Keith Richards, Chuck Berry and…Mike Kagan?
Yeah…I know. I can hear it now.
Who is Mike Kagan? A legendary American (or British) wizard, unknown to most of the world except to a few of us who look to him for all kinds of inspiration?
Well, in truth, Mike Kagan is just a long-time neighbor of mine who is just three years older than me, but has had a profound effect on my rock music (and guitar playing) history.
In 1965, when I was 13, Mike was 16 and the first person to own the Monkees' debut album, the first person to tell me about the Who, and to play the Who’s debut album, My Generation for me. He took me to my first rock concert (the Animals) in the summer of 1966 in Central Park and the one who also took me to the legendary Murray the K Easter week concert series called “Music in the Fifth Dimension” at the RKO theater in New York City on Easter Sunday 1967.
The opening acts that day (this was truly a rock revue with many acts playing only two songs) were The Cream (yes, that is what they were called then), who played “I Feel Free” and “NSU,” and The Who who played “I Can’t Explain” and “My Generation.”
The headliners at this show (there were 63 shows total, nine shows a day for seven days) were Wilson Pickett plus Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels.
The special guest this matinee performance was the Young Rascals, who had a current smash chart hit that week, “Groovin.”
So Mike exposed me to all this good stuff but he also showed me my first actual guitar lick. Yes, this preceded the Paul Butterfield Blues band and Mike Bloomfield by about a year, and it took the following year to actually understand that what he showed me could fit in a musical phrase, but this particular guitar lead pattern was to become the foundation of most of the guitar solos that I have recorded.
Mike was not a particularly good guitar player but he heard, learned and was able to show me this set of notes with a pattern that has become my stock in trade.
The guitar lick was from the intro to a song written by Chuck Berry called “Down The Road Apiece” that Mike played for me on side two of the first Rolling Stones album that I bought, The Rolling Stones, Now!
The guitar lick was perfectly copied by Keith Richards from Berry’s original version.
In one fell swoop I got Keith, Chuck and…Mike Kagan.
Keith Richards is a great player, not because of his speed or amazing technique but because of his feel. Great guitar players know exactly what I mean. Keith’s style was built from Chuck’s style, maybe even better (certainly more consistent over time) than Chuck.
Chuck, however, created it and it has stood the test of time.
George Harrison did a great imitation of Chuck Berry on the Beatles' version of Chuck’s “Roll Over Beethoven.”
Chuck…well, what can one really say.
His two-note style is about as rock and roll as it gets, and it got me.
It is the guitar foundation of so much rock history.
It is the foundation of my guitar playing.
His style has to be studied for its insane simplicity and pure, unadulterated drive.
Chuck Berry. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.
The Rolling Stones were built on this foundation.
The Beatles were built on this foundation
Led Zeppelin was built on this foundation.
And the only guitar lick Mike Kagan learned was Chuck’s, which he passed down to me.
Chuck gave us all the beating heart of guitar-based rock and roll.
Perhaps John Lennon said it best: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry!'”
Header image: Keith Richards, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/SolarScott.
This article was first published in Issue 58.