Saturday, March 18, 2017

Last Thoughts On Chuck Berry, 1926-2017.

Years ago, I once read that Chuck Berry is the rock upon which rock & roll rests; to this day, I cannot think of a better way to put his influence.

Only The Beatles, Elvis, Dylan, & The Rolling Stones can rival him in influence, & of those 4, only Elvis is conceivable without him.

Simply put, Chuck Berry is rock & roll.

The depth, range, & influence of artists who have covered him is staggering: The Beatles, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Sex Pistols, Jerry Lee Lewis, David Bowie, The Animals, The Kinks, The Band--& that's just off the top of my head & only counting songs that were officially released on official albums. Throw in live recordings, jam sessions, & bootlegs, & you'd have basically everyone ever.

His music is the blood that flows through the veins of rock & roll; take it away, & the history of the music dies.

The Beatles cut their teeth on his records. They paid credit both directly, with blistering covers of "Roll Over Beethoven" & "Rock & Roll Music," but also indirectly, when Lennon lifted the "Here come ol' flat top, he come groovin' up slowly" from Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" to begin his classic "Come Together." Lennon could be forgiven though; it was simply proof that by 1969, Chuck Berry was simply rock's second mind.

The Rolling Stones' first single was a cover of Berry's "Come On," while one of their early standout covers was "Carol." They also went to Chess Records, the temple where Chuck recorded, & laid down a great version of "Around & Around," which was also covered by The Animals that same year. (David Bowie cut a version of the same song seven years later; it was originally slated to go on the Ziggy Stardust album.) Did I write that Chuck Berry was rock's second mind by 1969? I take that back. By 1965, Mick Jagger took the line "I can't get no satisfaction from the judge" from Berry's "Thirty Days" & wrote what many consider to be rock's definitive anthem.

Those people are wrong, though. Rock's definitive anthem came seven years earlier when Chuck Berry released "Johnny B. Goode."

From the blazing guitar intro through the lyrics and the solo, no one could ever beat it, not even Chuck himself. It was the story of the American Dream told through the eyes of a young guitarist, highlighted by those two-note driving solos that Berry used build rock guitar's (which is to say, rock's) basic vocabulary. Any time you hear someone blasting out those double-note riffs, they are reaching for Chuck Berry's performance in "Johnny B. Goode."

Yet that said, "Johnny B. Goode" was not surprisingly the toughest Chuck Berry song to cover. Both The Beatles & Elvis made passes on it in live performances, but neither could come close. To best illustrate the point, listen to The Sex Pistols set it aflame in an early demo where they can't play it & Johnny Rotten doesn't know the words. They end up shouting "Go! Go! Go!" because it's all they can do. It's a pathetic mess, but in its own raw way, it blows away those versions by The Beatles & Elvis.

Elvis couldn't do a Chuck Berry song justice until he tackled "Promised Land" in 1975, & it was his last truly classic recording. Berry had written it in jail some fifteen years earlier & like "Johnny B. Goode" before it, it too told a version of the American Dream, only this time from East Coast to West, &, as Greil Marcus pointed out when he called it the greatest American song of all time (as in, song about America), rags to riches. It's like one big musical montage that ends with a phone call to the folks back home where it all began.

When Elvis had the famous Million Dollar Quartet jam session with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, & Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry was virtually the only rock on the menu that wasn't someone already in the room. The majority of the session leaned on gospel, country, & blues, but there was a hilarious stretch where they try to remember the words to "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" & piece it together in a gesture of love & admiration, with Elvis strumming away frantically on the acoustic guitar. Once they finally get it, Carl goes into a story about coming off of tour with Chuck Berry.

Chuck Berry touring was an interesting thing by the 1980s, where Berry would show up to a club with his guitar in hand, get his money, then go onstage & play with whatever band was there. Every band knows his songs, he rationalized, because his songs are the rock & roll songbook. A young Bruce Springsteen was in one of these bands in the 1970s; twenty years later, he would back Berry at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Concert in 1995. In the years in between, he released a live version of "Run, Run Rudolph," proving even Berry's Christmas songs were nothing to be ignored.

& then there are the Chuck Berry songs that lead to other songs. Brian Wilson so clearly lifted Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" for The Beach Boys' 1963 breakthrough "Surfin' U.S.A." that Wilson eventually had to give him a co-authorship credit; years earlier, rhythm & blues singer Richard Berry (no relation) used the pidgin English of Chuck's "Havana Moon" as a main inspiration for "Louie, Louie," later immortalized by The Kingsmen in a song that all but invented punk rock.

& then there is the popular memory. Back To The Future (Marty McFly playing "Johnny B. Goode" while the film's greatest line is spoken: "Hey Chuck, this is your cousin Marvin, Marvin Berry! You know that new sound you've been looking for? Well listen to THIS!") & Pulp Fiction (the twist dance contest scene, set to "You Never Can Tell") put Chuck Berry into motion picture history in a way that even his own Hail, Hail Rock & Roll documentary could not. When John Lennon & Yoko Ono cohosted The Mike Douglas Show in the 1970s, they jumped at the chance to have Chuck Berry on, & then jumped at the chance to play with him on stage (it serves as a reminder that for everything that Lennon's presence supposedly represented about the counterculture, he was still most wowed by '50s rock & roll). & when NASA shot a rocket into space representing human culture, Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" was among its artifacts. Saturday Night Live famously quipped that the first response from alien life has been received & it is: "Send more Chuck Berry."

& as some like to tell it, Chuck Berry's 1955 first hit single, "Maybellene," was the first rock & roll record of them all.

The one & only time I ever saw Chuck Berry was 50 years to the day after "Maybellene" was released, in August of 2005, at the nightclub he owned in St. Louis, Blueberry Hill, which oddly named after a Fats Domino song. Even odder was that, after much fanfare about this being the 50th anniversary of "Maybellene," he didn't even play the song. My sister & I had gotten there early, stood in line for a few hours, & sat in the front row. Even though he was in his 80s, he came out like a king & was rock royalty in a way I have only ever seen in person from his contemporaries like Jerry Lee Lewis & B.B. King--those pre-television legends who could really hold a stage.

With his son leading the band, Berry played 10 songs in 60 minutes, 9 of his classics & one Jimmy Reed cover. He was spry, sprightly, having fun, & basking in the glow, & during "Johnny B. Goode," he even duckwalked, to my astonishment. He closed with "Reelin' & Rockin'," never one of my favorites at that time, but a favorite ever since. His band shrewdly pulled up girls onstage to dance (of which my sister was thrilled to be among the first, invited up by none other than Chuck Berry, Jr.), which allowed him to sneak out the back behind the wall of dancing girls. It was the rock & roll equivalent of disappearing in a cloud of smoke.

Now Chuck Berry is truly gone. It may be cliche, but it seems like there is nowhere else to end but with the final verse of "School Day," yet another song that, like so many others, is so vital to rock's repertoire but escaped my stream-of-conscious words above.

As the man said:

Hail, hail rock & roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock & roll
The beat of the drums, loud & bold
Rock, rock, rock & roll
The feeling is there, body & soul

Chuck Berry is dead. Long live Chuck Berry.

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