Still Alive: Chuck Berry, America’s Poet Laureate
Yesterday I published my first Death Column, where I recapped some notable passings of the preceding month. Since it seems needlessly harsh to merely record the deaths of amazing people without a cushion to soften the blow, I will begin each month with a new feature called “Still Alive”, in which I will celebrate and contemplate the continued existence on the earth of a major human.
Chuck Berry’s legacy is so staggeringly huge that it’s difficult to even wrap our heads around it. He is known as the “father of rock and roll” and for once that kind of grandiose label is 100% accurate. All the materials for the creation of rock and roll were present before Chuck Berry arrived on the scene but a great intellect was needed to synthesize the elements and deliver them to the world with a concentrated impact. Chuck Berry provided that. Like his fellow Missourian Samuel Clemens, Berry’s words are irresistibly charming yet full of shadings and meaning. Dig beneath the surface of either man’s work and there is a flowing river there, a rolling continuum of our American ideals, values and skepticisms.
Berry is also a problematic figure. His best work was created over 45 years ago. In the meantime he has played thousands of reportedly sloppy, indifferent concerts with local pickup bands who never saw him before or after. He has been had some pretty rough scrapes with the law, some just, some apparently not, some absolutely horrifying. Reportedly he is a hard person to like. The materials created for the reissue DVD set of Taylor Hackford’s mostly triumphant 1987 concert documentary Hail Hail Rock & Roll paint a vivid picture of the world’s most difficult and trying collaborator, a man who renegotiates contracts at unfair times and even places a producer's life in jeopardy during a prison concert.
I think he is also the best lyricist to work in rock and soul music so far. Bob Dylan and Smokey Robinson are his chief peers, but Berry is the Poet Laureate of Rock Music, and he would make an excellent candidate for Poet Laureate of our nation, though his long record of demerits precludes it. Rock lyrics generally lose a lot on paper. Their often tortured rhymes and indifferent meter look pathetic when disconnected from their main power source, the driving backbeat. Berry’s lyrics should certainly never be read off a page if they can be heard in his voice, with his inimitable accompaniment, but the imagery, rhymes and rhythmic cadence are clever and bright enough to survive transplantation to the page.
Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B Goode
Who'd never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play a guitar just like a ringin' a bell.
He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack,
Go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track
Oh, the engineers would see him sitting in the shade
Strumming with the rhythm that the drivers made
People passing by they would stop and say
Oh my that little country boy could play.
It has the authority of folklore as it vividly records the excitement we feel and pride we take in our native son, this Johnny B. Goode who is of course presumed to be the demonic guitar shredder Berry himself.
Johnny B. Goode is no isolated example. His lyrics are always carefully considered. Berry invents the attitude and priorities of rock and roll in his words: cars, sex, dancing, resistance to authority, his earliest songs are odes of youth and high living in fields of milk and honey and jukeboxes. Later, after spending time in prison on a dubious, racially motivated morals charge he emerged with his first post-incarceration single Nadine, which depicts the poet trying to find and pin his muse after losing her.
I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back
And started walkin' toward a coffee colored Cadillac
I was pushin' through the crowd to get to where she's at
And I was campaign shouting like a Georgia Democrat.*
She moves around like a wayward summer breeze,
Go, driver, go, go on catch her if you please.
Moving through the traffic like a mounted cavalier.
Leaning out the taxi window trying to make her hear.
The ancient Greeks and Romans played hide-and-seek with the muses too.
Berry’s poetry and music will likely tell future generations more about who we really were than a good-sized library. He is the greatest figure rock and roll music has yet produced. He has shown us a way forward spiritually. He invented rock and roll.
Here he is, in his prime, performing You Can’t Catch Me in a cheap rock and roll exploitation movie. Though it is a lip synch clip, the moves and attitude are all there. Phil Spector once said that even if the Beatles wrote no songs, they would be nearly as popular due to their singing alone. You can see here that the same might be said of Berry. He would still be one of the 10 greatest rock and roll artists of all time even if he hadn't written a line. As it is, he is Moses. Nobody will catch him anytime soon, but generations will follow him.
*The phrase "Georgia Democrat" was modified to the nonsensical "southern diplomat" on the record, but when Berry sings the song live he restores the appellation.