Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Going for a Song

In 1955, Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" joined Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" to break radio's color barrier in a rock and roll dominated by Bill Haley and Pat Boone. "Johnny B. Goode" hung a myth on guitar tricks soon mastered by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones. Berry's masterpiece, "The Promised Land," was the definitive democracy song even before it was parsed as a secret history of the 1961 Freedom Rides. His "Rock and Roll Music" was why I called my first book Any Old Way You Choose It.

Chuck Berry is my favorite artist. I tried to profile him even before I became a rock critic. But I believe love trumps work and art, and so the Berry song that means most to me personally is less classic: the newlyweds chronicle "You Never Can Tell," laid down at Berry's first session after his first prison term, 15 November 1963, and purloined to anchor my own wedding tape in 1974. While it exploits Berry's old partner Johnnie Johnson, whose fleet blues piano strides with uncommon swagger here, "You Never Can Tell" is carried by a stripped-down horn section, two tenor saxophones that evoke Little Richard's Upsetters without replicating them; though the drummer is Berry regular Odie Payne, a Chicagoan, the groove has an apt New Orleans bump to it. But what's startling when you stop to think is that after a two-second intro there's no guitar. The Chuck Berry riff, that indelible signature, is missing. Instead, all that marks the song as Berry's is his equally distinctive but utterly inimitable voice--delivering a lyric that epitomizes his zest for American consumer goods and American vernacular.

Nik Cohn once declared "You Never Can Tell" Berry's "most perfect song," but when Cohn notes the "vicious sly cynicism" of Berry's vocal he's indulging his own cynicism. Maybe "Sweet Little Sixteen" was perv code; for sure there's frustration and complaint in "Too Much Monkey Business," "Come On," "Nadine." But on "You Never Can Tell" Berry smiles indulgently, his gritless, raceless drawl amused not at the foibles of his just-married teens but at how decisively "the young monsieur and madame"'s first year together swamps the doubts of their well-wishing elders: "'C'est la vie,' say the old folks, 'It goes to show you never can tell.'"

The pair tie the knot in a chapel, "furnish off" an apartment, find work (monsieur only), down "TV dinners and ginger ale," buy 700 45s, and when the time comes "go down to Orleans to celebrate their anniversary." They got married there--hence, that bump. Only note, please, that in real life nobody calls it just "Orleans," just as nobody furnishes "off" an apartment. Those turns of phrase aren't Americanese--they're scansion. Similarly, this happy marriage is an artistic construction, as mythic as Johnny B. Goode. Berry wrote it while doing time for transporting a minor across state lines. And then he stuck it on his glorious St. Louis to Liverpool album. There it shared a side with "Our Little Rendezvous," about a spaceship love nest. And "Little Marie," about a little girl phoning her departed dad. And the recommended obscurity "You Two," about two couples picnicking. And, yes, "The Promised Land."

The London Sunday Times, Nov. 11, 2006