Wednesday, November 4, 2009

It's a Family Affair (Part Three)

Photo by Kevin Reynolds.  (For more great photos see Kevin's website and look under "Music.")

This site celebrates Chuck Berry-- his music, his influence and his influences. I don’t want to dwell on aspects of his story that get covered ad nauseum elsewhere-- especially his legal troubles.  But Berry’s legal problems have been a big enough part of his story that I can’t ignore them completely.  I sometimes think about them when I think about why I'm such a fan.  I'll admit: most of his criminal troubles don't bother me at all-- except for the one that was so patently unfair.  That one bothers me because it was unfair-- a racist attempt to silence him and knock him off stride.  But there's at least one alleged incident that bothers me, assuming there's truth to it.  How does a fan deal with that (and still nominate him for a medal of honor!?)

His troubles with the law hurt him badly in the late 1950s and early 1960s, knocking him completely off the charts for a time despite releases like “Bye Bye Johnny,” “Come On,” “I’m Talking About You” and “Jaguar and the Thunderbird.” But there's a yang to every yin.  Later in the 1960s I think the same incarceration had the opposite effect, giving him “street cred” as a survivor of hard, unfair knocks. I’m sure that the first time I heard about Chuck Berry I also heard about his prison time, because my informant was Stevo, who’d spent some time behind bars himself and had some respect for a good ex-con. In the late 1960s and early 1970s everybody knew that Chuck Berry had been shafted by a racist legal system and had come out rocking and playing the blues even harder. It was part of his legend, and by that time no one had a problem with it.

He says himself that “every 15 years, in fact, it seems I make a big mistake,” and that it’s “the naughty-naughties” that get most of the coverage in articles and interviews. Most of the mistakes are pretty well known, and honestly covered in his Autobiography.

It started with a youthful armed robbery and car-jacking (he and his friends politely left his victim near a phone booth and then took off down the two-lane blacktop; guess who the poor guy called?) He went to reform school. Autobiography, Chapters 4 and 5.

The next legal problem was bogus and racially motivated—two arrests, three trials (one overtly and triumphantly racist), a successful appeal, and ultimately one conviction for violating the most bogus law ever devised by man to put away a man considered uppity. He went to prison, at the height of his success. It says something big about the man that he went on a recording rampage prior to his lockup; that in prison he wrote some of his greatest songs, practiced guitar, studied business and accounting; that he was released on his birthday, and made one of his best and most energetic live recordings (with the Motown session players) just a few weeks later. Then he left the country. (Carl Perkins said he was a changed man after that term. So, later, did Johnny Johnson.  Then, who wouldn’t be?) He revitalized his career with some of his greatest hits—“Nadine,” “No Particular Place to Go,” and some of his greatest songs: “Promised Land,” and “You Never Can Tell.” Autobiography, Chapters 11 and 12.

Berry's third encounter with the legal system was more legit. He took pay under the table.  He didn’t pay taxes. They figured it out. He went to prison again. He took a typewriter and wrote a book that revitalized his career yet again. And he admits it all in his Autobiography, Chapters 17 and 18.  (The photo of him at Lompoc putting on a show for and with his fellow inmates is courtesy of Sky.)

Then comes the stuff that actually bothers people.

It’s sort of funny that the tribute song I wrote about Chuck Berry when I was 15 was called “Bathroom Rockstar,” because Chuck Berry’s most recent (though now ancient) legal problems allegedly involve bathrooms and bathroom acts. They came after the Autobiography. The allegations are all over the internet and are in two recent biographies. One seems to be a personal issue that became public because it was videotaped. The other involved allegations of hidden cameras in the women’s room of his old restaurant, The Southern Air.

I have no idea if either of these stories are true, or to what extent. I don’t care about the first. It seemed to involve two people, not including me, hopefully consenting. I therefore refuse to investigate further. But the story of the women’s room, if true, was a sad violation of other people’s rights. (Somewhere way back there—and certainly before 1973-- I remember reading an interview with Chuck Berry where he said the key was “not to infringe.” He used Berry Park as an example. He said something like: “If you’re alone in Berry Park, you can do no wrong. But if you are there with other people, you have to be more careful. The key is not to infringe on other people.”) But to the extent I understood the retellings, it seemed bound up in other false accusations, and the whole thing was such a convoluted mess that it’s impossible to know what happened, and hard to really care. All I know for sure is some form of the story comes up once in a while when Chuck Berry gets mentioned.

My response to his messes?

That he’s family.

All of us, in our smaller families, have screwed up, or have watched helplessly as our loved ones have done so. It doesn’t change how we feel.

Chuck Berry isn’t part of our blood family, of course—at least not mine-- but he’s definitely part of our spiritual and cultural family. He’s the Father of Rock and Roll, the son of Henry William Berry and Martha Banks Berry, the father of devoted kids, married 60 plus years, a man surrounded by his family at home, on records, and on stage, and who generously includes all of us in his larger family.

I remember well him walking rapidly back and forth across a stage, feigning shocked double takes as the crowd sang “Go, Johnny Go, Go!,” and beaming kindly as he said: “All my children! Listen to all my wonderful children!”

And as Sly says, "Blood's thicker than the mud." 

Even when it ain't really blood, it's family.

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