Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Fan Mail (An Old Post I'd Forgotten!)
I know you won’t read this. That’s okay. I need to write it.
For the past 10 or 11 months (okay, 48 months?) I’ve had website devoted to you. I started it more or less on a whim, and have drawn a line in the sand because I can’t keep it going forever. But I figured I needed to sum things up a bit as I phase things down and out.
I suspect you would think it’s crazy for a person to devote so much time writing about you on the internet. And you’d probably be annoyed by any inaccuracies—and there must be lots of them. Certainly lots of speculation and opinion.
So why do it?
First of all, you’re an interesting subject. I can start with your music and end up almost anywhere. It’s like a river, a big, rich, muddy one, with tributaries and creeks going off in every direction. Lewis and Clark could have been lost for a lifetime if they’d explored this one.
And you’re important. Among American born I’d put you up there with just about anyone except two. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln are in a class of their own. You’re up there with just about everyone else I can think of.
You’re not a politician. (Not remotely.) But you helped accomplish political change. In that sense you were a bit like Rosa Parks. She and others helped destroy Jim Crow. So did you. You played music that literally broke down barriers. Literal barriers. Literal in the most littoral sense— a rope or balcony that divided kids and children by race. When you and your colleagues played the ropes fell. And like Rosa Parks’ efforts, it took courage—night after night sleeping God knows where, in cars, in boarding houses, in cheap hotels, on planes, heating beans on a hotplate far from your kids and family, driving all day, playing at night, and sometimes running from enraged crazies. I don’t think it’s crazy to compare you to Rosa Parks, or the thousands of citizens who boycotted busses or sat at lunch counters. You did it, too, in your own way, and we all owe you thanks for it.
But you had one thing Rosa Parks didn’t share.
You’re a great artist.
You might deny it. “I ain’t no big shit,” you’ve been quoted as saying. (You’d probably deny that, too. Your mother wouldn’t have approved of the diction!) But as an artist you’re up there with absolutely anyone.
It started, for you, with your voice. You sang a song at the high school talent show and it went over well. And your voice could have probably secured you some sort of musical career all by itself. There’s a clarity there that works.
I wouldn’t put you up there with my favorite singers based on your voice alone. I favor singers with a certain rasp and grit—Otis Redding, or Ray Charles, or on the blues side, Muddy Waters.
But you’ve got the perfect voice for your own music and your own songs—clear, light, and with a gift for spitting out syllables as fast as you write them. No mean feat. And unlike Otis Redding, you also play an instrument. Really well. (Otis probably played instruments, too—but you broke new ground with your guitar.)
The sound of your guitar is unique and instantly recognizable. You took bits and pieces from others and created something new that changed music as we know it. When I wrote the names Muddy Waters and B. B. King I probably didn’t do you any favors. Their styles also changed music. Every slide guitar player owes something to Muddy Waters, but Muddy Waters was channeling Robert Johnson. His real claim was electrifying an older style (and electrifying audiences with great performances and great records.) But you created something new— a sound that everyone who followed considered indispensible. B. B. King and Jimi Hendrix are the only two guitarists who have had such a direct impact on other guitar players. B.B. King’s style (like yours, rooted partly in T-Bone Walker) is almost as influential as your own. Every modern rock and roll guitarist owes a great deal to one or both of you. (Add Jimi to the list and it’s done.) But when it comes to the rock side of rock and roll, you really did lay down the law.
Lots of people think Chuck Berry guitar is simple guitar. I know better. I’ve tried to pick out some of those solos. You use lots of notes that are not part of the “blues scale,” and 80 percent of the time you harmonize that note with another, and then bend them both. It took me years to figure out the last few notes of the Johnny B. Goode intro. (I’m not gifted!) Plus, you can do it all upside down and backwards while doing splits or dancing along on one foot or holding the guitar on your shoulder!
But then come the songs. Dozens and dozens and dozens of them. Hundreds.
Every one of them is probably a good song. But then there are the great ones, three minute ditties that come as close to perfection as human beings are likely to get. (And the gall of it! Five or six years into your professional music career you tell Tchaikovsky news and then live up to the boast!)
It’s no wonder that “Johnny B. Goode” has been become such an icon, recorded by hundreds of different groups and individuals and played by hundreds of thousands of small time singers, guitarists and bands in millions of performances. It has everything—searing guitar, a great band, a perfect title (who would have thought to add an “e” to the end? To make “B.” an initial?), a timeless story with imagery that paints vivid, enduring pictures. The log cabin made of earth and wood. The gunny sacked guitar. The tree. The tracks. The name up there in lights. The mother. It’s pure and perfect poetry—the best all around rock and roll song ever recorded.
But wait—there’s more! “Nadine.” “Maybellene.” “School Day.” “Roll Over Beethoven.” “Bye Bye Johnny.” “No Money Down.” “Too Much Monkey Business.”
It just goes one and on—even into the later days, when you wrote and recorded songs like “Have Mercy Judge,” and “Oh Louisiana.” I know there are more. (I hope you put them out, soon.)
Beyond the songs and the performance you did a couple of other things that seem notable.
You fought for yourself as an artist. You fought for your own royalties. You made sure you were paid for your performances. You managed your own career. You insisted that every promoter provide the bare bones necessary for your to put on a Chuck Berry show: i.e., a few professional musicians, and a good amp.
I’ve heard various people criticize your insistence on being paid for work performed. Some of these same people probably earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per concert and have riders in their contracts insisting on strawberries dipped in chocolate, various champagnes and cognacs and leave most details of their professional lives to a legion of attorneys, agents and hangers on. You’ve seemingly done it all on your own.
And you’ve done it through thick and thin, when the records were selling, and when they weren’t, travelling alone, meeting up with the band a few minutes before show time, plugging in, and chugging away through your hits, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for several. I know they are putting up a stature of you in St. Louis, and I’m glad, but I’ve been thinking that another fitting memorial would be a list of every concert you’ve played etched in stone. There must be thousands up thousands of them. That list would be a tribute to something few of us are able to really see: the impossible hard work and hard travel, year after year, for decades. It would be something to see.
I was lucky to see you perform 10 times. Maybe I’ll get another chance someday. I saw you play in old auditoriums, an old Safeway store, an outdoor stadium, a fancy casino, an elegant theater, a rock and roll museum and, most recently, at Blueberry Hill.
Those Blueberry Hill shows are a great part of your legacy—a great, back to your roots gift to every fan who makes the pilgrimage. I hope I get there at least one more time.
I’ve had two chances to meet you. Once I was 15. The next time I was 52. I didn’t learn much in the interim. Both times I blurted out something silly.
Spending an hour at the computer doesn’t really help. There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said. But it still seems necessary, for my own good, to say it.
So thank you.
Thank you for the decades of hard work.
Thank you for doing your part to change this country and this world—delivering us from the days of old.
Thank you for all the shows and performances you’ve given us, and that you’re still giving to us long after most people retire.
Thank you for the lessons in musical history. (You’ve led me to dozens of wonderful musicians.)
Most of all, thank you for the music, and for your own great songs.
I know you sometimes joke with friends that you hope they live a hundred years and that you live forever.
You will. The music is immortal.
(This old post pretty much says it all, although I said it much more verbosely in a book, set forth below!)