Rock and Roll’s Big Bang
Chuck Berry was rock and roll’s big bang.
Rock and roll did not exist until Berry came “motorvatin’ over the hill” chasing after Maybellene in her Coup de Ville. It took 36 takes….but there it was. Bum note in the opening guitar lick be-damned. It was 1955. Berry was 29 years old. He invented an art-form. It was a mix of blues and country and bluegrass and jazz and pop and folk and big band. And it was poetry. We know this in retrospect. At the time, nobody knew what the fuck it was. To Chuck it was hopefully a way to pay his bills.
It was all driven forward by his stinging guitar playing, inspired by the boogie-woogie piano sound that he could not get out of his head. His solos were the first solo all of us ever learned. And for a lot of us, it’s still the only one we play.
Sweet Little Sixteen. School Days. Almost Grown. Brown-Eyed Handsome Man. Nadine. You Never Can Tell. Roll Over Beethoven. Rock and Roll Music. Little Queenie. Around and Around. No Particular Place to Go. Memphis , Tennessee. You Can’t Catch Me. Back in the USA. Let it Rock. I’m Talking About You. Sweet Little Rock and Roller. Too Much Monkey Business. Carol. Johnny B Goode. Tulane. Reelin’ and Rockin’. Promised Land. If you were going to blast rock and roll into space, you’d put these songs in the capsule and light the fuse. It’s the story. It’s the whole world. If I heard this music for the first time, I’d want to travel to the galaxy where it was created.
The Beatles? The Rolling Stones? No such thing without Chuck Berry. Dylan was finally able to step out of Woody Guthrie’s shadow with “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, which he later admitted was simply a “Too Much Monkey Business” rewrite.
Dylan got the Pulitzer. Wrong guy.
Berry’s songs were soon carved in stone. The man toured constantly, without a band. It was the promoter’s job to hire the backing musicians, and when they’d finally meet Berry, inevitably 5 minutes before the show was about to start, and inquire as to what songs they were going to play, Berry would reply, “we’re going to play some Chuck Berry songs, son.” If the band was good and the equipment didn’t malfunction, Berry would give back $1000 of his earnings (which he always demanded upfront, in cash). “Play for that money, boys!” he’d whoop to countless local cats who would never forget the day for the rest of their lives.
Jerry Lee Lewis is still pissed off that his own Mom considered Berry the true king of rock and roll. “I though I was”, said the Killer to his Mom. “Well, you and Elvis are pretty good”, she replied. “But you’re no Chuck Berry.”
Mom’s know these things.
Chuck Berry is the greatest rock and roll lyricist of all time. I don’t think there’s much argument about that. He wrote his best songs 60+ years ago. Not a single word sounds dated. He could say more in 180 seconds than any man alive. Funny. Biting. Ironic. Aware. Un-threatening on the surface….he was a black man in a racist nation after all….but it didn’t take much in the melon to understand that “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” wasn’t a song about guys with brown eyes. The way he spat out lines like “looking hard for a drive-inn / searching for a corner cafe / where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day” were darkly ominous, in that Berry knew most of ’em wouldn’t serve a black man. But still, he didn’t frighten parents the way an obvious lunatic like Little Richard might have. In fact, most parents, hearing his perfect diction and dead-on teen drama “School Days”, thought he was a white teenager to being with. Surely it wasn’t a 30 year old black father and drop out singing “up in the morning and off to school / the teacher is teaching the golden rule / American history and practical math / you studying hard and hoping to pass..”
He was teen America’s ventriloquist.
He was also a deeply flawed man. Perpetually pissed off, driven by dollars. A philanderer with a sweet tooth. A man stingy when credit was due. A frequent guest of US penal institutions. A maddeningly private public figure who squandered his prodigious talents, grinding out increasingly sloppy versions of his early songs over and over again, literally taking the money and running (his coffee colored Cadillac would be driving away from the venue before yet another unrehearsed backing band had gotten off the stage).
And yet, somehow loved without being lovable.
Because when he hit on that familiar rolling riff…and crouched into that crazed duck-walk….it was like being able to converse with the statues in a museum. There he was, in the flesh, the George Washington of rock and roll. And suddenly nothing mattered anymore but the music. Because rock and roll might need her memory jogged at times, but it is true. She never forgets.
The promised land was calling, and the poor boy was on the line.
In a bit..