Some Thoughts on Chuck Berry, 1926-2017

And so it has come to pass that Chuck Berry is no longer among the living. As sad as that may be, it should not come as a great shock to anyone. The man reached what they call a “ripe ol’ age” of 90, after all, which in a grueling business not famous for health and long life is probably the greatest shock of all. He beat the odds of humanity, and changed the world to boot. Dude even has a new album coming out this year. He lived long enough to witness the music form he played such a huge role in creating explode around him to become the biggest worldwide musical phenomenon of the 20th century, only to expand, evolve, splinter and recede, eventually cataloged at this point in history simply as one of a myriad different instant entertainment options available to attention-deficient consumers. For most of that time period, Berry was largely regarded as an oldies act and cranky pervert.

The impact Chuck Berry had on the development of Rock And Roll Music – from his lyrical poetry which captured in such simple, relatable terms the simmering restlessness of postwar youth, to his rollicking, rambunctious, oft-imitated guitar style, to his iconic, showboating, duckwalking stage act – cannot be overstated. Nearly every British Invasion or American garage rock band of the 1960s covered at least one Chuck Berry song, and those tunes remained influential classics decades onward. You’ve already heard and read endless heartfelt testimonials about such matters. It’s all true. And there’s nothing noteworthy I can add to that, so I won’t try.

Personally, I only saw him perform once. It was at Chastain a number of years ago – I can’t remember when exactly – on one of those oldies revues that also featured Little Richard, another of rock ‘n’ roll’s last living pioneers, also now in failing health. Richard was a hoot that night, as he always would be – I mean, he may’ve only played seven or eight songs total, as most of his onstage time was spent rambling and joking and basically being his campy, cartoonish self, the quintessential latter-day Little Richard Show. But it was still great fun. By contrast, Chuck was a drag. Slow, feeble, out of it. But I can’t really fault him. He had to have been in his eighties by that point, or at least late seventies. Of course he was backed, as always, by a band of unfortunate local hired musicians, all of whom had dutifully rehearsed his most popular songs, only to have the elderly legend himself fuck ‘em up once the show began. It was a familiar complaint about Berry. I’m pretty sure Darryl Rhoades was on drums that night – he played behind Chuck a few times, and has some great stories about said experiences, naturally, as only he can tell them.

Truthfully, the most vivid thing that stands out to me about that performance was when Berry abruptly halted a song midway through to yell at a poor woman up front in the crowd who had taken out her phone, or perhaps a small digital camera, to snap a few shots of the Grand Poobah of Rock ‘n’ Roll in action. “You can’t do that, young lady!” Chuck scolded her, genuine indignant anger in his voice. “You’re not allowed to take my picture! It’s not in my contract!” Seriously – he brought the entire show to a screeching halt to berate this clearly naïve lady, who was probably dragged to the show by her husband in the first place. The momentum, what little there was, never returned.

I always found it hard to reconcile in my head how someone who wrote such gleeful, goofy, spirited adolescent anthems, and whose combination of voice and electric guitar sounded like the elation of newfound freedom itself, could become such a bitter, unpleasant man. Yeah, I’ve heard the accounts of so many early rock ‘n’ rollers, more often than not the black ones, being fucked over by bad business deals or crooked management or what have you. But Chuck Berry just struck me as a particularly miserable grouch. So many of his woes and career setbacks were of his own doing that perhaps it’s fitting that his only number one song was “My Ding-a-Ling.”

There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Chuck Berry was one of popular music’s most notorious pervs, from allegedly fucking a 14-year-old girl in 1959 (for which he served a year and a half in prison, stalling his livelihood at its height), to peeing on blonde groupies (by mutual agreement, one hopes), to secretly videotaping female customers in the women’s restroom of his St. Louis area restaurant (not by mutual agreement), to other supposed exploits straight outta Blowfly’s back catalog. He was rock’s original Ol’ Dirty Bastard. In fact, his assorted debased escapades could be put to rhyme by the shrewdest lewdest rappers of our present day and few would raise an eyebrow, such is the subhuman level to which the culture has devolved. It’s the defining common-denominator poetry of our times, same as how Chuck Berry’s was to his own, right?

What do I know? I’m just an old fuddy-duddy. I hate that all these geniuses are always so flawed, but deep down I’ve come to realize that the music they made, all that crazy shit that means so much to me, couldn’t possibly have happened without their ugly, messy, stupid, uncomfortably human undercurrents and inner demons. Could it?

I still believe in rock ‘n’ roll, as Chuck Berry intended it. Girls, cars and ringin’ guitars. It’s the essence of the formula. And despite all the amputations, the formula is still a good one.