Chuck Berry passed away this weekend at the ripe age of ninety.
There was a brief time in my high school days when me and my friends were fascinated by Chuck. Teenage rebellion and a love of rock ‘n roll were hard-baked into his lyrics. When you’re fifteen it was pretty hard to listen to something like “School Days” and not identify with the lyrics. Chuck walks you through a dreary day in high school and then dynamites the entire thing with a declaration that the kids have to rock. “Love live rock n’ roll” was a declaration, an act of youthful defiance, and Chuck knew it.
This was the thing about Chuck Berry. It wasn’t the flamboyant stage act or being the first guitar hero that made him a legend, it was the songs. Berry was first and foremost a songwriter. Bob Dylan didn’t call him “the Shakespeare of rock n’ roll” for nothing. His word play was sophisticated, his story-telling skills remarkable. He wrote memorable tales of high school, romance, triumphant country boys (translation: colored boys) who might become stars, automobile chases, and seat belts that wouldn’t budge. He wrote “Brown-eyed Handsome Man” a ditty that had the wife of (white) District Attorney freeing her black lover from jail and ended with Jackie Robinson hitting a home run. That’s a withering indictment/celebration of America right there.
Chuck was no saint. The saying goes that art would be great if it weren’t for artists and that was true here. He spent time in prison for transporting an underage prostitute across state lines. His stipulation that he be paid in cash before playing each show (a practice he instituted after being screwed over by too many promoters) ended up with getting charge with tax evasion. And then there was the sordid scandal of video-taping women who used the bathroom in a restaurant he owned.
The documentary “Hail Hail Rock n Roll” was made of his sixtieth birthday concert and his irascible and irritating behavior became the story over the music. Keith Richards was there to assemble the band and to act as music director. At one point Chuck took a swing at him. That’s right. He tried to punch out the Dark Lord of Rock n’ Roll. Chuck Berry did things his way and often to a fault.
But the art still stands and that’s what we remember. He was rock music’s first guitar hero, bringing the instrument to the forefront. He wasn’t the first to play or write rock n’ roll but he was the first to write a substantial body of songs that defined and celebrated it. His songs were covered/approximated by the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, and countless others. Hell, even one of Elvis’ last hits was a white-boy rendition of “Promised Land”. Four pieces of music were went out into the deep beyond of space on the Voyager. One of them was Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”. And we all would like to think that somewhere, someday, another form of life will decipher what Voyager contains and then wonder, “what the hell was that? Play it again!”