Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Don't Want Your Botherations, Get Away! Leave Me Be!

Imagine a single day’s work where you create:

“Roll over Beethoven,”

“Brown Eyed Handsome Man,”

the ballad “Drifting Heart,”

and then you top it off with “Too Much Monkey Business.”

All of these songs were recorded at Chuck Berry’s third or fourth professional recording session. Still a rookie, but already telling Beethoven to hit the road. And making good on it.

“Too Much Monkey Business” has always been a special one for me. In his autobiography Berry said he wrote it to describe “the kinds of hassles a person encounters in every day life” and says he “would have needed over a hundred verses to portray the major areas that bug people the most.”   I just knew it was funny as hell, with perfect rock poetry. 

Weirdly, he doesn't seem to play it often.  I wish he did.

It begins with Chuck’s lead guitar ringing just about exactly like a bell.

Deedlee-dee, deedlee dee,
deedlee-dee, deedlee-dee,
deedlee dee, deedlee-dee,

Then comes Willie Dixon’s jazzy acoustic bass, answered by Chuck‘s chords and Johnnie Johnson’s rippling piano. The song doesn’t have the boogie woogie rhythm work that Chuck Berry became so famous for (almost none of the early songs have it); the roots here are jazzier, with strummed chords. But when the band jolts to a stop to make room for the lyrics it’s pure rock and roll.

Running to and fro
Hard working at the mill
Never fail in the mail here come a rotten bill

Chuck’s 29 when he sings that first verse, but his voice sounds older—not too different from the 82 year old I saw Blueberry Hill in St. Louis. A little meaner, too. And it makes sense. Unlike “School Day” or “Oh Baby Doll,” this isn’t teenage stuff—it’s real world frustration, 16 Tons to a backbeat.

Too much monkey business
Too much monkey business
For me to be involved in it.

He doesn’t use his famous fine diction here—“business” is pronounced “bidness,” or just “bi’ness,” “here” is “hiya.” The singer’s pissed off.

Salesman talking to me
Tryin’ to run me up a creek
Says you can buy it go and try it
You can pay me next week—Ahh!

This is one of the places where Mick Jagger, an accomplished Berry scholar, first hears absence of Satisfaction:

(Man comes on to tell me
How white my shirts can be,
But he can’t be a man cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me.
I can’t get no)

And of course, Bob Dylan cites it as an inspiration for “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

It’s a radical song too. It’s 1956 in America and Chuck Berry is singing about:

Blond has good looks,
Trying to get me hooked
Wants me to marry, settle down,
Get home, write a book. Hmmf!

In 1956 it was against the law in some states for Chuck Berry to marry a blond, and frowned on in all the rest. Of course, maybe it’s not Chuck.

But we know it is.

It’s Chuck Berry the same day he recorded “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” another radical song, and he’s rounding third and heading for a home he admits had always tantalized him. And somehow, in a way, predicting his own future-- since in just two months (according to his book) he’d meet the good looking blond who would share much of his life and ultimately help him write his book. (Maybe his chronology was off a bit in the Autobiography.)

But since it is still 1956, Chuck cools things by switching quickly to a safer schoolboy persona.

Same thing, every day
Getting up, going to school
No need of me complaining
My objection’s overruled—Ahh!

The next verse is about a pay phone breakdown. These days it would probably be about a cell phone call breaking up.

Pay phone something wrong
Dime gone will mill
Oughta sue the operator
For telling me a tale.

Watch him sing this verse 13 years later at a Toronto rock festival filmed by D. A. Pennebaker. The tale still gets a laugh of recognition. But in Toronto he updated the next verse to Vietnam.

Been to Yokohama
Been fighting in the war
Army bunk, army chow
Army clothes, army car

I first heard the song during the Vietnam War. The complaints sounded a little too mundane to me. But how many popular entertainers dared protest anything about an American war so soon after the McCarthy hearings?

The final verse he’s back at work at another job. Since I used to buy a dollar’s worth frequently, it made me a little uneasy. But in my day it was self service.

Working in the filling station
Too many tasks
Wipe the windows, check tires
Check the oil, “Dollar gas!”

Too much monkey business
Too much monkey business
I don’t want your botherations
Get away leave me be!

The song ends with a guitar solo that everyone who thinks he or she plays “Chuck Berry” guitar should study. Most people figure they’ve got it down when they can play the five note blues scale on double strings and add T-Bone Walker’s slur—but Berry, who came of age in the swing era, mixes blues with double note major scale melodies, (with heart stopping rhythmical flips and turns thrown in for good measure on later songs).

It ain’t monkey business, that's for sure.

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