With music strong I come, with my cornets and my drums
I play not marches for accepted victors only
I play marches for conquer’d and slain persons
–Walt Whitman, “Song Of Myself”
Who could’ve predicted that it was Chuck Berry’s 90th birthday on October 18th that brought me out of retirebernation? Fact is, I’ve been getting the itch to write, I’m definitely in a better head space now, and why wouldn’t I come back with an homage to a badass rock ‘n’ roll pioneer? What did you think I was doing this whole time? Holing up with shitty Radiohead records and feeling sorry for myself??? Pshaw. Thanks to everyone for the well wishes over the past year, they obviously worked.
So, why Chuck Berry? I mean, sure, he’s the rightful King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, so there’s that. But why now? Why, in the most contentious, extremist election of my lifetime, when otherwise reasonable adults weaponize social media as a shaming and bullying mechanism, would people want to read about a black man who crossed over to the white world, not by brute force and antagonism, but by the power of his intellect and the swing of his rhythm section? Why would people care about an individual who embodied core liberal AND conservative values, as opposed to staunchly advocating for one side or the other?
The Berry biography includes legal troubles that reveal a racist court system and a perfectly justified legal system. His sexual proclivities force us to deal with our sexual taboos — not to mention the act of sex itself — but those same proclivities point us back to those aforementioned legal troubles. In short, Chuck Berry is a complicated man. He is hero and anti-hero. Poet and profligate. He helped invent rock ‘n’ roll, then watched as it passed him by. All of these complications and contradictions are intertwined in the CB legacy. So, why Berry and why now? In a country that is ostentatiously, stubbornly bifurcating itself, few figures have embodied that duality quite like Chuck Berry. He is quintessentially American in song and deed and I wanted to re-examine reframe a few moments from his prodigious catalog.
Chuck Berry Is No Bob Dylan, But Bob Dylan Is No Chuck Berry
Now I will do nothing but listen
To accrue what I hear into this song
To let sounds contribute toward it
–Walt Whitman, “Song Of Myself”
Bob Dylan’s recent ascension into Nobelity was well deserved. While he’s not my favorite songwriter — gimme Hank Williams — I can’t deny that Dylan expanded the possibilities of songwriting and lyrical composition more than anyone else. It was like Dylan added extra letters to the alphabet. BUT … and it’s not an insignificant but … in terms of rock ‘n’ roll, Chuck Berry got there first. Of all the antecedents from whom Dylan drew inspiration, Berry is virtually alone in being a self-contained songwriting machine who simultaneously and legitimately rocked. Buddy Holly is a distant second place because there’s Chuck Berry, then there’s everyone else. I would even argue that Chuck’s best compositions are as meaningful, clever, funny, poignant, heartbreaking, and everlasting as Bob’s best. Bob just had more of them.
But, I think Chuck Berry brought two things to the table that are historically undervalued, not only in relation to Dylan, but in relation to post-’60s rock in general: 1) He wrote economically and 2) His brilliant songwriting always existed inside of a swinging pocket. In regards to the first point, Berry wrote for 7″ singles. This idea was diminished by the rise of the album format in the ’60s. But, should it have been? I think there’s something to be said for giving us your best 2-3 minutes. Brevity, not self-indulgence, is the soul of wit and no one embodied soulful, literate brevity more resolutely than Chuck Berry.
That second idea is probably more undervalued than the first. If The Adios Lounge stands for anything, it’s the power of a swinging rhythm section. For example, I know that Blood On The Tracks and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan are great albums.But, I rarely have the urge to listen to them. It’s not like if they were playing I’d complain, but I’d much rather listen to The Meters, Blasters, Bob Wills, or Chuck Berry because regardless of the lyrical content, I know I’ll get a syncopated pocket. That value resonates with me as much as, if not more, than ideas on paper. Now, if you can swing and tell a great story, you’ve hit my sweet spot. And that’s Berry in a nutshell. Years before Boon, Watt, and Hurley, Chuck was jamming econo.
Chuck Berry Composed the Most American Song of the 20th Century
The friendly and flowing savage, who is he?
Is he waiting for civilization, or past it and mastering it?
Is he some Southwesterner rais’d out-doors? is he Kanadian?
Is he from the Mississippi country? Iowa, Oregon, California?
The mountains? prairie-life, bush-life? or sailor from the sea?
–Walt Whitman, “Song Of Myself”
For the record, I originally titled this section, “Chuck Berry Composed the Most American Song of All-Time.” However, I don’t think that’s true. As square as it sounds, I have to grudgingly admit that Francis Scott Key composed the most American song of all-time. I wish it weren’t the case, but right this second, Americans in 2016 are considering what “The Star Spangled Banner” means to them. It’s not some flaccid academic argument. The national anthem is a political hot potato and because of that, Key deserves props. BUT, he wrote the song in the 19th century. That leaves the 20th century open for discussion. So, if we’re to define the most American song of the previous century, it seems necessary to define what I mean by “most American.” I’m pretty sure blacks and whites would have markedly different interpretations of that phrase. So would men and women. So would conservatives and liberals. So would … well, you get the point. Coming up with a “Top 5 Most American Songs of the 20th Century” would be so culturally specific for each person that there probably wouldn’t be much consensus. But, I argue that #1 is counterintuitively obvious. It’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
Importantly, “Johnny B. Goode” is set in America. The first line is “Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans.” So, we have a specific location inside the United States. Now, you may note that many Chuck Berry songs mention American cities. “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Promised Land,” and “Back In The USA” list multiple cities. But, I’m talking about the idea of “most American,” which transcends the act of namechecking US townships. For example, after establishing our Louisiana location “Johnny B. Goode” goes on to deliver these lines:
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
So, we’re not just in Louisiana, but we’re in rural Louisiana. Guess where most Americans not only live now, but especially lived in 1958 when Berry recorded and released “Johnny B. Goode?” They live in rural communities. They are, in many cases, country folk. That’s how they would self-identify and therefore within the first verse of this song they’d identify with Johnny. Now, there’s a meta-story going on here. (There are actually a pair of meta-stories, but we’ll get to the second one shortly.) That line “country boy” was a self-edit by Chuck. The original line was “colored boy.” He changed it because a colored boy was too black for 1950s white America.
From the privileged perspective of 2016, you might criticize Berry for conceding to white cultural demands. But, keep in mind that this song was written in the heat of the civil rights movement, when Jim Crow was an actual thing in the deep south, and a mild-mannered guy like Nat “King” Cole could be attacked on stage by racists (which happened in Birmingham, Alabama less than two years before “Johnny B. Goode” was written). That self-edit was a remarkably savvy move by Chuck. It’s not that Johnny was no longer black, it was that he became whatever you wanted him to be. Whatever you needed him to be. If you were a white racist you could identify with Johnny. And if you were that white racist, your mind was getting impregnated by the ideas of a black man, the ultimate act of cultural subversion.
Which brings us to the line, “There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood.” Why might that be peculiarly American? Why would the idea of someone living in a log cabin have currency in America? If only there were someone, say a President of the United States, whose mythology was bound up in the idea of the log cabin. And what if that President went to war over the idea of enslaving “colored boys” (and “colored girls,” of course) and in so doing, freed said slaves following said war? I’m thinking that if all those things actually happened, then that the image of the log cabin would be governed by a meta-spirituality that transcended mere earth and wood.
Keep in mind, too, that the log cabin has another meaning equally invested in the American mythos. It was the home of the 19th century “self-made man,” the yeoman farmer working the land and building this country with his own two hands. You cannot underestimate this philosophical archetype to 20th century conservative thought. Granted, the reality was far more complicated than the totemic ideal. White tenant farmers were often little more than sharecroppers and by the start of the 20th century were knuckling under to the usual array of capitalist forces: banks, creditors, railroads, and international markets. That said, the idea of the self-made man is not only critical to understanding what it means to be an American, it is an apt description of both Chuck Berry and “Johnny B. Goode” itself.
“His mother told him someday you will be a man
And you will be the leader of a big old band
Many people coming from miles around
To hear you play your music when the sun go down
Maybe someday your name will be in lights
Saying Johnny B. Goode tonight.”
“Johnny B. Goode” is a song about an individual creating a demand and then supplying that demand to “people coming from miles around.” What is more American — especially in 20th century terms — than becoming rich and famous? But, how he got famous matters. Johnny isn’t particularly educated. Remember, “he never ever learned to read or write so well.” He’s also from the country, not some privileged urban dweller. On paper, the odds are stacked against him making something of himself. But, he worked his ass off playing music. We know this because in the second verse we learn that Johnny “used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack/Go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track.” Despite so many factors working against him, Johnny B. Goode pulled himself up by his guitar strap and became THE prototypical, rags-to-riches success story.
Atypical of what I usually do, I’ve focused here almost exclusively on lyrics. I think given the construct of determining “most American,” I felt compelled to address the “American-ness” of Berry’s words. But, there is a musical lineage worth discussing. Chuck’s guitar here is so iconic, so essential to our idea of what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to sound like, that it’s easy to overlook that he was paying homage to his forefathers. In this case, it was Louis Jordan’s wonderful guitar player in his Tympany Five, Carl Hogan. While CB’s guitar tone is rougher, there’s little doubt that his intro to “Johnny” comes straight from Hogan’s intro to “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman,” a massive R&B hit — and decent-sized pop crossover — for Jordan in 1945. Here they are back to back:
Chuck Berry – Johnny B. Goode [Guitar Intro]
Carl Hogan – Ain’t That Just Like a Woman [Guitar Intro]
You can make a pretty good argument that Chuck appropriating and repurposing Carl Hogan for “Johnny B. Goode” is as fundamentally American as anything about “Johnny,” the musical equivalent of “building a better mousetrap.” Not that Chuck Berry or “Johnny B. Goode” are “better” than Louis Jordan and “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman,” but it’s indisputable that Berry’s mousetrap took on a life of its own. Both men crossed over to whites, but CB kept crossing over. You can go on YouTube right now and see covers of “Johnny B. Goode” by citizens of Mexico, Brazil, Russia, Japan, Korea, Israel, Egypt, Sweden, pretty much anywhere you have humans with ears. If we go to Indochina, I bet we’ll find a motherfucker hiding in a bowl of rice who loves “Johnny B. Goode.” Like Coca-Cola, blue jeans, westerns, and the idea of democracy, America has exported itself all over the world. So it is with rock ‘n’ roll and so it is with Chuck Berry. You can argue about songs 2-5, but I’ve made an open and shut case for #1. “Johnny B. Goode” is the most American song of the 20th century.
Chuck Berry Composed the Most Joyous Song to Ever Address Institutional Racism, Interracial Romance, and Outright Cuckoldry
Through me forbidden voices
Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d
–Walt Whitman, “Song Of Myself”
In his excellent 2002 biography, Brown Eyed Handsome Man, author Bruce Pegg posits that “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” was the first rock ‘n’ roll song to express black pride. That is certainly true, with Chuck offering a baseball homage that can’t help but call to mind Jackie Robinson and the first generation of black baseball players. But, there is A LOT more going on here. Speaking frankly, the brother lays down some uncomfortable truths. The best part is these truths make liberals and conservatives equally uncomfortable. Right out the box, Berry comes with it:
“Arrested on charges of unemployment
He was sitting in the witness stand
The judge’s wife called up the district attorney
Said you free that brown eyed man
You want your job you better free that brown eyed man”
You don’t need a graduate degree in American Studies to figure out that “brown eyed man” is a wink wink euphemism for “black man.” And if you’re a black man, you just might be able to relate to the police arresting you for …. standing around not doing anything??? Those are devastatingly original opening lines that perfectly encapsulate the black American experience and it’s pretty much as relevant now as it was on April 16, 1956, when Berry recorded this in Chicago for the Chess brothers. (RIP Phil Chess, who passed away on October 16 at the age of 95).
But, let’s not stroll past the end of that verse. The judge’s wife calls the DA and reads him the riot act on behalf of the brown eyed man. Do you think she does this out of some noble sense of purpose? Ummm no. The judge’s wife behaves in this fashion because she’s fucking the defendant. The black defendant. Considering this song was written in the 1950s, what race would you say the judge, wife, and DA are? If I were to suggest that they’re white, would you say the percentage of this being true would somehow be less than 100%? This opening verse would be brilliantly clever and shockingly defiant NOW, but in 1956??? Amazing. It’s a barely veiled homage to interracial sex and the cuckolding of prominent white citizenry AND YOU CAN DANCE TO IT!!! You go Chuck!
Chuck follows this ribaldry with a similar, later verse:
Beautiful daughter couldn’t make up her mind
Between a doctor and a lawyer man
Her mother told her daughter go out and find yourself
A brown eyed handsome man
That’s what your daddy is a brown eyed handsome man
This might even be more shocking than the first verse — again, shocking in 1950s terms — because there’s an insinuation that the daughter is secretly mixed. Maybe, maybe not. But, if I were to suggest that this white daughter was being courted by a white doctor and white lawyer and her mother told her to get herself a black lover before making that decision, would you really consider that a ridiculous interpretation? It’s not anymore ridiculous than saying that’s what the Pixies’ “Gigantic” is about. However, why does Chuck write, “That’s what YOUR daddy is a brown eyed handsome man?” Chuck didn’t write that accidentally. Let me just say, that as someone of mixed heritage — dad white, mom Japanese/Hawaiian — Berry is correct in calling the daughter beautiful. Us mixed types are the beautiful American amalgamation writ small.
Taking my secretly mixed theory to the next level, is it possible that the mother of this daughter is the judge’s wife in the first verse? Think about it. In terms of social appropriateness, the daughter of a judge would certainly be courted by doctors and lawyers. But, who better than the judge’s wife to tell her daughter that perhaps she should go black because based upon her experience her daughter will enjoy some bow chicka wow wow? I don’t think my theory. If nothing else, I hope I’ve made a lot of white people uncomfortable with all this interracial sex talk.
One of Chuck Berry’s Best Songs Is One of the Saddest Songs in the English Language
Man or woman, I might tell how I like you, but cannot
And might tell what it is in me and what it is in you, but cannot
And might tell that pining I have, that pulse of my nights and days
Behold, I do not give lectures or a little charity
When I give I give myself
–Walt Whitman, “Song Of Myself”
It’s to Chuck’s credit that one of his best songs is almost overlooked because of the vast influence of his rockers. But make no mistake, “Memphis, Tennessee” is arguably his greatest achievement because it has the biggest heart. It does not rock (in fact, there’s a subtle calypso feel), the guitar solo is minimalist and ever-so-slightly out of tune, and the song comes and goes in 2:14. On paper, not the makings of a classic. However, the slow lyrical reveal is one of the great turnarounds in rock history.
“Memphis” contains only four unassuming verses and after the first two we think Marie might be a girlfriend trying to reach the protagonist on the road. Love the image of the uncle writing a message on the wall and you have to admire Chuck’s sense of place. He doesn’t simply set the song in Memphis, Tennessee. He notes that Marie lives on the south side of Memphis, high up on a ridge, just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge. However, the third verse arrives and it’s like going from grainy black and white to painfully clear technicolor:
“Help me Information, more than that I cannot add
Only that I miss her and all the fun we had
But we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree
And tore apart our happy home in Memphis Tennessee”
For the record, I wrote about this song in September 2009, when this third verse was my life. (Go to We Were Pulled Apart Because Her Mom Did Not Agree.) If you haven’t experienced the pain of losing a child, not due to death, but by casual, willful vindictiveness by the custodial parent, consider yourself lucky. “Memphis” might not hit home for you in such a direct way, but for me it was like a rape scene. Even the language Berry uses — “pulled apart,” “tore apart” — is imbued with inherent violence. And while the violence is metaphorical, tell that to my PTSD. I’ll be honest, after writing about “Memphis” seven years ago, I literally couldn’t listen to it until fairly recently. And maybe it’s coincidence, but that listening process only began after my youngest daughter turned three, the same age my firstborn was when I was no longer allowed to speak to her.
“Last time I saw Marie she was waving me good bye
With hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye
Marie is only 6 years old, Information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee”
I don’t care how many Nobel Prizes Bob Dylan wins, he’ll never come up with a more profoundly human turn of phrase than “hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye.” That single line crystallizes both Berry’s concise, literary brilliance and documents a kind of child abuse that is not only tolerated, but encouraged by our deeply flawed family law system. The sense of pain and hopelessness is so real, so tangible, it’s almost an act of God that this song was even created. “Hurry home drops on her cheek.” Just let the magnitude of that phrase sink in. That is a fucking atomic bomb. There’s before, then there’s after.
On a deeper level, Berry is again dealing in uncomfortable truths. But, what I love about “Memphis, Tennessee” is that it isn’t Right Wing America forced to confront its racism in veiled narratives like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” or “Promised Land.” It’s Left Wing America that’s forced to confront its notions of equality. Are you for equality? Or are you for the kind of equality that plays well publicly? More to the point, are you afraid to stand up to a woman doing the wrong thing because you don’t want to be accused of sexism or misogyny? Sure, anyone can stand up to a plastic husk like Melania Trump. However, what if it’s a woman like you, with whom you might agree politically, but she refuses to allow her daughter to see her father? Will you say anything then? You can talk a big game about standing up against abuse and for equality, but Chuck Berry wrote this song in 1959 and it’s still totally relevant. Why is that?
Getting back to the song itself, “Memphis” has been covered many, many times. The Beatles, Johnny Rivers, Lonnie Mack, and The Faces have all done good versions. Hell, Chuck’s probably played it a thousand and one times on stage. The irony is that every cover, including Chuck’s own performances, plays it big. And it’s a testament to the greatness of “Memphis” that these rocking versions all work. But, rocking does not necessarily equal power. NOTHING comes close to the gravitas of the original recording. It’s a small, understated moment filled with power and profundity. We are a lucky species to have it.
Chuck Berry is the Subject of the Greatest Musical Documentary Ever Made
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
–Walt Whitman, “Song Of Myself”
Taylor Hackford’s 1987 documentary, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, is greatest film of its kind because it shows exactly what made Chuck Berry an innovative, charismatic super genius who was simultaneously a difficult, contradictory pain in the ass. He’s the guy who helped invent rock ‘n’ roll AND he was the guy who filmed women taking dumps. He was railroaded by the legal system — on multiple occasions — but there’s a pretty decent amount of evidence that he had sex with underage girls. There is good and there is bad and all of it makes up the complicated Chuck Berry legacy. Now, Hackford doesn’t delve into all of the legal whatnots. He was there to film the lead up to Chuck’s 60th birthday celebration. But, once the cameras started rolling, we got a few different Chucks, and to Hackford’s credit, he didn’t shy away from any of them. We see Berry’s humanity, we see Berry the manipulative asshole, AND we see the Chuck Berry that earned his place in the pop pantheon.
While you’d be well-served simply watching the movie, I HIGHLY recommend the 4-disc collector’s edition of Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. It includes a lot of cool, revealing outtakes, rehearsals with Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Etta James, bona fide war stories from Hackford and the rest of the film crew, and in-depth interviews with the likes of Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and the Everly Brothers. Overwhelming in toto, but well worth it. Ironically, two of my favorite scenes from Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll don’t even feature Chuck singing his own songs. They’re small moments that harken back to a pre-rock ‘n’ roll era. Cinematically speaking, they’re closer in tone to “Memphis, Tennessee” than they are “Johnny B. Goode.” But, this is part of what made Berry so significant. He didn’t have to go up to 11 to be effective.
Chuck Berry & Johnnie Johnson – The House Of Blue Lights
Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll
Amazon (Four-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition)
For all of the “Johnny B. Goodes,” “Roll Over Beethovens,” and “Back In The USAs” that make the Berry catalog Rock ‘n’ Roll Ground Zero, this seemingly throwaway moment from Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll is quintessential Chuck Berry. It’s CB and Johnnie Johnson, together again, gracefully swinging their way through the deep cut, “The House Of Blue Lights.” Berry actually recorded this in June 1958, a fairly perfunctory version in the classic “Johnny B. Goode” mold. What I love about this take is that it’s simply two musicians in total sync, bringing out the best in each other, and completing each other’s sentences. “I feel every vein that man has got,” Chuck says of Johnnie. As historically significant as Chuck Berry is, it’s easy to forget that Johnnie Johnson made him a better musician and performer. Together — not just Chuck solo — but together in collaboration they created timeless, bedrock American music.
One of the things that made Chuck Berry so important — and I think this is true of all the ’50s rockers — is that he was a bridge between the music of the pre-war and immediate postwar years and the revolution rock that came in the 1960s. Most critics focus too much on the latter. Yes, the fact that The Beatles and Stones (among many others) built upon Berry’s innovations is important. But, equally important was the fact that Chuck was building on the innovations of Louis Jordan, Nat Cole, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and the like. “House Of Blue Lights” is a great example of this. It was covered by many people over the years, but I’m guessing Chuck and Johnnie went straight to the source, Freddie Slack and Ella Mae Morse. Their boogie woogie jump blues — featuring mucho hipster patois — was a Top 10 hit in 1946 and sounds great 70 years later. You can definitely hear how Johnson absorbed the boogie woogie part of the equation, while Berry absorbed the clever use of language and how to establish a strong sense of place.
Chuck Berry & Johnnie Johnson – Cottage For Sale + Ending Credits
Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll
Amazon (Four-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition)
I have to thank Channing Lewis of Grand Champeen for posting this to Facebook. Filmed during the same sequence of Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll as “House Of Blue Lights,” it’s Berry and Johnson swaying their way through “Cottage For Sale,” a song that I’m guessing they got from Nat “King” Cole. Like “House,” it was covered many times, but Berry’s vocal delivery comes straight outta the King Cole songbook. That influence shouldn’t be surprising. Nat was arguably Chuck’s greatest hero, one of the first black crossover artists, and a phenomenal musician who opened the door for CB to duck walk through. The sensitive reading underscores Berry’s versatility. He may have earned his way into the artistic pantheon by reelin’ and rockin’, but when properly motivated he could render a ballad with effortless ease. You obviously hear it in “Memphis, Tennessee,” but you can also hear it in obscure numbers like “I’ve Changed” (1955), “Time Was” (1957), and Duke Ellington’s “I’m Just A Lucky So And So” (1960).
Chuck is the real King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but he’s so much more than that. His songs have told us what it means to be an American. His songs have told us what it means to be a black American. His songs are for lonely fathers and kids — and the kid inside of us — who just want to dance. He was Bob Dylan before Bob Dylan and was profoundly influential for three full decades, inspiring the Stones, Beatles, Kinks, Beach Boys, Hendrix, The Band, MC5, Creedence, Buck Owens, Springsteen, Peter Tosh, AC/DC, the Sex Pistols, Rockpile, X, and The Blasters. Hell, The Germs covered Chuck Berry! But, Berry was also important for extending the tradition of what came before him: boogie woogie, jump blues, western swing, R&B, jazz, and even country.
Ultimately, “Cottage For Sale” gives way to Hail! Hail!‘s spectacular, single shot end credits sequence. With a steel guitar mournfully setting the mood, Hackford goes full-on Orson Welles as he slowly dollies from poolside at the Berry Park estate to inside a shadowy rehearsal room. There we see Chuck alone at the pedal steel, flatpicking his way through “Floyd’s Guitar Blues,” a 1939 recording by Andy Kirk and His Mighty Clouds of Joy that Berry cut in 1958 as “Blues For Hawaiians.” The scene is a plaintive, delicate note on which to end a film that was mostly anything but that. Given all that Chuck represents, this light touch also calls back to the Whitman quote at the beginning of this section.
Chuck Berry is large. He contains multitudes.