(Chuck Berry and Leonard Cohen received the Pen New England award for Songs of Literary Excellence. Here's my take on why Chuck deserves it.)
“Shakespeare,” she says.
She gets me, first time.
“Okay, but he’s the only one!” I stammer, less confident.
I am quick to acknowledge other musical geniuses—greater ones: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk.
There are many better singers. There are better guitar players (though not many who could be called more important or more influential.) I’m not sure there are better entertainers—just different ones. Few songwriters can match him.
But Chuck Berry’s importance goes beyond the music, or the songs, or the poetry, or the performance. He is one of the big daddies of modern history. In the pantheon of important and great Americans I think he matches all but two. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln are alone at the top. But when you accept that an artist can be as important as a military leader, or a politician, or an industrialist, or an inventor—and I certainly do—then he is up there with the most important. Compare Chuck Berry to the self important-- to murderers for hire like Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney. See who actually matters. Some men are distinguished only by the slaughter and heartache they cause, or what they stole. Chuck Berry changed a culture.
He didn’t do it alone, and though his art and his career moves were carefully calculated, he didn’t exactly do it on purpose; but he was part of a movement that delivered us from days of old to a new and different and in many ways a better place. And there is something unique about his individual role. He wasn’t just a singer, or a star, or a guitarist, or performer, or poet, or songwriter, or businessman, or felon, or genius, or icon—he was all of that. It is no accident that he was born and stayed at the very heart of the country and continent, on a river that has symbolized the soul of that country from the time of Twain until the time of Dylan. Nor is it mere coincidence or happenstance that in his fourth recording session he told Tchaikovsky the news and then, in the 60 years that followed, lived up to the boast.
He might deny his importance. He once told a reporter “I ain’t no big shit.” But he is a big shit— a popular artist who achieved uncommon results in the vernacular. Our Dante. Our Shakespeare. A man who does everything Mark Twain did, but backwards, with a guitar. And like both Twain and Shakespeare, he did it as much to earn a living as to make art.
It starts, of course, with the songs-- dozens and dozens and dozens of them. Hundreds, actually. Written, Chuck Berry will tell you, for commercial purposes. “I was writing commercially then,” he says of “Johnny B. Goode.” In the film “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll” he says “Half the young people go to school so I wrote about school… Half the young people have cars and I wrote about cars. And mostly all the people, if they are not now, they’ll soon be in love—and those that have loved and are out of love remember love, so write about love. So I wrote about all three.”
The vast majority of Chuck Berry songs are “good” songs. (There are definitely some clunkers.) But then there are the great ones-- the two minute ditties with the fast folk poetry and searing 10 second guitar breaks, the songs recorded at Chess Records between 1955 and 1964, with Johnnie Johnson, Otis Spann, or Lafayette Leake on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, and Ebby Hardy, Fred Below, or Odie Payne on drums—those songs—“Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day,” “Memphis,” “Nadine,” “No Money Down,” “Maybellene,” and more-- those songs come as close to perfection as we human beings get. They have it all: energy, poetry, youth, sass, nostalgia, family, fantasy, comedy, rhythm, rhyme and blues.
The poet Cornelius Eady, who wrote a poem entitled Chuck Berry about Chuck Berry, wrote in an e-mail that “John Lennon once called CB one of America's great poets, and I have heard (and read) little to dis sway me of that notion."
Consider “Johnny B. Goode,” recorded by hundreds of different groups and individuals, played by hundreds of thousands of small time singers, guitarists, and bands, in millions of performances, a song that was sent out to the galaxy on both Voyager spacecraft to represent humanity’s better angels to other worlds. “This is a present from a small, distant world,” wrote President Jimmy Carter to whatever distant life form first spins “Johnny B. Goode” on that ultimate, intergalactic gold record, “a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” (The joke, on Saturday Night Live, is that the first radio message received from aliens in outer space says “Send more Chuck Berry!”) It’s a song so overplayed and omnipresent that it should be cliché, but Chuck’s original version, recorded in 1958, never grows old. And no wonder-- it has everything: ringing guitar, pounding bass, Lafayette Leake’s rippling piano, great drums, inventiveness, a perfect title (the economy of turning “be” into an initial), a timeless story, and vivid imagery: the log cabin “made of earth and wood,” the gunny sack, the tree, the railroad track, the great name envisioned in lights. (He wrote it after seeing his own name on the marquee of a theater in New Orleans.) It is pure and perfect poetry, the best all around rock and roll song ever recorded, and probably the greatest American song of all time—that famous “Great American Novel” crystallized in two minutes and 42 seconds of perfect sound.
But wait—there’s more! The ode to broken homes called “Memphis, Tennessee!” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” rock and roll’s first manifestation of black pride. There’s the angst and excitement of young love in “Carol” and “Little Queenie.” There’s the sexual frustration of “No Particular Place to Go,” and the sexual riot of his live version of “Reelin’ and Rockin’.” There’s the youthful frustration of “Almost Grown,” the youthful fantasy of “You Never Can Tell,” the youthful energy of “School Day.” There’s the geography and history of “Promised Land,” the insane, unstoppable energy of “Let it Rock!” the crushed spirit of “Oh, Louisiana,” the hard blues of “Have Mercy Judge,” and the charming innocence of “Sweet Little Sixteen.”
New York Times writer Verlyn Klinkenborg called “Memphis” a “short story,” and found herself haunted by “the metrical precision of the lyrics, its emotional realism and, of course, the revelation in the penultimate line. You know the one: that this is a father’s mournful love song to his daughter, Marie, who is only 6 years old.”
“What I really find myself listening to,” wrote Klinkenborg, “is Chuck Berry the sociologist of incredible economy. It’s the open-ended plea to that disembodied personage, ‘Long-distance information.’ It’s the household where uncles write messages on the wall. It’s the geographical precision of Marie’s home, ‘high up on a ridge, just a half a mile from the Mississippi bridge.’ Undercutting it all is the very hopelessness of the singer’s plea.”
“Too Much Monkey Business,” almost a protest song, is the certain inspiration for Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and a probable inspiration for the Stones’ “Satisfaction.” 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.”
It begins with Chuck’s lead guitar ringing exactly like a bell.
Deedlee-dee, deedlee dee,
deedlee dee, deedlee-dee,
Then 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 guitar work that Chuck Berry became so famous for (almost none of the early songs have it); the roots here are jazzier, with strummed chords. The sound is incredibly light and clear, like a flat rock skipping over wind dimpled water on a bright day. It swings. 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 voice I heard at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis in 2009. Unlike “School Day” or “Oh Baby Doll,” this isn’t teenage stuff—it’s real world frustration, “16 Tons” with a backbeat. He doesn’t use his famous fine diction here—“business” is pronounced “bidness,” or just “bi’ness,” “here” is “hiya.”
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 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
Mick’s song certainly has more in common with Chuck’s than with Muddy’s hard core “Can’t Be Satisfied.”
And it’s a radical song. In 1956 Chuck Berry sings:
Blond hair, good lookin’
Trying to get me hooked
Wants me to marry, settle down,
Get home, write a book. Hmmf!
In 1956 it’s against the law in many states, and frowned on in all of the others, for Chuck Berry to marry a blonde—especially, it seems, in 1958 Missouri, where what passed for the law routinely stopped, prosecuted, and once imprisoned the man for dalliances with any female not black. How dare he sing these words? Of course, maybe it’s not Chuck-- but we know it is: it’s Chuck rounding third and heading for a once forbidden place he admits had always tantalized him; and somehow, in a way, predicting his own future, since in just two months (according to his Autobiography) he’d meet the good looking blonde who would share much of his life and ultimately help him write his book. (Maybe the book is off by a few months. Maybe he’d already met her.)
That same day he recorded “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” whose first hero has been “arrested on charges of unemployment.” Another radical song! It ends with another hero smacking the game winning home run. It so happens I was born a month after that song was recorded. My wife, Rebecca, once bought me an old LIFE magazine from the week that I was born. It’s a pretty scary document. There’s an ad for Heinz that tells how to make “Baked Fish in Ketchup Sauce.” There’s a Cadillac ad that would have got Chuck’s attention. In another a bunch of women hold up enormous panties that would make Bridget Jones’ boyfriend laugh. A dozen or so ads for Bourbon explain my father’s taste in tragedy. But the only brown eyed man in the whole magazine is Willie Mays, who, an ad for Wheaties explains, hit 51 homers the year prior. That makes me happy. I’ve always compared Willie and Chuck. Willie was described as a five tool player, who could hit, hit with power, field, throw and run. Chuck can write, write with poetry, sing, perform, and play. As a kid I saw Willie Mays in San Francisco, and I always figured it was Willie who was rounding third and heading for home in Chuck’s song of black pride.
If you want to appreciate Chuck Berry the singer, try to spit out the first line of “No Money Down”-- “Well Mister I want a yellow convertible”-- in the space allotted. (Pronounce it “convoitable.”) The syllables just keep coming, like circus clowns from a broken down old ragged Ford. Cars are, of course, everywhere in Chuck Berry songs, from the sleek “Flight DeVille” to the beaters in “Dear Dad,” “Come On,” and “Move It.” In “You Can’t Catch Me” Flat Top “comes movin’ up with me, then goes waving goodbye, in a little old souped-up jitney.” Pierre and the Mademoiselle also owned “a souped-up jitney, ‘twas a cherry red ’53.” Nadine and Maybellene are last seen in ground Cadillacs— a coffee colored one for coffee colored Nadine. Girls disappearing in Cadillacs are a big reason why the hero of “No Money Down” has to get out of his “broken down old ragged Ford” and into a “yellow convertible four door De Ville,” but it’s twice the Caddy.
I want air conditioning
I want automatic heat
I want a full Murphy bed
In my back seat
I want short wave radio
I want TV and a phone
You know I got to talk to my baby
When I’m riding alone…
“Let it Rock” is a grown up work song. I’m pretty sure it’s one of Chuck Berry’s own favorites. I don’t recall a show where he didn’t sing it, and with plenty of room for guitar, it always gets him going.
In The Heat Of The Day Down In Mobile, Alabama
Working on the railroad with the steel driving hammer
Got to make some money to buy some brand new shoes
Tryin' to find somebody to take away these blues
She don't love me, hear ‘em singing in the sun
Payday's coming and my work is all done
This isn’t “Johnny B. Goode.” No one’s going to make a motion picture. It’s a song about energy, motion and an unstoppable force.
Everybody's scrambling, running around
Picking up their money, tearing the teepee down
Foreman wants to panic, 'bout to go insane
Trying to get the workers out the way of the train
Engineer blows the whistle loud and long
Can't stop the train, gotta let it roll on
Another wild one is “Promised Land”—the same sort of motion, but this time across the country by bus, train and plane to California. The song starts with an abbreviated Carl Hogan guitar intro and then rolls unstoppably, like the train in “Let it Rock,” the only pause being a T-bone steak “a la carty” high over Albuquerque. It’s never seemed like a coincidence that “Promised Land,” written a matter of months after the terrorist bombing of a church killed three little girls, talks about “trouble that turned into a struggle in downtown Birmingham.” Nor is it coincidence that the “Po’ boy” wants to get “across Mississippi clean.” Chuck Berry was nearly lynched in Mississippi by drunken frat boys who feigned outrage when he returned the kiss of a white girl who jumped on stage. Guess who got arrested.
In 2011, I would learn more about history and more about the lyrics of Promised Land. I was watching a television show celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders—a racially mixed group of young people who attempted to integrate commercial busses in 1961. A group of them are attacked in the Rock Hill bus station. The police who are supposed to protect the riders vanish.
|Freedom Riders in Rock Hill, 1961|
No wonder the Po’ Boy’s Greyhound chooses to “bypass Rock Hill.”
And no wonder these songs grow larger and more powerful with time. It is like Chuck Berry dipped deeply into the Missouri or the Mississippi Rivers and pulled up what makes us who and what we are.
The untroubled vocals and sprightly guitar disguise something weightier and more important. This isn’t a silly trip on busses, trains and planes. This is the same Promised Land that Martin Luther King saw, but viewed through Chuck Berry’s unique perspective. Think how a ballet dancer’s art makes his partner look weightless. That’s what Chuck Berry does with his humor and his guitar. Don’t be fooled.
Rebecca was right, Shakespeare has more significance. But not many others.