Actor, musician, playwright, and author Mick Berry isn't the kind of guy who would drive a car into a swimming pool or flood three floors of a hotel with a burst waterbed. But he does share a key quality with Keith Moon, the infamous drummer for The Who and the character in Berry's world premiere solo show, Keith Moon: The Real Me. Like his character, Berry is always itching to drum. "I can demonstrate, if you want," Berry says, just a few seconds into our interview at Russo Music in Noe Valley, where he teaches. "I'm playing loud. He played loud," he says, by way of explanation for aurally pummeling the foundation of his small lesson room.
This eagerness to play feeds into Berry's philosophy about solo shows, an art form he's been plying for almost two decades. "When you do something onstage instead of just talk about it, the audience looks at you totally differently," he says.
Unlike Moon, Berry, who co-wrote The Drummer's Bible, has a deep theoretical understanding of the diverse traditions Moon both was inspired by and departed from. "So much of what Keith did made no sense at all. It was all instinctive, and it sounded incredible," he says. As he embarks on Moon's furious opening to "Won't Get Fooled Again," one of the songs he plays in between speaking as Moon and different characters from his life, Berry locates what makes it unique — Moon's use of the toms in an unconventional spot — while also contextualizing it in the big band fills of Gene Krupa and, further back, the Second Line rhythms of New Orleans jazz funerals.
Drumsticks in hand, though, the scholar gives way to whirlwind, with Berry's mod haircut thrashing away. Moon pioneered a kind of full-bodied drumming — even seated, his whole body seems to pulse. For Moon, says Berry, "the universe depended on or was expressed by his drumming." To embody this animal spirit — "The energy is hard to contain. It's really wanting to erupt," he says — Berry has spent 10 years preparing. He's drummed for a Who cover band; he's transcribed Moon's work; he's recruited Frank Simes, The Who's musical director, to be his own musical director for the show. As a result of this decadelong immersion, Berry knows the music well enough to improvise as would Moon, who never played a part the same way twice, Berry says, or even the same way measure by measure.
Berry doesn't envision The Real Me as a show just for Who fans. The title comes from a Who song, but it also refers to Berry's interest in Moon's wild reputation, or, more precisely, Moon's "having to live up to his wild reputation." One of rock history's best examples of extravagance, indulgence, and self-destruction, Moon died in 1978 at age 32 from an overdose of a drug that was supposed to help him with his addictions. But Moon wasn't pure id; he was a showman, courting the press and telling his stories with vaudevillian flair. Of Moon's debauchery, Berry goes so far as to say, "I think he enjoyed telling it more than living it. He lived it in order to tell it. He needed an audience."
Moon's behavior, Berry believes, was also largely driven by crippling self-doubt. "He was incredibly insecure about his drumming," says Berry. He often joked, for instance, that he was merely "filling in" as The Who's drummer. Berry encapsulates this quality in one core scene that's based on a true encounter: "Look beyond the smashing," the character says. "See yourself. See me — another bloke just like you. At bottom, you're terrified you truly are no good, so you give everyone your worst behavior, hoping they'll love you no matter what. Until you accept yourself, it's a game you can't possibly win."
Berry wants his show to help bring closure to the mourning of Moon. "He died unresolved," says Berry. "It's really sad. My biggest hope for doing the show — I want to offer Pete [Townsend] and Roger [Daltrey] or at least the idea of them, some resolution."
In so doing, Berry hopes to help reshape Moon's legacy. Right now, he says, "[Moon's] legacy is being wild. That's what he's known for, and it overshadows his drumming. People forget how musical he was. He played music. He didn't just play to show off. He made those songs come alive."