Recounting the unlikely, one-off summit between the father of rock and roll Chuck Berry and LA punks Circle Jerks
By RJ Smith
Reading time 14 Minutes
CHUCK BERRY jammed with the CIRCLE JERKS?!? Yes, and RJ SMITH has the goods!
It was an off night in Saint Louis, the night the Circle Jerks hit town for the first time in years. They were a legendary Los Angeles hardcore punk band famous for wild shows. In 1995, they were in the middle of a reunion tour, playing the hometown of one of St. Louis’s most famous, and most complicated, products: Chuck Berry. An oral history of the night that Chuck Berry collided with the Circle Jerks.
The Cast of Characters:
MARK GOLDMAN: Dedicated longtime rock fan and patron of waterfront rock club Mississippi Nights.
ANDY MAYBERRY: Manager of Mississippi Nights in 1995.
RICH FRAME: Owner of Mississippi Nights. (Which closed in 2007)
KEITH MORRIS: Founding member of Black Flag, front man for hardcore punk band Circle Jerks.
ZANDER SCHLOSS: Bass player for the Weirdos and Circle Jerks.
ANGELA PEZEL: St. Louis-based fan of Circle Jerks.
[GOLDMAN] Mississippi Nights was the premiere music venue in St. Louis, a city known for bands passing us by rather than routing through it. It was a long rectangular venue. The stage was maybe three feet off the ground.
[MAYBERRY] It was a showcase nightclub with an unbelievable history. In 1978 AC/DC played there. Nirvana started a riot down there; Ricky Nelson almost got arrested for cocaine down there. But the club had such amazing history.
[FRAME] We did every type of music there was, with the exception of opera, if you characterize that as music. We did 2 Live Crew, we did it all and put it out there for everybody. I think jazz is boring.
[MORRIS] The Circle Jerks were on tour promoting Oddities, Abnormalities and Curiosities—we’d signed our major corporate record deal with Mercury and were performing our own Great Rock and Roll Swindle. And it turned out there wasn’t a lot of money. The record was moving at a snail’s pace and then it was time for the label to release the brand new Bon Jovi album, with the press and marketing people cheering how it was going to sell ten million copies.
[SCHLOSS] Chuck Berry is my ultimate hero—I am from St. Louis, and it was a huge, huge homecoming moment for me.
[MORRIS] So the big record comes out and it’s trickling out the door, and there’s no trickle-down effect for us. We were on tour noticing some of the cities we were going into where we were doing in-store appearances, there might be a couple of posters on the wall, a few CDs in the bin—that’s, ahem, part of the marketing strategy, to have your CD in the bin. It’s not happening and we’re finding ourselves in a situation where we’re going out to promote a record and it’s not even in the stores!
[SCHLOSS] Dude! The first time I ever picked up a guitar and performed in front of an audience was at summer camp, and I played “Johnnie B. Goode.” It was pretty terrifying, but I guess I was a pretty extroverted kid. You’d have to be stupid if you’re a guitar player and you don’t idolize Chuck Berry.
[MORRIS] The Bon Jovi record is not selling, so the president of the label goes to the entire company and makes an announcement. “Everybody’s going to drop what they’re doing and we are going to make this record jump in the charts – it doesn’t matter who you’re working on, you’re now working on this. Even the janitor, I want him to stop mopping toilets and get him on a computer to help sell the Bon Jovi record.” Meanwhile, Circle Jerks are out there floundering. It was sad and depressing, this kind of “why are we doing this?” tour to promote this record that the record label is not promoting. And we find ourselves playing at a place called Mississippi Nights. “It better be overlooking the Mississippi River,” I said, which it was.
[GOLDMAN] Most nights I hung out at the bar. Chuck used to show up intermittently. Word was he would go out prowling for women and gambling at a casino on the riverfront. So it wasn’t that exotic to see him at Mississippi Nights. The most surprising thing was that it was the night the Circle Jerks were playing. You’d think this was way outside his area of interest.
[GOLDMAN] Chuck was acquainted with the manager at the time. He walked in with a couple women, I want to say two blondes, and he went up to the stage and was watching. I looked over, “Oh wow, there’s Chuck Berry. What is he doing at a Circle Jerks show?” But then hey, all rock music is based on Chuck Berry licks and even these guys were just playing a louder, more distorted version of Chuck Berry.”
[GOLDMAN] It was an all-ages show but the crowd was mostly over 21. At that point the Circle Jerks had broken up and then semi-reformed. They were almost a nostalgia act themselves.
[MORRIS] We were fortunate, we were a band that can pull into a town playing a place that holds 800 people, and, even with a Bon Jovi record out there we can draw 750 people. So here we are in this room with 800 people just going ape shit, just going nuts, people leaping off of whatever they could leap off of.
[GOLDMAN] They were great. Keith Morris is probably one of the best frontmen, certainly in that genre, and they were tight for punk rock. It was a great show.
[PEZEL] I saw something I’ll never forget. I’m short and I always make a point to stand as close to the stage as I can to not get trampled. I was at the left side of stage by these big monitor speakers, and three or four kids who were hearing impaired were standing there, their hands pressed up against the monitor. You could see that they could feel the vibrations. They were experiencing the same kind of thing as I did; they could feel it and see it and they were experiencing it themselves. They were signing to one another, and there was some older person minding them who looked really stressed out. But they were having the time of their life.
[MAYBERRY] He came down to where I was; he was excited. I went up to the manager of the Circle Jerks and said “Hey, Chuck Berry is here and wants get up onstage and play.” I wrote a note on printer paper and laid it in front of the band on the stage. It just stopped them cold.
[GOLDMAN] People at the bar saw that Chuck had suddenly disappeared; everybody thought he had left with the women. And then he was on stage and people were flabbergasted. I was certainly shocked. More than anything I was just curious how the Circle Jerks could handle playing with Chuck Berry, because he’s very hard on people who backed him up. I wondered if he was going to be nice to them or berate them. They seemed just thrilled by the whole process and Chuck didn’t yell at anybody or chastise—it was just, back me up and get out of the way.
[MAYBERRY] How would the kids with all the tattoos and mohawks and orange and green hair, how would they handle it? Well, they were just blown away.
[MORRIS] Our guy runs to the front of the stage, and then we see this guy waving and everybody recognizes because Chuck Berry is wearing his little white skipper hat, like he’s been commandeering the riverboat. And Chuck Berry says, “pull me up, I want to play with these guys.”
[SCHLOSS] there was this very weird silence—we stopped the set and somebody wheeled an amp up onstage and I was just wwwwaaa…whhhhaaa…WHAT? I had no idea what was going to happen. I might’ve asked somebody in the band and then they said yeah, Chuck Berry is coming up here to play a couple of songs. I was like oh my god, I was freaking fucking out.
And the funny thing about it is, when I think about it—and my memory is patchy from all the drugs and alcohol I did in my career, but what I most remember is the anticipation, the bizarre anticipation that came with the amp wheeling up onto the stage. I’d never gotten that close to him before.
[PEZEL] When he came on stage, there was this look on Keith Morris’s face—he was enraptured at this thing that was going on and that he could see it.
[MORRIS] Chuck Berry is hitting the first notes of “Roll Over Beethoven” and he wants me to sing along. I’m in awe, just awestruck, I’m looking at him play and listening to the guys play along with him and they’re doing a really good job. And my jaw is on the floor. This is not supposed to be happening. It doesn’t happen to a band of our stature.
[SCHLOSS] I had actually heard that he never tells anybody in the band what he was going to play or what key he was going to play in. But I had seen Hail, Hail Rock and Roll[the Chuck Berry documentary] and remembered Keith [Richards] talking about how Chuck likes to play in the cracks, he’s going to be in a sharp or flat key and I thought to myself, just hold onto that B flat right now… And then he launches into the opening lick of “Roll Over Beethoven” and I was off and running. I was in the right key and pretty excited about that. At that point, look, it’s the Circle Jerks and there’s a lot of jumping and screaming and it’s quite aggressive. I’m looking over to the other side of stage and [guitarist] Greg Hetson is leaping into the air, I’m doing my moose kick and Keith is going nuts, dancing with Chuck Berry.
[SCHLOSS] Chuck says, “Tell that little guy that he’s insane.”
[MORRIS] We didn’t even speak! I guess he’d already spoken to us and all of the punk rockers. The modern geniuses, the future lawyers and brain surgeons and knuckleheads, all of them, he spoke to everybody with that song.
[GOLDMAN] If I remember right, it went into a sampling of some of his other hits. Did he fit with them? It was like a pretty straightforward Chuck Berry set—they didn’t up the tempo.
[PEZEL] It was really kind of old hat to Chuck. It was just, ‘I know who I am. And here I am with my guys.’
[SCHLOSS] He gave a guitar solo to Greg Hetson at a certain point and then turned around and pointed at me and gave me a bass solo! What the hell is going on here? Nobody gives anybody a bass solo. But, yeah, I took a bass solo.
[MORRIS] We get through playing, and we dry off, get through doing whatever people do when they get done playing. Loading our stuff out. The manager of the club brings me in his office, says, “Sit down, I’ve got something to tell you. A message I’ve been told to pass on to you and the guys in the band. Chuck Berry told me to tell you guys you are one of the greatest bands he’s ever seen.” I was floored. Look, all the rock critics in the world could give us 5 stars out of 5 or say we deserve to play the Hollywood Bowl, the Super Bowl. It’s all swell and fine and wonderful, but ultimately, Chuck gave us the greatest compliment.
[SCHLOSS] I literally was vibrating for a week afterwards.
[MORRIS] There’s no recording of it, there were no cell phones then, nothing like that. There were I believe a couple of photos. Our record label at the time, because they were so drenched in the Jon Bon Jovi situation, couldn’t make any kind of news out of the fact that one of the greats was all of a sudden playing with our own Circle Jerks. They couldn’t even capitalize on that, though you would have thought that Rolling Stone would have devoted a page to the story. MTV news would have jumped all over that. I don’t know. Jon. Bon. Jovi.
[PEZEL] I just remember leaving and you’re all hot and trying to find the people you came with and I was thinking: Did I really see that? Did that happen? Hey we just saw Chuck Berry.
[GOLDMAN] I saw Chuck a few more times over the years. I never talked to him about that show and I always regret it. What the hell were you thinking? That would have been my question.
RJ Smith is a journalist based in Los Angeles. His books include American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank (Da Capo, 2017) and The One: The Life and Music of James Brown (Gotham, 2012). His work has appeared in GQ, Spin, The New York Times Magazine, Vibe, and Yeti. He is currently working on a biography of Chuck Berry.