Chuck Berry – Memphis
I’ve heard this Chuck Berry song probably a thousand times in my life and its devastating brilliance never really hit me until now. Don’t get me wrong, I always thought it was a good tune. If you asked me about it yesterday, I would’ve said the unexpected calypso feel is a nice touch and the lyrics tell a good story. But, I would’ve also said the Lonnie Mack instrumental and The Faces cover on A Nod Is As Good As A Wink might be more definitive. Wrong. Empirically wrong. If anything, those covers obscure the tragedy at the heart of “Memphis.”
“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 all of Berry’s brilliance in writing about the postwar American teenager and his profound influence on the rock ‘n’ roll infrastructure (particularly via Keith Richards, pictured above with Chuck), this subdued, quasi-folk song is his finest moment. “Johnny B. Goode” is a rock ‘n’ roll masterpiece, no doubt, but “Memphis” is real, and not the fraudulent hip-hop real that impresses college-educated white people.
“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 six years old, Information please,
Try to put me through to her in Memphis, Tennessee”
“Memphis” takes us way beyond the sock hop. It’s a quiet, 2:14 study in evil, in this case perpetrated by a wife on a father and daughter. Berry’s genius, of course, is that he sets us up. We think the guy is using Information to contact his lover, but by song’s end we realize he’s trying to get in touch with his six-year-old daughter. The desperate, hopeless longing combined with Berry’s eye for detail — totally heartbreaking. Trust me, I have the tears to prove it.
I love you, Leilani Beth Davis.
Signed, Your Daddy (with hurry home drops on his cheek)