Monday, May 30, 2011

If You Had to Give St. Louis Another Name You Might Want to Call it Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry Prior to a Show for and by
Inmates at Lompoc 
I was surprised to read there was some controversy in the St. Louis area about putting up a statue of Chuck Berry.  That's crazy.  I only hope the “controversy” is as ineffective as it is silly and misguided.  (You can read the story here.)

When my brother Stevo first told me about Chuck Berry, one of the things he told me was that Chuck Berry had been to prison.  At the time the jail sentences probably enhanced his reputation.    We knew that good people went to jail all the time: civil rights workers went to jail, war protesters went to jail, and people went to jail for silly things like smoking pot.  There was a certain cache to doing time.  And in Chuck Berry's case there was always an understanding that his adult crime-- the conviction under The Mann Act-- was probably a bum rap.  (I'm using all the lingo of the time.)  It added something to the power of his performance-- him up there joking and carrying on and entertaining us after he’d been wrongly prosecuted three times on a bogus charge. 

In his Autobiography he calls it his “naughty-naughties.”  He admits that every 15 or 17 years he gets in trouble.  Once, on Johnny Carson, he accurately predicted it was time for another fall, and then almost fell.  

The only one of his legal problems that ever made me squirm was the the last one-- one that may or may not have had a basis in fact-- a sad story about cameras hidden in the women’s room of the restaurant he once owned.  Who knows if it was actually true?  The charge was brought by former employees who seemed bent on some sort of revenge.  There was a civil suit, but no criminal charges.  The authorities invaded his place in Wentzville looking for other stuff the claimants said would be there and found nothing.  So about the video equipment, who knows?  

If the story is true, it makes me squirm.  First, it’s just embarrassing.  But I remember reading as a teenager a quote from Chuck Berry himself saying that the key is not to infringe on other people.  He used Berry Park as an example.  He said something like “If you are alone in Berry Park, you can do whatever you like.  But if there are other people there, you have to be careful not to infringe on them  The key is not to infringe on others.”  As simple philosophy, I liked that.  “Thou shalt not infringe on others.”  It’s a good start.

But after reasonably careful study (two biographies, and a bit of noodling on the internet) I don’t know what to make of the allegation about cameras in the bathrooms, except that it was never proven, even in court.  (As a lawyer, I say “even in court” with some authority.  Lots of things are “proven” in court that are not necessarily true.  Take Chuck Berry’s conviction under the Mann Act, for example.) People say lots of stuff.  People settle cases for lots of reasons.  So who knows?  

Chuck Berry and his buddies did commit an armed robbery and highjack spree in Kansas City at age 18.  That was pretty bad.  But I know lots of 16-25 year olds who have made mistakes.  (I probably committed a few felonies of my own at that age, and certainly committed some misdemeanors, but they were victimless crimes!)  Chuck Berry admits to the robberies in his Autobiography and tells all about it.  He was stupid, got caught, and he did the time.  If he got out of prison and kept robbing people I’d feel different about him.  But he didn’t and I don't.  

Another crime he admits to in his book is tax evasion.  I know that I benefitted directly from that because I saw Chuck Berry close two great Richard Nader Rock and Roll Revival shows.  I would be willing to bet half of the United States, and virtually every corporation and CEO, is guilty of some measure of of tax evasion.  When Ronald Reagan ran for office one time there was a story that as a rich private citizen he paid something like $604 on hundreds of thousands of dollars in income.  It probably wasn’t a crime, but it was tax evasion.  General Electric had $14 billion in profits last year and paid no taxes.  Did GE’s accountants and CEO go to jail?  No.  GE got a refund, and its CEO got a job at the White House.  Chuck Berry paid the taxes and served his time.  

One thing I admire about Chuck Berry is the way he served time.  He didn’t waste it.  At Lompoc he wrote his Autobiography.  In Missouri, after being convicted under the Mann Act, he studied business and typing, and wrote songs like “Nadine” and “Promised Land."  He must have practiced on the guitar, too; he put on a dynamite show about three weeks after his release that, lucky for us, was recorded.

That Mann Act conviction is the one that sticks in the craw.  It never sounded legitimate.  The first judge was so racist that a reluctant Missouri Supreme Court had to throw out the conviction.  They got him the second time.  

The real purpose of that arrest and conviction was to crush a bright and rising career and put a handsome, Cadillac driving black man down.  He was arrested on charges of good employment.  

It didn’t work.  More than half a century later he’s still going, still giving St. Louis and Missouri a big reason to be proud.

A statue is a start.  Someday they'll figure that out. 

If you want to read fair summaries of all these legal proceedings try Bruce Pegg's Brown Eyed Handsome Man.  Pegg seems fair and balanced and thorough.  In the meantime, thank you to all the folks who got the statue project started, and have carried it through to completion.  As for the naysayers, lighten up a little.  Play a Chuck Berry song.  And go down to the unveiling.  You might enjoy it.  


Anonymous said...

Peter, As a proud contributer to the Chuck Berry Statue, I am looking forward to seeing it on display in the Delmar Loop. I also am looking forward to my next time seeing Chuck himself performing next door at Blueberry Hill.

Doug Spaur - Bussey, Iowa
CB Message Board ID - Busseybootlegger

Anonymous said...

Well done Peter.
I love today's post that you have written!


Anonymous said...

Hello Peter,
unfortunately I can not understand. I would not want coming out lately are new controversy about Chuck.
I say my impression.
Chuck Berry is my musical hero. Want the truth? The entries on his real or alleged sex scandals are part of the legend, for me!
Chuck is a damn legendary rock (as large), and so far only had more luck.
They say that there are porn videos on Chuck. So what? Persons in private, if accondiscenti can do whatever they want. The real pornography is stealing the videos and put them on the Internet. The person who did this if he is a criminal, not Chuck Berry!
Chuck has never hidden anything. He also spoke in his autobiography. I magnify the controversy even further the myth. If you are in Italy: the President of the Council do :-)!
I hope Chuck gives a damn about the controversy and that America does not look at what comes out of their beds but the real injustice.
Sorry if I went off topic.
But oddly enough, Chuck was great for me in so many other things that bothered. Why was black, because it was Playboy, because it was a little crazy. Your account with the justice system has paid for.
With love F.C. 68