 20 to 25 times a month," Berry remembers. "We played pretty straight, hard-core, 'let's dance and rock the rafters' kind of rock and roll."
In 1981, the Natives released a recording, New Rock and Roll, on their own Dance Records and sent it off to the major music publications, a few of which responded with enthusiasm. Venerable Rolling Stone editor Dave Marsh, while hesitant to heap on the praise, nevertheless conceded, "The band is strong, informed by rockabilly and soul, and while neither Berry's singing nor his songs have any great depth, they're invariably fun."
But things soon became less than fun for the Natives. In 1980, Berry had put his trust in an old high school acquaintance, Clayton Lee, signing a management deal that, Berry says, would haunt him into the next decade. Two years later, just when the Natives were peaking locally, Lee moved to Southern California, where he quickly became manager in absentia, participating in few of the nuts-and-bolts aspects of Berry's career -- bookings, promotions, etc. -- yet refusing to fully release Berry from his contract.
"It took me eight years to get this monkey off my back," claims Berry. "He just wouldn't let go. I think he had it in his mind that I was going to get signed to some $10 million deal with Sony or something, and he was going to get $2 million out of it."
For his part, Lee says that in 1983 he did release Berry from the management contract, and that the only obligation he held the singer to was a small percentage of future publishing and recording royalties -- if Berry were ever to earn any. Lee says he viewed the arrangement as partial payback for the money he sank into Berry's career at one point.
When asked to go into further detail about his dealings with Lee, Berry concedes that the management side of the deal was indeed terminated in 1983, but insists that the fact that Lee still retained certain royalty rights was a turn-off to nearly every music industry person he came across.
Regardless, whether hindered by a lack of resources or dwindling motivation or both, the Natives were essentially burning rubber, their reputation barely breaching the Texas state line. By the mid-'80s, Berry was seriously entertaining thoughts of getting out of Houston -- either with the Natives or on his own. But he couldn't bring himself to leave home.
"I love this town," he says. "I thought about going to New York and L.A. There's been times when I was real close. I went to New York and talked to the manager for Dr. Hook [Bob Heller]."
But all that would come out of that excursion was more talk. "It just never worked out," Berry says. "Instead of dealing with me, [Heller] wound up producing a record for Lou Rawls."
Their career stagnating, the Natives broke up in 1986, the same year they released their second effort, fittingly titled Live with It. Meanwhile, Berry's personal life was in shambles. He and Molly were finished. Numbed by drugs and crippled by money woes, the couple had divorced in 1984. Meanwhile, he continued to perform, mostly in a trio with bassist Rex Wherry and drummer Clint Davidson. Still, Berry often felt he was going in one creative direction while his bandmates were headed in another. By the late '80s, Berry -- penniless and in debt -- was scraping bottom. The divorce had taken a lot out of him; he was distracted, occasionally distraught. He even moved in with his parents for a spell.
But as the '90s began, it looked as if Berry might be clawing his way back from the brink. He fell in with the people at Digital Services, a well-respected studio that's a favorite of country star Clint Black and rapper Scarface, among others. Owner John Moran took a shine to Berry, and the two began planning an album they hoped would be picked up by a national label. But the recording never happened. At the time, Moran had his hands full with a new trend: gangsta rap. Artists from Rap-A-Lot Records had virtually taken over his studio, and Moran had little time for anything else. He and Berry eventually parted ways.
"Fundamentally, Herschel is a strong songwriter. He has charisma on-stage -- not that real spark -- but he has charisma," says Moran. "Those things simply weren't capitalized on in the right way. And unfortunately, styles change."
And Berry, God bless him, hasn't changed a lick. "That poor bastard," Moran chuckles.
In 1993, Berry took yet another run at the rock and roll ring, assembling a new band made up of relative youngsters Mickey Williams and Jeff Brosch. A seemingly rejuvenated Berry plied the Texas club circuit with a vengeance, performing at whatever venues would have them and, after it was recorded in haste in '95 at Rock Romano's Red Shack studio, selling copies of Mr. Madness out of the trunk of his car. It wouldn't last, though. By late last summer, the Herschel Berry Band was history.
Regardless, like a cat chasing its tail, Berry is still pursuing his rock and roll muse; he's become so engrossed in the chase that at this stage of the game any financial or career payoff is beside the point. Living out a rock and roll fantasy is one thing; making money from it is another altogether -- something Berry may never have been equipped to accomplish. Some liken his indifference to fame over the years to a fear of success; others see it as more of a creative control issue, or blame it on his self-destructive streak.
"It was just a matter of who was more serious than the other," says Herschel Berry Band drummer Brosch. "The last year I was with him, I put myself in the position of booking him, promoting him and doing everything possible creatively to help him. Then, after a while, I just got to the point where I had to step back."
A few Berry confidants say that he was never the same after his divorce -- that, after the separation, his drinking and drug use increased, he stopped writing and he became increasingly difficult to get along with. Brosch declines to get into specifics, but does agree to speak generally about the issue.
"His personal life had a way of wrecking any professional life he may have had," Brosch notes carefully. "You don't work, you don't get paid; you don't play, you can't pay your bills."
When confronted with the issue of his past failures, Berry pauses and takes a deep drag of his cigarette. His quizzical expression doesn't seem to indicate any profound displeasure over the inquiry. Still, it seems, he needs a little time to prepare an answer.
"You never know going into things what they're going to be, whether it's marriage, a new job or a new band," he says, turning reflective. "It starts out and it's this honeymoon, and then the honeymoon's over. That's life."
In the romance department, Berry's most recent honeymoon ended last September, when he broke up with his girlfriend of two years, moving out when the relationship "just sort of fizzled." On the bright side, this is the closest to debt-free Berry has been in years -- even if he still doesn't have a phone. He says he's curbed his drug intake these days. And his music? "I'm just sort of leaving it open for the time being," Berry says.
Not that Berry has sworn off performing. In fact, he and some old friends will make a special appearance next Thursday, June 12, at Party on the Plaza. And for a little rejuvenative inspiration, Berry can always look to his son, Hudson, who appears to be following in his father's footsteps -- though with a decidedly firmer grip on reality. A trombone player in the local ska/punk band Half Loaded, Hudson is a junior at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and he plans on sticking around for his diploma. For the most part, he was too young to remember much about his father's 1980s heyday.
"It wasn't that weird," says Hudson of life with Mr. Madness. "It all just seemed like a lot of fun."
And what of his father's turbulent career and seemingly unrealized potential?
"I don't really feel bad. He could have been really awesome and really big, because most of the bands today suck," Hudson says. "Today, it's not even about how good you are. If some big person sees you and likes you, then you get picked. So I guess no one big enough ever saw him. It's just the luck of the draw."
Ever since he was a boy, Herschel Berry has had a thing for Howard Hughes. As a youngster, he admired the way the late oil tycoon took one risk after another. Berry's opinion of Hughes is that he was a daredevil visionary, one who would have found a way to carry out his strange schemes even if he hadn't had the millions to make them a reality.
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It's easy to understand why Berry would feel a kinship with Hughes. For a time, he too was among Houston's larger-than-life eccentrics. Not surprisingly, Berry never came within spitting distance of the billionaire -- short of gawking at his limousine parked outside the old Shamrock Hotel one night in the early 1960s, soon before Hughes went into permanent seclusion. A ten-year-old Herschel had been out cruising in the family car with his older siblings when they spotted the white, gleaming beast, an "HH" engraved on each of its gold hubcaps. That only added to the mystique, and from then on, Berry was hopelessly hooked, consuming every detail he could find on the recluse.
These days, Berry isn't quite so obsessed. Still, he stands vigil by Hughes's gravesite at Glenwood Cemetery from time to time. A particularly memorable visit in the early '80s served as the inspiration for one of his most compelling tunes, "Mr. Madness." It's a sizzling, autobiographical white-boy blues number, perhaps the best thing Berry has ever written, with its lead-in line, "I rolled a seven on the dice on Howard Hughes's grave."
According to Berry, he really did roll a seven on Hughes's grave that day. It must have been a curious scene: The crazy rocker communing with the crazy billionaire across the chasm of life and death, clacking the bones in his hand, then sending them spinning across the cropped grass. Waiting to see what he'd rolled. Taking delight in the lucky seven.
A symbolic gesture, perhaps, and one that certainly makes intriguing fodder for song lyrics. Talking with Berry, though, one gets the feeling that it was much more than that -- a sign, perhaps, of greater things to come.