All Hail the King: Chuck Berry Reinvented Music, and America

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It’s not important whether or not Chuck Berry “invented” rock ‘n’ roll, and the crucial thing isn’t that he perfected it. It’s that we call rock ‘n’ roll would sound much different and be a lot less unique and ecstatic if not for the template he provided.

As large as Berry looms in American music history, getting a handle on the immensity of his importance has, until now, been somewhat difficult. Certainly, the Matryoshka Principle applies, as it must with any progenitor: when you’ve indelibly influenced the artists who have influenced the artists who have influenced the artists, this succession of homages (intentional or not) is at once unequivocal but somehow insufficient. When we stop and consider the masters, whose earliest stuff sounds ancient, even derivative (think The Beatles’ earnest but stiff efforts, or even The Rolling Stones’ more convincing but still saccharine and stylized imitations), as desperate attempts to replicate Berry, it puts things in more appropriate perspective. Chuck Berry is pater familias of a whole new American music; he didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll—he just made it inevitable.

To younger ears, some of the hits may sound a tad redundant, variations on a recurring motif. If so, the same could be said about the parables within the New Testament. And like that slightly momentous text, these themes are meant as both foundation and instruction manual. All of which is not to say Berry wasn’t an extremely perceptive and versatile pupil: he’d studied the blues, jazz and country music that, thrown into an aesthetic blender, rock music overflowed from. Henceforth, it would forever be a gumbo of competing and complimentary source points, but Berry’s first-person flights of fancy still represent its most undiluted potential.

Recorded in May, 1955, “Maybellene” signifies the proverbial Big Bang: a blueprint for the type of music that became rock ‘n’ roll when people like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and myriad opportunistic white boys tried their damnedest to evoke that singular sound. In addition to being the first salvo, it’s arguably the most significant, as it merges much of what came before and hinted at what we’d be hearing much more of—from Berry and others: some serious backwoods country elements, a healthy dose of jazzed up style and the unmistakably gritty blues guitar; a signature sound, in short. Also, and importantly, the combination of cars and girls, a formula perfected by Berry, is in full effect here: this is not a rock ‘n’ roll song, this is rock ‘n’ roll.

While Elvis seems to have a stranglehold on the spurious “King of Rock” crown, history won’t forget that Chuck Berry did not simply (!) write the modern songbook from which a million simulations sprang, he himself was the prototype, the complete package to whom all contenders must defer. For example, where both Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis played piano, Berry stood center stage, yielding the instrument that would underlie rock’s evolving ethos: electric guitar. His guitar is like an M.C., introducing each of those consequential early singles, and it rides shotgun, rhythm and lead, equal billing to Berry’s confident voice. Never a work-in-progress, Berry arrived fully-formed, like a clay god formed on Olympus. Another crucial distinction: Berry sang the songs he wrote, becoming in effect the first rock frontman, incorporating swagger, charisma, perfect hair and the devilish glint to offset the angelic voice. Or, if you like, all the assets of Lennon/McCartney (or Jagger/Richards) rolled into one.

Enough can never be said about the fact that Berry was the original triple-threat: musician, singer and lyricist (add in the stage antics, including his epic duck walking, and you have the magic recipe emulated by diverse legends ranging from Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young to Prince). While justly celebrated as rock’s first “poet”—and certainly a prototype for subsequent singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan—the whole “elevating lyrics to poetry” approbation is not erroneous, but it still misses the mark: Berry’s songs are straight-up short stories. What transpires in the three minutes (or less!) of condensed pop perfection like “Johnny B. Goode”, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” and “You Never Can Tell” is narrative. The song serves as a vehicle for adventure or escape or deliverance is something Bruce Springsteen has made a career out of, and compared to the early work of The Beach Boys, Beatles and Stones (all of whom covered or outright copied Berry), what Berry achieved between 1955 and 1961 seems like literature.

The smart money, then, predicts that time will only affirm and reinforce Berry’s place at the top of the pantheon. With his death, it also seems likely we’ll get a more thorough and nuanced assessment of Chuck Berry’s cultural importance, which runs the clichéd spectrum of good, bad and ugly. Before, during and especially after his commercial peak, Berry was at once a trailblazer in matters of race and perhaps racist America’s most conspicuous casualty.

Did Berry, often depicted as his own worst enemy at times, simply pay the price for breaking a law (however racially inspired and enforced)? Or was he another irresistible target for a white establishment intent on keeping black men—regardless of or else because of their popularity—in their place, like Jack Johnson before him and Muhammad Ali after him? Is there any reason it isn’t a bit of both? If any icon of the 20th Century could be said to contain multitudes in the Whitmanesque sense, it’s Berry.

Let’s hope that Berry’s indiscretions and defects, somewhat glossed over since most of his life occurred before the proliferation of tabloids, not to mention the internet, will not now dominate discussions of why his music will endure. However understandably, we hate being reminded that so many of our best artists tend to be repugnant people. As such, it would be more than a little ironic if a man who paid the price in all the most hackneyed, but very real, ways—whether against “the man” or white bands making millions from his formula, or being yet another musician cheated out of more millions by the charlatans who’ve often run the music business—ends up being posthumously besmirched for character flaws too many white artists have had overlooked or forgiven.

Much has been made of the fact that Berry, embittered and paranoid, showed up, alone, at gigs, demanded payment (in cash) up front, and didn’t care if amateurs he’d neither met nor rehearsed with shared the stage. Was he selling out, or just honest enough to acknowledge he was already an oldies act, and shrewd enough to know that he was the draw? To be sure, audiences would not have continued showing up, decade after decade, if he routinely dispensed incompetent performances. Plus, what does it say about a man who didn’t want, or couldn’t abide, either the comradery of regular bandmates or hangers-on? Perhaps Berry lasted—and thrived—as long as he did because he was tough enough not to need anyone else. Not unlike Jackie Robinson, Berry broke barriers, and while he made good money during his career, his American Dream extracted a heavy toll.

How much easier would it have been if he’d been willing (able?) to play the game; if he could ingratiate himself the way we demand of our artists, and athletes? That he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—isn’t a tragedy; if he had, it’s worth wondering whether he would have made the same music. Every time his amply documented quirks and recalcitrance are recalled, we should never forget the original line in “Johnny B. Goode” was not “country boy” but “colored boy”. With a combination of talent, dedication, and tenacity, he willed himself to be that brown-eyed, handsome man, a king within a segregated state.

We never could quite catch him, and now he’s gone…like a cool breeze? No, that’s too easy, but also inaccurate. The cool breeze is what he became; what he invented. That was the persona he perfected, equal parts shield from and artifice for the world, a world that could never fully fathom or appreciate what he meant, what he signifies, as an artist and American. He was the cool breeze. But he took that air with him and what’s left is an arid void, silent, and more than a little sad. It’s also something awe-inspiring and unconquerable.

This article originally appeared in PopMatters on 3/24/17.

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This Week in Music, 1983 (Revisited)

murph83

I don’t know what you were up to but I was partying like it was 1983.

Due to the miracles of technology, we can see precisely how I was living, almost exactly thirty years ago.

Let’s do a quick analysis of that picture.

Grey Levi’s cords? Check.

Untucked blue oxford? Check.

R2-D2 light switch and piggy bank (both home made, neither by me)? Check. (For those playing at home, this was before Return of the Jedi was released, and I was still on board the Millennium Falcon).

Napkin with note and autograph from Dexter Manley? Check.

Feathered hair covering the ears? Check.

A little Toulouse-Lautrec up in there? Certainement!

Cozying up to my boy, Mr. Mojo Risin’? Check. (More on him HERE.)

Jimi Hendrix poster with feathered roach clip? You know this.

(About those roach clips: anyone else remember when those were souvenirs, or prizes, from the Langston Hughes fairs? We used to hang them on our Duron paint caps. We had no idea what they were really used for and, presumably, neither did my parents. They probably thought I was respecting our Native American heritage and hey, Hendrix had Cherokee blood…)

The obligatory black light poster that we used to buy at Spencer’s? Check.

A floor speaker and a bookshelf, two components that still comprise my personal arsenal.

But what really inspired this trip down memory lane was a “From the vault” entry in the latest Rolling Stone —a magazine I started subscribing to right around this time. This particular entry features the Top 10 singles from the week of May 12, 1983, and it is indeed a trip, in many senses of the word. I wonder if this will bring you back (and I mean waaaaay back) the way it did me: 7th grade lockers, Mr. Bryant & Reston Skateway (for my local peeps), getting to second base (allegedly), and a hundred other things. Let’s run it down from top to bottom and shoot the proverbial duck. Wherever possible, I’ve embedded the proper video from MTV. (MTV!!! Here’s a trivia question I bet even people who know me best would get wrong: I did not, in fact, have access to this epic channel back in the day. My parents would not allow it. Wisely. That does not mean I did not log quality hours –and I mean hours– at myriad friends’ houses.)

1. Michael Jackson, “Beat It”:

re. The King of Pop:

A confession. I was not necessarily a fan. I certainly was able to appreciate that dancing, and that song (and any male my age who attempts to deny that he desperately wanted to perfect the moonwalk is lying through the acne-glazed haze of adolescent recollection). It was a bizarre time to be a teenager: all the girls in school loved Michael Jackson and all the guys loved Jim Morrison. Oh wait, that was just me? Well, as corny as I would have considered it for any dude to have a poster of MJ, I am not particularly proud to reconsider the prominent spread of leather-clad Lizard King photos on my bedroom wall. I say this only to underscore the impact MJ had at the time: I was well tired of the non-stop hype and ceaseless radio play (seven Top 10 singles?!), and it was simply beyond human capability to separate oneself from Thriller’s impact. You may not have loved it (you may not have liked it) but I have never spoken to anyone who actually hated it. I’m sure there is someone out there, who also hates the Sistine Chapel and The Lincoln Memorial. Or Moby Dick (just kidding, sort of.)

A lot more on MJ, and the ’80s, HERE.

2. David Bowie, “Let’s Dance”:

Kind of amazing –and humbling– that David Bowie appears to have aged less in three decades than me (or anyone else on the planet).

3. Greg Kihn Band, “Jeopardy”:

When Greg Kihn was born I believe his parents stood over him the way the gods once did at Olympus (“Clash of the Titans” style) and said: “Your purpose on this earth is to form a band and make an album called Kihnspiracy. Mission accomplished. (What have you done with your life?)

4. Men at Work, “Overkill”:

5. Thomas Dolby, “She Blinded Me With Science”:

This song is just as amazing today as it was then. That is all. (And don’t sleep on this slice of heaven.)

6. Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “Come On Eileen”:

All I had to do was type the letters “D-E-X” into YouTube and this was the first thing that came up. Obviously.

7. Irene Cara, “Flashdance…What a Feeling”:

13 year old Murph would like to send my personal thanks to Irene Cara for helping me through some…hard times. If you know what I’m saying.

8. Prince, “Little Red Corvette”:

Ridiculous video, but apparently the Prince police have disabled everything on YouTube.

re. Prince: idiots, like me, were not prepared to appreciate him, but time has taught us that this weird dude is a genius. Duh.

9. Laura Branigan, “Solitaire”:

Two words: Couples skate!!!

10. After the Fire, “Der Kommissar”:

Perfect way to end. What an unbelievable range of sounds, cultures and styles –and these were the most popular songs in the country. This, my friends, when people ask why we are so nostalgic, is the answer. Because the ’80s, when all is said and done, did not remotely suck!

But don’t take it from me, ask John Cusack!

Share

This Week in Music: 1983

I don’t know what you were up to but I was partying like it was 1983.

Due to the miracles of technology, we can see precisely how I was living, almost exactly thirty years ago.

Let’s do a quick analysis of that picture.

Grey Levi’s cords? Check.

Untucked blue oxford? Check.

R2-D2 light switch and piggy bank (both home made, neither by me)? Check. (For those playing at home, this was before Return of the Jedi was released, and I was still on board the Millennium Falcon).

Napkin with note and autograph from Dexter Manley? Check.

Feathered hair covering the ears? Check.

A little Toulouse-Lautrec up in there? Certainement!

Cozying up to my boy, Mr. Mojo Risin’? Check. (More on him HERE.)

Jimi Hendrix poster with feathered roach clip? You know this.

(About those roach clips: anyone else remember when those were souvenirs, or prizes, from the Langston Hughes fairs? We used to hang them on our Duron paint caps. We had no idea what they were really used for and, presumably, neither did my parents. They probably thought I was respecting our Native American heritage and hey, Hendrix had Cherokee blood…)

The obligatory black light poster that we used to buy at Spencer’s? Check.

A floor speaker and a bookshelf, two components that still comprise my personal arsenal.

But what really inspired this trip down memory lane was a “From the vault” entry in the latest Rolling Stone —a magazine I started subscribing to right around this time. This particular entry features the Top 10 singles from the week of May 12, 1983, and it is indeed a trip, in many senses of the word. I wonder if this will bring you back (and I mean waaaaay back) the way it did me: 7th grade lockers, Mr. Bryant & Reston Skateway (for my local peeps), getting to second base (allegedly), and a hundred other things. Let’s run it down from top to bottom and shoot the proverbial duck. Wherever possible, I’ve embedded the proper video from MTV. (MTV!!! Here’s a trivia question I bet even people who know me best would get wrong: I did not, in fact, have access to this epic channel back in the day. My parents would not allow it. Wisely. That does not mean I did not log quality hours –and I mean hours– at myriad friends’ houses.)

1. Michael Jackson, “Beat It”:

re. The King of Pop:

A confession. I was not necessarily a fan. I certainly was able to appreciate that dancing, and that song (and any male my age who attempts to deny that he desperately wanted to perfect the moonwalk is lying through the acne-glazed haze of adolescent recollection). It was a bizarre time to be a teenager: all the girls in school loved Michael Jackson and all the guys loved Jim Morrison. Oh wait, that was just me? Well, as corny as I would have considered it for any dude to have a poster of MJ, I am not particularly proud to reconsider the prominent spread of leather-clad Lizard King photos on my bedroom wall. I say this only to underscore the impact MJ had at the time: I was well tired of the non-stop hype and ceaseless radio play (seven Top 10 singles?!), and it was simply beyond human capability to separate oneself from Thriller’s impact. You may not have loved it (you may not have liked it) but I have never spoken to anyone who actually hated it. I’m sure there is someone out there, who also hates the Sistine Chapel and The Lincoln Memorial. Or Moby Dick (just kidding, sort of.)

A lot more on MJ, and the ’80s, HERE.

2. David Bowie, “Let’s Dance”:

Kind of amazing –and humbling– that David Bowie appears to have aged less in three decades than me (or anyone else on the planet).

3. Greg Kihn Band, “Jeopardy”:

When Greg Kihn was born I believe his parents stood over him the way the gods once did at Olympus (“Clash of the Titans” style) and said: “Your purpose on this earth is to form a band and make an album called Kihnspiracy. Mission accomplished. (What have you done with your life?)

4. Men at Work, “Overkill”:

5. Thomas Dolby, “She Blinded Me With Science”:

This song is just as amazing today as it was then. That is all. (And don’t sleep on this slice of heaven.)

6. Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “Come On Eileen”:

All I had to do was type the letters “D-E-X” into YouTube and this was the first thing that came up. Obviously.

7. Irene Cara, “Flashdance…What a Feeling”:

13 year old Murph would like to send my personal thanks to Irene Cara for helping me through some…hard times. If you know what I’m saying.

8. Prince, “Little Red Corvette”:

Ridiculous video, but apparently the Prince police have disabled everything on YouTube.

re. Prince: idiots, like me, were not prepared to appreciate him, but time has taught us that this weird dude is a genius. Duh.

9. Laura Branigan, “Solitaire”:

Two words: Couples skate!!!

10. After the Fire, “Der Kommissar”:

Perfect way to end. What an unbelievable range of sounds, cultures and styles –and these were the most popular songs in the country. This, my friends, when people ask why we are so nostalgic, is the answer. Because the ’80s, when all is said and done, did not remotely suck!

But don’t take it from me, ask John Cusack!

Share