Chuck Berry: Eternal Rock and Roller
Chuck Berry is the greatest of the rock and rollers. Elvis competes with Tom Jones. Little Richard cavorts after hours for Dick and Johnny, Fats Domino looks old, and Jerry Lee Lewis looks down his noble honker at die-hards who refuse to understand that Jerry Lee has chosen to become a great country singer. But for a fee--only two thousand dollars until recently--Chuck Berry will hop a plane and play some rock and roll. In this year of the boogie the man who used to be the ideal second attraction, drawing a core of raving fanatics like me and a broad base of casual admirers who dug to get off on a legend every once in a while, has come into his own. Everyone from the folkies to the heavy metal kids claims his songs for encores, and much better than that, Chuck Berry himself is back on top: The London Chuck Berry Sessions reached top ten in the wake of a number-one single, his first certified million-seller, "My Ding-a-Ling."
For those who skipped fourth grade, let me make clear that "ding-a-ling" is a play on words that engenders quips like the one Chuck made when he was awarded his gold record at Madison Square Garden on October 13: "I never knew `My Ding-a-Ling' would get so big." A lot of his raving fanatics are mortified. We've always dreamed of another big single for our hero--his last was "You Never Can Tell" in the Beatle summer of 1964--but "My Ding-a-Ling" has been embarrassing us at concerts for years, and not because we wouldn't sing along. It was juts dumb, inappropriate to the sophistication of his new, collegiate audience. Anyway, that's how the rationalization went.
Obviously, what we meant was that it wasn't sophisticated enough for us--his other stuff was so much better. But popularity has changed the song. I feel sure that it's delighting all the twelve-year-olds who get to figure out that they've snuck something dirty onto the AM radio--a rock and roll tradition that has been neglected since the concept of dirty became so passť--because I'm fairly delighted myself. Believe me, twenty-one thousand rock and roll revivalists filling Madison Square Garden to shout along with a fourth-grade wee-wee joke constitutes a cultural event as impressive as it is odd, a magnificent and entirely apposite triumph in Chuck Berry's very own tradition. For Chuck Berry isn't merely the greatest of the rock and rollers, or rather, there's nothing mere about it. Unless we somehow recycle the concept of the great artist so that it supports Chuck Berry as well as it does Marcel Proust, we might as well trash it altogether.
As with Charlie Chaplin or Walt Kelly or the Beatles, Chuck Berry's greatness doesn't depend solely upon the profundity or originality of his oeuvre. In the traditional sense the body of his great work isn't exactly vast, comprising about three-dozen songs that synthesize two related traditions, blues and country-western. Although in some respects, Berry's rock and roll is simpler and more vulgar than either, his simplicity and vulgarity are defensible in the snootiest high-art terms. His case doesn't rest on such defenses, however. It would be perverse to argue that his songs are in themselves as rich as Remembrance of Things Past. Their richness is a function of their active relationship with an audience--a complex relationship that shifts for every perceiver every time a song enters a new context, club or album or radio or mass sing-along. Proust wrote about a dying subculture from a cork-lined room. Berry helped give life to a subculture, and both he and it change every time they confront each other.
Typically, this public artist is an obsessively private person who has been known to drive reporters from his own amusement park, and the sketches of his life overlap and contradict each other. The way I tell it--with a goodly assist from Michael Lydon--Berry was born into a middle-class colored family in St. Louis in 1926. He was so quick and ambitious that he both served three years in reform school on a robbery conviction and acquired a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology before taking a job on an auto assembly line to support a wife and kids. Yet his ambition persisted. By 1953 he was working as a beautician and leading a three-piece blues group on a regular weekend gig. His gimmick was to cut the blues with country-influenced humorous narrative songs. These were rare in black music, although Louis Jordan, a hero of Berry's, had been doing something vaguely similar in front of white audiences for years.
In 1955 Berry recorded two of his songs on a borrowed machine--"Wee Wee Hours," a blues that he and his pianist, Johnny Johnson, hoped to sell, and an adapted country tune called "Ida Red." He traveled to Chicago and met Muddy Waters, the uncle of the blues, who sent him on to Leonard Chess, of Chess Records. Chess liked "Wee Wee Hours" but flipped for "Ida Red," which was renamed "Maybellene," after a hair cream, and forwarded it to Alan Freed. Having mysteriously acquired 25 percent of the writer's credit, Freed played "Maybellene" quite a lot, and it became one of the first nationwide rock and roll hits.
At that time any fair-minded person would have judged this process exploitative and pecuniary. A blues musician comes to a blues label to promote a blues song--"It was `Wee Wee Hours' we was proud of, that was our music," says Johnny Johnson. But the owner of the label decides that he wants to push a novelty: "The big beat, cars, and young love. It was a trend and we jumped on it," Chess has said. He then trades away a quarter of the blues singer's creative sweat to the inventor of payola, who hypes it into commercial success and leaves the artist in a quandry. Does he stick with his art, thus forgoing the first real recognition he's ever had, or does he pander to popular taste?
The question is loaded, of course. "Ida Red" was Chuck Berry's music as much as "Wee Wee Hours," which in retrospect seems rather uninspired. In fact, maybe the integrity problem went the other way. Maybe Johnny was afraid that the innovations of "Ida Red"--country guitar lines adapted to blues-style picking, with the ceaseless legato of his own piano adding rhythmic excitement to the steady back-beat--were too far out to sell. What happened instead, of course, was that Berry's limited but brilliant vocabulary of guitar riffs quickly became the epitome of rock and roll. Ultimately, every great white guitar group of the early sixties imitated Berry's style, and Johnson's piano technique was almost as influential. In other words, it turned out that Berry and Johnson weren't basically bluesmen at all, and the audience knew it better than the musicians themselves. Leonard Chess simply functioned as music businessmen should, though only rarely do they combine enough courage and insight to pull it off, even once. He became a surrogate audience, picking up on new music and making sure that it received enough exposure for everyone else to pick up on it, too.
Obviously, Chuck Berry wasn't racked with doubt about artistic compromise. A good blues single usually sold around ten thousand copies, and a big rhythm-and-blues hit might go into the hundreds of thousands, but "Maybellene" probably moved a million, even if Chess never sponsored the audit to prove it. Berry had achieved a grip on the white audience and the solid musical and financial future it could promise, and remarkably, he had in no way diluted his genius to do so. On the contrary, that was his genius. He would never have fulfilled himself if he hadn't explored his relationship to the white world.
Berry was the first blues-based performer to successfully reclaim guitar tricks that country-western innovators had appropriated from black people and converted to their own uses twenty-five or fifty years before. By adding blues tone to some fast country runs and yoking them to a rhythm-and-blues beat, he created an instrumental style with biracial appeal. Alternating guitar chords augmented the beat while he sang in an insouciant tenor that, while recognizably Afro-American in accent, stayed clear of the melisma and blurred overtones of blues singing. His few detractors still complain about the repetitiveness of this style, but they miss the point. Repetition without tedium is the backbone of rock and roll, and the components of Berry's music were so durable that they still provoke instant excitement at concerts almost twenty years later. Anyway, the instrumental repetition was counterbalanced by unprecedented and virtually unduplicated verbal variety.
Chuck Berry is the greatest rock lyricist this side of Bob Dylan, and sometimes I prefer him to Dylan. Both communicate an abundance of the childlike delight in linguistic discovery that page poets are supposed to convey and too often don't, but Berry's most ambitious lyrics never seem pretentious or forced. True, his language is ersatz and barbaric, full of mispronounced foreignisms and advertising coinages, but then, so was Whitman's. Like Whitman, Berry is excessive because he is totally immersed in America--the America of Melville and the Edsel, burlesque and installment-plan funerals, pemmican and pomade. Unlike Whitman, though, he doesn't quite permit you to take him seriously--he can't really think it's pronounced "a la carty," can he? He is a little surreal. How else can a black man as sensitive as Chuck Berry respond to the affluence of white America?
In three of his next four singles Berry amplified the black half of his persona, the brown-eyed handsome man who always came up short in his quest for the small-time hedonism America promises everyone. By implication, Brown Eyes' sharp sense of life's nettlesome and even oppressive details provided a kind of salvation through humor, especially in "Too Much Monkey Business," a catalog of hassles that included work, school, and the Army. But only "Roll Over Beethoven," which introduced his other half, the rock and roller, achieved any real success among the white teen-agers to whom he was obliged to sing. Chuck got the message. His next release, "School Day," was another complaint song, but this time the complaints were specifically adolescent and were relieved by the direct action of the rock and roller. In fact, the song has been construed as a prophecy of the Free Speech Movement.
Although he scored lots of minor hits, Chuck Berry made only three additional Billboard top-ten singles in the fifties--"Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," and "Johnny B. Goode"--and every one of them ignored Brown Eyes for the assertive, optimistic, and somewhat simple-minded rock and roller. In a pattern common among popular artists, his truest and most personal work didn't flop, but it wasn't overwhelmingly popular, either. For such artists, the audience can be like a drug. A little of it is so good for them that they assume a a lot of it would be even better, but instead the big dose vitiates them, often so subtle that they don't notice it. For Chuck Berry, the craving for overwhelming popularity proved slightly dangerous. At the same time that he was enlivening his best songs with faintly Latin rhythms, which he was convinced were the coming thing, he was also writing silly exercises with titles like "Hey Pedro." But his pursuit of the market was also a rapprochement with his audience, with whom he seemed to have instinctive rapport, remarkable in a thirty-year-old black man. For there is also a sense in which the popular artist is a drug for the audience, and a doctor, too--he has to know how much of the vital essence at the core of himself he can administer at one time, and in what compound.
The reason Berry's rock and roller was capable of such insightful excursions into the teen psyche--"Sweet Little Sixteen," a celebration of everything lovely about fanhood, or "Almost Grown," a first-person expression of adolescent rebellion that sixties youthcult pundits should have studied some--was that he shared a crucial American value with Brown Eyes. That value was fun. Even among rock critics, who ought to know better, fun doesn't have much of a rep, so that they commiserate with someone like La Vern Baker, a second-rate blues and gospel singer who felt she was selling her soul every time she launched into a first-rate whoop of nonsense like "Jim Dandy" or "Bumble Bee." But fun was what teen revolt had to be about--inebriated affluence versus the hangover of the work ethic. It was the only practicable value in the Peter Pan utopia of the American dream. Because black music had always thrived on exuberance--not just the otherworldly transport of gospel, but the candidly physical good times of great pop blues singers, exemplified by Washboard Sam, who is most often dismissed as a lightweight by the heavy blues critics--it turned into the perfect vehicle for teen rebellion. Black musicians, however, had never been capable of optimism that was cultural as well as personal--those few who were, like Louis Armstrong, left themselves open to charges of tomming. Chuck Berry never tommed. The trouble he'd seen just made his sly, bad-boy voice and the splits and waddles of his stage show that much more credible.
Then, in late 1959, fun turned into trouble. Berry had imported a Spanish-speaking Apache prostitute he's picked up in Juarez to check hats in his St. Louis nightclub, and then fired her. She went to the police, and Berry was indicted under the Mann Act. After two trials, the first so blatantly racist that it was disallowed, he went to prison for two years. When he got out, in February of 1964, his marriage had ended, apparently a major tragedy for him. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had paid him such explicit and appropriate tribute that his career was probably in better shape after his jail term than before, but he couldn't capitalize. He had a few hits, possibly written before he went in, but the well was dry. Between 1965 and 1970 he didn't release one even passable new song, and he died as a recording artist.
In late 1966 Berry left Chess for a big advance from Mercury Records. Working alone with pickup bands, he still performed a great deal, mostly to make money for Berry Park, a recreation haven thirty miles from St. Louis. But he found that something had happened to his audience--it was getting older, with troubles of its own, and it dug blues. At auditoriums like the Fillmore, where he recorded a generally disappointing LP with the Steve Miller Blues Band, Chuck was more than willing to stretch out on a blues. One of his favorites was from Elmore James: "When things go wrong, wrong with you, it hurts me too."
In 1970 he went home to Chess Records, and suddenly his new audience called forth a miracle. Berry was a natural head--no drugs, no alcohol--and most of his attempts to cash in on freak talk had been abject failures. But "Tulane," one of his greatest story songs, was the perfect fantasy. It was about two dope dealers: "Tulane and Johnny opened a novelty shop/ Back under the counter was the cream of the crop." Johnny is nabbed by narcs, but Tulane, his girlfriend, escapes, and Johnny confidently predicts a fix. But there is a sequel. In "Have Mercy Judge," Johnny has been caught again, and this time he expects to be sent to "some stony mansion." Berry devotes the last stanza to Tulane, who is "too alive to live alone." The last line makes me wonder how he felt about his own wife when he went to prison: "Just tell her to live, and I'll forgive her, and even love her more when I come back home."
"Have Mercy Judge" is the first good blues Berry ever wrote, and like all his best work, it isn't quite traditional, utilizing an abc line structure instead of the standard aab. Where did it come from? Is it unreasonable to suspect that part of Berry had been a bluesman all along, and that this time, instead of going to his audience, his audience came to him and provided enough juice for one final masterwork? A year ago, the answer would have been Yes, and that's that. But now there is a new audience. Chances are that it isn't a good enough audience to inspire great work, and that Berry's vision, prophetic in the fifties, doesn't really speak to the reality of the seventies. "My Ding-a-Ling" is probably just one more novelty hit in a sated market. But all of us raving Chuck Berry fanatics will be keeping an eye on him, hoping for yet another miraculous surprise.
Newsday, Oct. 1972