How Chuck Berry Sabotaged Bruce Springsteen at Rock Hall Opening
Bruce Springsteen and Chuck Berry have plenty of shared history. The former backed up the latter in the '70s, as the Boss once recalled – an experience that challenged the young musician’s ability to think on his feet. “About five minutes before the show was timed to start, the backdoor opens and he comes in. He’s by himself. He’s got a guitar case, and that was it,” Springsteen said. “[I said] ‘Chuck, what songs are we going to do?’ He says, ‘Well, we’re going to do some Chuck Berry songs.’ That was all he said!”
Two decades later, when Springsteen and the E Street Band backed up Berry on Sept. 2, 1995 at the Concert for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, things hadn’t changed much. The show-opening performance of “Johnny B. Goode” felt a little wobbly, something underscored by the somewhat bemused looks cameras caught the bandmates giving each other. Things went down hill from there, as E Street guitarist Nils Lofgren confirmed in a subsequent interview with the Hall of Fame focusing on the all-star jam with Springsteen, G.E. Smith, Steven Van Zandt and Chrissie Hynde, among others.
Going by set lists, the final song of the night was supposed to be “Rock and Roll Music.” By this time, the concert had been going for nearly seven hours, which perhaps explains partly why Lofgren says the performance was “real free-form. … We’re just going to do something off the cuff.” True to form, Berry started playing before letting the other musicians onstage know what song was coming next – and that’s where things got interesting.
“Somehow, a minute or two in, he like … shifts the song in gears and a key without talking to us,” Lofgren says. “Now, we all … okay, we’re pros, right? So, we’re all like … trying not to make a train wreck, and it’s tricky. Okay, what key is he in? Let’s start playing there.”
Berry continued shifting keys — four or five times, the guitarist reckons — for reasons Lofgren can only surmise were “to mess with us. I can’t imagine why else this happened. We’re all looking around at each other, the cast of characters and the backup band; these are pros, decades in. We are making these horrible sounds, collectively, in front of a stadium, sold out. We’re looking at each other like, ‘This can’t be happening, right? We’re not creating this thing we’re listening to. Yes, we are.’”
Just when he thought things couldn’t get worse, they did. “At the height of it, when no one has any idea how to fix this, Chuck looks at us all and starts … looking at us, duck walking off the stage, away from us,” Lofgren says. “He leaves the stage, leaves us all out there playing in six different keys with no band leader, gets in the car and drives away. Now if that’s not rock 'n' roll … and, I love Chuck Berry, but man … ”
Afterward, Lofgren and Springsteen discussed what had just happened — “I don’t think the two of us have ever participated in something that godawful musically since we were probably 13 or 14. I didn’t even start playing until I was 14” — but managed to find the humor in the musical catastrophe.
“The fact that we did that in a stadium, in an event like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opening; it was just so insane and absurd and bad, that we got into one of those laughing jags where you can’t stop laughing, we were howling,” Lofgren says. “When we could barely talk, we would explain another awful thing that happened with Chuck as our leader. It was just hilarious and awful all at once.”