Becoming Keith Moon
to Redwood City's Dragon Theatre for a few days
"About two hours a day for a year," said Mick Berry. That's how long he said it took him to memorize Keith Moon's drumming on The Who's seminal meisterwerk, "Won't Get Fooled Again."
That's a lot more dedication than most musicians would put into a regular musical. But then, "Keith Moon: The Real Me" is no regular musical. The one-man show charts the rise and fall of rock's king of bad boys Keith Moon, and Mick Berry not only wrote the show but also plays drums on all the songs. No mean feat considering Moon's manic pyrotechnics (sometimes literally) on the skins. It was for good reason that the Muppets character "Animal" was based on him.
The idea for the show came to Berry after reading a biography, Tony Fletcher's "Moon (The Life and Death of a Rock Legend)." A friend suggested he should write a play. That was fifteen years ago, and about five years ago Berry had the first version ready to go, launching it in the Bay Area. Anyone who saw it then should definitely see the new version, as Berry says it has undergone a major rewrite, making the drumming even more central, and telling a lot more about Moon's fight with his inner demons.
Putting on a play about a dead person is not simple. Berry first asked Pete Townsend, writer of all The Who's music. Townsend was supportive from the outset, but gave Berry a long to-do list, starting with contacting Moon's estate. "There's still a lot of emotion around Keith," he told him. Negotiating with Moon's estate, however, was nothing compared to negotiating with Townsend's lawyers. Naturally, the creator of "Tommie," "Quadrophenia" and "My Generation" has some fairly shrewd "people."
But that's not the half of it. Over the many years it has taken to develop, Berry has sunk a great deal of his own money and time into the venture, and confesses his social life has gone completely south. In fact he describes it as a "life-altering experience."
In the five years since Berry first ran the show here in the Bay Area, the show has been nearly rewritten. Whereas in the earlier version Berry just played the drums to the songs, with a full band, he now talks through the songs as he plays them. How did Moon come up with that lick? What inspired him to create that part? How did he develop the theme, set up the chorus and the verse?
For non-musicians, Berry says it gives a keyhole look into the making of a song, and for musicians, it's an in-depth master-class on every nook, cranny, fill and paradiddle of Moon's playing. Talking while actually playing Moon's drum parts is impressive, but Berry says his body plays the drum parts fairly autonomously, leaving his brain to do the talking.
This time, rather than have a band, Berry is using backing tracks. It focuses the audience's attention on the drummer and his drumming. As any drummer will tell you, playing to a backing track is much harder than playing with a live band. But Berry reckons it is worth the effort.
The audience is assured of a very Who-like experience due to the presence of musical director Frank Simes, The Who's own musical director. Berry caught him backstage at a Who concert, and when Berry explained the project, Simes was keen to get involved. Ably assisting Simes is Jeff Lavis, Van Morrison's piano player on "Moondance."
Berry said he feels a close affinity for Moon, and not just from a drumming angle. Moon was disturbed and never had a moment's peace of mind. Berry too has struggled with depression and anxiety but has discovered coping mechanisms that, unlike Moon, don't involve drink and drugs. Moon, like Berry, was genuinely interested in people and never held back his emotions, which clearly shows in his drumming.
Sadly, Moon died at the young age of 32, overdosing on a prescription drug that he was using to help him get off alcohol. Berry, who has played the drums since age 13, said he has never felt the lure of substance abuse.
Favorite Who track: "Won't Get Fooled Again" from the album "Who's Next". Berry says "This track represents rock and roll at its finest. Youth angst trying to change the world, the futility of it all. What they did on that song was phenomenal."
Hardest Who track to play: "The Real Me" from the album "Quadrophenia". Berry says, "'The Real Me' is very hard. Top speed for three minutes. Most impressive example of what Keith Moon could do. Driving the band and not quitting. The band just came along for the ride."
Has Berry's drumming improved since creating and playing the show?
"On the contrary," he said. "It's gotten worse. Now I'm only good for playing drums for The Who. But I can play as loud as you want."
Email Tony Lacy-Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org