As a teenager in New Orleans in the early 1970s, Mick Berry routinely tuned the car radio to rock station WRNO, hoping to hear The Who. Whenever the opening synthesizer riff of "Won't Get Fooled Again” came on, he recalled recently, "I knew the next 8 1/2 minutes of my life would be fantastic."
Within one month of discovering The Who’s 1971 classic “Who’s Next,” he said, “they were my favorite rock band. It’s been that way ever since. I never looked back.”
Inspired in large part by The Who’s Keith Moon, the young fan grew up to become a professional drummer and comic based in San Francisco. Born Michael Behre, he adopted “Mick Berry” as his easier-to-pronounce and more British-sounding stage name.
For the past decade, he’s developed a one-man-show based on Moon’s manic life and career. In “Keith Moon: The Real Me,” Berry performs on drums while narrating in character as Moon.
Berry will present "Keith Moon: The Real Me" from Nov. 30 through Dec. 17 at the Castle Theatre (501 Williams Blvd. in Kenner's Rivertown district). Show times are Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 6 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance online via EventBrite.com or $20 at the box office. Go to castle501.com for more info.
Berry grew up in Gentilly as the scion of the family that founded the Pelican Ice Company. He was in high school at Metairie Park Country Day School when he first heard New Orleans drum master Johnny Vidacovich. He was soon taking lessons from Vidacovich that would sometimes stretch to more than three hours.
"He emphasized that the drummer is in charge of the band,” Berry said of Vidacovich, who is still very much active on the local scene. “He'd say, 'You're the policeman. Make sure they stay in line with the time.'"
Another mentor, the late local jazz drum legend James Black, made a similar point while instructing Berry. "He was a stickler for timekeeping," Berry said. "He was much more demanding than Johnny about making the time-keeping impeccable. At the time, I thought it was a real pain in the neck."
Between Black and Vidacovich, “I sensed I was getting the history of New Orleans drumming, which is the history of jazz drumming, and rock drumming. I was going back to the roots of American music with those two guys."
He parlayed that education into a four-decade career as a drummer and instructor in the Bay Area; he’s also written three books, including “The Drummer’s Bible.” He’s acted in various productions and developed three one-man shows since 1993.
“Keith Moon: The Real Me” is his passion project. After a run in San Francisco in 2013, he reworked the script in conjunction with director Nancy Carlin. The revamped "The Real Me" made its debut in California this summer.
The 90-minute performance encompasses 10 songs from The Who’s catalog, with Berry playing drums live over pre-recorded tracks of other instruments. Those tracks were assembled by musical director Frank Simes, who has since 2012 served as the musical director and touring keyboardist for the actual Who.
Onstage, Berry replicates the Moon drum parts "that are too good to miss," including a note-for-note “Won’t Get Fooled Again." But he also improvises in Moon's style. “He was soloing and improvising with the rest of the band,” Berry said. “And the way he complemented the lyrics and the songs was outstanding."
Throughout the show, Berry delivers a monologue as Moon, offering an insight into the inner workings of the mad genius drummer’s troubled mind. He relies on "muscle memory" to play complex drum parts and speak simultaneously.
"I've had to play it so much so I could talk while doing it. Every song has to further the plot. Keith talks about what's going on with the Who, what's going on with his life. Keith guides the audience every step of the way.”
Moon’s outlandish behavior and substance abuse made for a perverse legend and eventually affected his ability to perform. He died in 1978 of an overdose of pills meant to wean him off alcohol. He was 32.
Berry’s portrayal aims to be authentic. Dialogue includes explicit language and references to drug use and sexual antics, which should come as no surprise to anyone even vaguely familiar with Moon's ultimately tragic story.
To tell that story, Berry, who once traveled to England to meet Moon’s daughter Mandy, uses actual quotes from interviews Moon and his bandmates gave over the years, as well as some creative license.
“I put a lot of thought,” he said, “into what I wanted Keith to say.”