Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Marry, Get a Home, Settle Down, Write a Book!
The best way to learn about Chuck Berry is to listen to his music. Most of what he wants to give us (sell us?) is right there.
But if you want to go beyond the music, to the roots, or the gossip, there are an amazing number of really good books about the man.
Not so when I was a kid. I didn’t even have the internet. I poured through old Billboard and Melody Maker magazines, and read whatever I could find in magazines like Rolling Stone and Ramparts.
As a kid I remember finding one reference to a book called “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” Not the scholarly book of the same name by Bruce Pegg—this was a paperback, out of print in the early 1970s. I remember writing to a book dealer specializing in out of print books that I found in the back pages of The New Yorker Magazine. The dealer must have choked on a first edition of Thoreau when he read my wrinkled little request. He never responded.
But then one day it happened…
Chuck Berry published his Autobiography.
This was an event. The book was reviewed everywhere. It got good reviews, too, from places like The New York Times (where it was ultimately chosen as a “notable book” of 1987).
The used book dealer must have rolled in his grave.
If you haven’t read it, you should—sort of a “tell some” (as opposed to a “tell all”) that begins: “This book is entirely written, phrase by phrase, by yours truly, Chuck Berry.”
He wrote much of it while in prison on tax charges, with help from his longtime assistant Francine (a good looking blond, not quite wife if I understand it, who shared a home and got the man to settle down and write it.)
Berry admits the book reflects his state of sexual denial by focusing more than a little on various love interests. But it’s a very good read, too, that also covers family history, youth, various penitentiaries and more than 30 years of music—all as honestly as seems possible, with plenty of word play and flair.
Fifteen years later TWO more books came out— within a matter of weeks. The first I stumbled upon was the rather scholarly “Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry,” by Bruce Pegg. Then, a few weeks later: “Chuck Berry: The Biography,” by John Collis. Frankly, it was more than I could handle, and since I was in a “latent” phase of Chuck Berryitis, I picked through both, reading what I found interesting and ignoring the stuff I thought I already knew. Then, years later, after reading a remark from Flattop on chuckberry.com, I read them both, pretty much cover to cover.
They make good bookends. Both tell the same story, at pretty much the same time, and both end with trips to see the aging Berry at Blueberry Hill (thumbs up from both authors).
And both authors are obviously fans—though Pegg seems to take a more careful and forgiving approach. Collis is a bit more jaded, and certainly more casual. He's probably the more entertaining writer, where Pegg is the better journalist and historian.
Here’s a review of both, with quotes from the authors, from one of Chuck Berry’s hometown newspapers.
And then there’s “Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry’s Recorded Legacy,” by Fred Rothwell, my most recent acquisition, though published a year before the twin biographies.
I’m still at the picking stage, but I love this book.
For one thing, it focuses on the music. I have little interest in Chuck Berry’s steamy stuff, and I’m disappointed by some of the seemier stuff that has haunted his later years; but the music, live and on record—ahhhh!
Rothwell organizes his book by “sessions,” including the real ones at Chess and Mercury, a number of videos and films, and even bootleg recordings of concerts around the world. He identifies as many of the session musicians as possible, gives dates, tells a few stories, offers a few quotes, and describes what he hears. Although he’s clearly a fan, he’s also willing to pan the bad songs—often firmly, but usually in a pretty gentle and funny way. Plus, he writes prose like Chuck Berry, with lines like: “If the prose gets up your nose, maybe you can relax with the facts.”
Dang! He sounds a heck of a lot like his hero.
While all three authors write about the songs, I like Rothwell’s criticism best. He seems to like a lot of the same songs I like, giving nods to later work like “Tulane,” “Have Mercy Judge,” and “Flying Home” (all from “Back Home”), “Oh, Louisiana” (“San Francisco Dues”) and “Woodpecker” (“Bio.”) On the other hand he pans a television performance with Bo Diddley from the early 1970s that I remember with something close to awe-- especially when Bo and Chuck were together, dancing and chugging away on their guitars in a frenzy of Chess Records nirvanah. (Of course, I saw it just once, as a kid, lying on the floor of a crowded room 30 something years ago, and Rothwell saw it as an adult.) (Still, if you know where I can find a copy, TELL ME!)
All three authors, Pegg, Collis and Rothwell, are British. You’d think someone would have taken a shot Back in the U.S.A., but we sit mesmerized by the sizzle of hamburgers.
(You can read more about all of these books on the website of Dietmar Rudolph.) (German!)