Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry is the greatest of the rock and rollers. Elvis competes with Frank Sinatra, Little Richard camps his way to self-negation, Fats Domino looks old, and Jerry Lee Lewis looks down his noble honker at all those who refuse to understand that Jerry Lee has chosen to become a great country singer. But for a fee--which went up markedly after the freak success of "My Ding-a-Ling," his first certified million-seller, in 1972, and has now diminished again--Chuck Berry will hop on a plane with his guitar and go play some rock and roll. He is the symbol of the music--the first man elected to a Rock Music Hall of Fame that exists thus far only in the projections of television profiteers; the man invited to come steal the show at the 1975 Grammys, although he has never been nominated for one himself, not even in the rock and roll or rhythm and blues categories. More important, he is also the music's substance--he taught George Harrison and Keith Richard to play guitar long before he met either, and his songs are still claimed as encores by everyone from folkies to heavy-metal kids. But Chuck Berry isn't merely the greatest of the rock and rollers, or rather, there's nothing mere about it. Say rather that unless we can 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 entirely on the greatness or originality of his oeuvre. The body of his top-quality work isn't exactly vast, comprising three or perhaps four dozen songs that synthesize two related traditions: blues, and country and western. Although in some respects Berry's rock and roll is simpler and more vulgar than either of its musical sources, its simplicity and vulgarity are defensible in the snootiest high-art terms--how about "instinctive minimalism" or "demotic voice"? But his case doesn't rest on such defenses. It would be as perverse to argue that his songs are in themselves as rich as, say, Remembrance of Things Past. Their richness is rather a function of their active relationship with an audience--a complex relationship that shifts every time a song enters a new context, club or album or radio or mass singalong. Where 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. Even "My Ding-a-Ling," a fourth-grade wee-wee joke that used to mortify true believers at college concerts, permitted a lot of 12-year-olds new insight into the moribund concept of "dirty" when it hit the airwaves; the song changed again when an oldies crowd became as children to shout along with Uncle Chuck the night he received his gold record at Madison Square Garden. And what happened to "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," never a hit among whites, when Berry sang it at interracial rock and roll concerts in Northern cities in the Fifties? How many black kids took "eyed" as code for "skinned"? How many whites? How did that make them feel about each other, and about the song? And did any of that change the song itself?

Berry's own intentions, of course, remain a mystery. 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, Berry was born into a lower middle-class colored family in St. Louis in 1926. He was so quick and ambitious that he both served time 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 speed and 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 the black music of the time, although they had been common enough before phonograph records crystallized the blues form, and 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, Johnnie 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," a hairdresser's dream, and forwarded to Allan Freed. Having mysteriously acquired one-third of the writer's credit with another DJ, Freed played "Maybellene" quite a lot, and it became one of the first nationwide rock 'n' 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 Johnnie Johnson--but the owner of the label decides 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. The owner then trades away a third of the blues singer's creative sweat to the symbol of payola, who hypes the novelty song 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 Johnson 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 backbeat--were too far out to sell. What happened instead was that Berry's limited but brilliant vocabulary of guitar riffs quickly came to epitomize rock 'n' 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. Through some magic combination of inspiration and cultural destiny, they had hit upon something more contemporary than blues, and a young audience, for whom the Depression was one more thing that bugged their parents, understood this better than the musicians themselves. Leonard Chess simply functioned as a music businessman should, though only rarely does one combine the courage and insight (and opportunity) to pull it off, even once. Chess 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 10,000 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 future it could promise, and, remarkably, he had in no way diluted his genius to do it. On the contrary, that was his genius. He would never have fulfilled himself if he hadn't explored his relationship to the white world--a relationship which was much different for him, an urban black man who was used to machines and had never known brutal poverty, than it was for, say, Muddy Waters.

Berry was the first blues-based performer to successfully reclaim guitar tricks that country and western innovators had appropriated from black people and adapted to their own uses 25 or 50 years before. By adding blues tone to some fast country runs, and yoking them to a rhythm and blues beat and some unembarrassed electrification, he created an instrumental style with biracial appeal. Alternating guitar chords augmented the beat while Berry sang in an insouciant tenor that, while recognizably Afro-American in accent, stayed clear of the melisma and blurred overtones of blues singing, both of which enter only at carefully premeditated moments. 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 proved so durable that they still provoke instant excitement at concerts durable that they still provoke instant excitement at concerts two decades later. And in any case, 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, unlike Dylan's, 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--an affluence suddenly his for the taking.

Chuck Berry is not only a little surreal but also a little schizy; even after he committed himself to rock 'n' roll story songs, relegating the bluesman in him to B sides and album fillers, he found his persona split in two. In three of the four singles that followed "Maybellene," he amplified the black half of his artistic personality, the brown-eyed handsome man who always came up short in his quest for the small-time hedonism American promises everyone. By implication, Brown Eyes' sharp sense of life's nettlesome and even oppressive details provided a kind of salvation by humor, especially in "Too Much Monkey Business," a catalog of hassles that included work, school and the army. But the white teenagers who were the only audience with the cultural experience to respond to Berry's art weren't buying this kind of salvation, not en masse. They wanted something more optimistic and more specific to themselves; of the four singles that followed "Maybellene," only "Roll Over Beethoven," which introduced Berry's other half, the rock 'n' roller, achieved any real success. Chuck got the message. His next release, "School Day," was another complaint song, but this time the complaints were explicitly adolescent and were relieved by the direct action of the rock 'n' roller. In fact, the song has been construed as a prophecy of the Free Speech Movement: "Close your books, get out of your seat/Down the halls and into the street."

It has become a cliché to attribute the rise of rock and roll to a new parallelism between white teenagers and black Americans; a common "alienation" and even "suffering" are often cited. As with most clichés, this one has its basis in fact--teenagers in the Fifties certainly showed an unprecedented consciousness of themselves as a circumscribed group, though how much that had to do with marketing refinements and how much with the Bomb remains unresolved. In any case, Chuck Berry's history points up the limits of this notion. For Berry was closer to white teenagers both economically (that reform school stint suggests a JD exploit, albeit combined with a racist judicial system) and in spirit (he shares his penchant for youthfulness with Satchel Paige but not Henry Aaron, with Leslie Fiedler but not Norman Podhoretz) than the average black man. And even at that, he had to make a conscious (not to say calculated) leap of the imagination to reach them, and sometimes fell short.

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 simpleminded rock 'n' 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 lot of it would be even better, but instead the big dose saps their autonomy, often so subtly 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." Nevertheless, his pursuit of the market also worked a communion with his audience, with whom he continued to have an instinctive rapport remarkable in a 30-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 his vital essence he can administer at one time, and in what compound.

The reason Berry's rock 'n' 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 basically unalianated first-person expression of teen rebellion that Sixties youth-cult pundits should have taken seriously--was that he shared a crucial American value with the humorous 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 LaVern 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 adolescent 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 like Washboard Sam, who is most often dismissed as a lightweight by the heavy blues critics--it turned into the perfect vehicle for generational convulsion. Black musicians, however, had rarely achieved an optimism that was cultural as well as personal--those few who did, 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, late in 1959, fun turned into trouble. Berry had imported a Spanish-speaking Apache prostitute he'd picked up in El Paso 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 1964, he and his wife had separated, 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--"Nadine" and "No Particular Place to Go" (John Lennon is one of the many who believe they were 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. The legends of his money woes at Chess are numerous, but apparently the Chess brothers knew how to record him--the stuff he produced himself for Mercury was terrible. Working alone with pickup bands, he still performed a great deal, mostly to make money for Berry Park, a recreation haven 30 miles from St. Louis. And as he toured, he found that something had happened to his old audience--it was getting older, with troubles of its own, and it dug blues. At auditoriums like the Fillmore, where he did a disappointing live 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."

By 1970, he was back home at Chess, 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 hippie talk had been embarrassments. 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 that she will buy off the judge. Apparently she does, for there is a sequel, a blues. 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 just 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."

Taken together, the two songs are Berry's peak, although Leonard Chess would no doubt have vetoed the vocal double-track on "Tulane" that blurs its impact a bit. Remarkably, "Have Mercy Judge" is the first important blues Berry ever wrote, and like all his best work it isn't quite traditional, utilizing an abc line structure instead of the usual aab. Where did it come from? Is it unreasonable to suspect that part of Berry really was a bluesman all along, and that this time, instead of him going to his audience, his audience came to him and provided the juice for one last masterpiece?

Berry's career would appear closed. He is a rock and roll monument at 50, a pleasing performer whose days of inspiration are over. Sometime in the next 30 years he will probably die, and while his songs have already stuck in the public memory a lot longer than Washboard Sam's, it's likely that most of them will fade away too. So is he, was he, will he be a great artist? It won't be we judging, but perhaps we can think of it this way. Maybe the true measure of his greatness was not whether his songs "lasted"--a term which as of now means persisted through centuries instead of decades--but that he was one of the ones to make us understand that the greatest thing about art is the way it happens between people. I am grateful for aesthetic artifacts, and I suspect that a few of Berry's songs, a few of his recordings, will live on in that way. I only hope that they prove too alive to live alone. If they do, and if by some mishap Berry's name itself is forgotten, that will nevertheless be an entirely apposite kind of triumph for him.

Discography

  • "Maybellene" (Chess 1604; * 5, r* 1, 1955).
  • "Thirty Days" (Chess 1610; r* 8, 1955).
  • "No Money Down" (Chess 1615; r* 11, 1956).
  • "Roll Over Beethoven" (Chess 1626; r* 7, *29, 1956).
  • "Too Much Monkey Business" b/w "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" (Chess 1635; r* 7, 1956).
  • "School Day" (Chess 1653; r* 1, *5, 1957).
  • "Oh Baby Doll" (Chess 1664; * 57, 1957).
  • "Rock and Roll Music" (Chess 1671; * 8, r* 6, 1957).
  • "Sweet Little Sixteen" (Chess 1683; r* 1, *2, 1958).
  • "Johnny B. Goode" (Chess 1691; r* 5, * 8, 1958).
  • "Carol" (Chess 1700; r* 12, * 18, 1958).
  • "Sweet Little Rock and Roll" (Chess 1709; r* 13, * 47, 1958).
  • "Anthony Boy" (Chess 1716; * 60, 1959).
  • "Almost Grown" (Chess 1722; r* 3, * 32, 1959).
  • "Back in the U.S.A." (Chess 1729; r* 16, * 37, 1959).
  • "Too Pooped to Pop" (Chess 1747; r* 18, * 42, 1960).
  • "Nadine" (Chess 1883; * 23, 1964).
  • "No Particular Place to Go" (Chess 1898; * 10, 1964).
  • "You Never Can Tell" (Chess 1906; * 14, 1964).
  • "Little Marie" (Chess 1912; * 54, 1964).
  • "Promised Land" (Chess 1916; * 41, 1964).
  • "My Ding-a-Ling" (Chess 2131; * 1, 1972).
  • "Reelin' and Rockin'" (Chess 2136; * 27, 1972).
(Chart positions compiled from Joel Whitburn's Record Research, based on Billboard Pop chart, unless otherwise indicated; r* = position on Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart.)

The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1976