There is a video of Chuck Berry performing ‘Johnny B. Goode’ on a French TV show in 1958 that contains one of those minuscule, random moments that sears itself in your mind for no obvious reason – a small miracle pairing of sight and sound that convinces you of music’s unique power and compels you forever.
In the middle of the extended guitar solo, Chuck crouches, staring intently at the band after they cut out abruptly, shaking his hips in time with his guitar’s low grunts for a full four bars. When the drums signal the rest to come back, he shakes his head wildly, his ordinarily neatly coiffed hair flying about as he stands up and continues his manic instrumental assault, a euphoric grin visible on his downcast face as he holds his guitar affectionately close and appears a little shy, if only for a moment. As the camera pans around we see a few audacious viewers defying the froideur of the rest of the seated crowd and spiritedly, if a bit awkwardly, clapping along, completely out of time. They may not know what the hell is going on, but they’re into it. The feeling the sequence gives is total exhilaration. It’s just one of those perfect moments.
Chuck Berry died this past Saturday, March 18th, fifty-nine years after that television appearance. When news of his passing broke, I was struck by a profound sorrow, that visceral pain you tell yourself you shouldn’t be feeling when a public figure dies but is, regardless, unavoidable. I let out a protracted moan in my empty apartment, no one to hear it but myself and possibly vexed neighbors, and stared at the headline for a long while before allowing myself to read further, perhaps awaiting some sort of retraction. It didn’t come, of course, and the feeling persisted.
But why? I was never a diehard Chuck Berry fan. Like countless post-60s kids, I was introduced to him backwards while in the throes of a late-high school Beatles obsession. While I enjoyed his music and that of the other primary Beatles influences like Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, of course, Elvis, I regarded it collectively as somewhat trivial. They laid the groundwork for rock and roll but could not or would not realize its true artistic potential, not like The Beatles or the Stones or Dylan or Hendrix.
And yet, I continued to feel completely gutted. Reason certainly didn’t dictate it. The man was 90 – a full life by any objective measure, and one doubtlessly made fuller by his personal achievements and contributions to culture. He died naturally. He completed work on a final album, his first in thirty-eight years, which will be released as planned later this year. He was able to perform almost until the very end, spending his final years playing regularly at the iconic Blueberry Hill in his hometown of St. Louis. I didn’t know him. I never saw him. His music was not a constant fixture in my life. Why was this so tragic? Why did it feel so personal?
To understand Chuck Berry, it’s important to understand context. Contrary to popular belief, his revolutionary sounds did not come from nowhere. And contrary to another popular belief, he was the first to humbly give credit to those who inspired him. You can pick up traces of his sound in Louis Jordan, Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the great Chicago bluesmen, country and western swingers, even jazz artists like Nat King Cole and Count Basie. The fusing of these disparate sounds gave a template of what rock and roll would actually be, but ask anyone at the time what that concoction would sound like – what it would feel like – and they’d toss up their hands.
The answer was, of course, ‘Maybellene.’
Taking inspiration from Bob Wills’ interpretation of American traditional song ‘Ida Red,’ Chuck lit the thing up with a breakneck, chugging country rhythm, frantic vocals and mercilessly overdriven guitar, his choppy double-stop riffs among the purest manifestations of gleefully unbridled energy ever committed to tape.
In the process, he also casually shattered racial distinctions in popular music, creating the inverse of Elvis’ ‘That’s All Right,’ but arguably the more significant of the two. A white man doing black music was a provocative but palatable anomaly in 1950s America; the opposite was a riskier bet by degrees. But greater risk means greater reward. In blurring the lines of race and creating truly inclusive and accessible popular music, Berry fashioned a microcosm of the form for the next half century, all within the guise of a country/blues romp about a car chase and an unfaithful girlfriend. It was his first hit and the beginning of a hot streak unrivalled in its impact on what would follow – the dawn of one of America’s greatest cultural exports.
‘Roll Over Beethoven’; ‘You Can’t Catch Me’; ‘Rock And Roll Music’; ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’; the epochal ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ We know these names and so many more because they form no less than the vocabulary of rock and roll, built from three chords, strong backbeats, fast tempos, shouted vocals and that iconic guitar. Chuck knew the market and after he found his winning formula saw little need to innovate further in terms of his signature sound.
But the most crucial aspect of his artistry, the one that set him furthest apart from his contemporaries as well as the one he is most often short-changed for, was his songwriting. Chuck Berry was and remains the poet laureate of teenage life, distilling the experience of youth down to so many brilliant couplets, perfecting a verbally dexterous, tumbling vocal delivery and inventing words with Shakespearean effortlessness (are “motorvating” and “botheration” in Merriam-Webster yet?). He spoke to the experience of the American teenager in language that was specific but universal and with a greater perceptiveness and understanding of that experience than any other writer, musical or literary.
In spite of that reputation, though, he never restricted himself to tales of youthful frustration and desire. ‘Down Bound Train’ depicts an alcoholic’s nightmarish vision of oblivion with frightening detail and intensity; ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ sneaks sly racial commentary into far-reaching pop; ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ begins conventionally but a twist ending reveals the narrator as a father trying desperately to reach his estranged daughter. His humor and innate gifts for meter and rhyme aside, the depth that Chuck Berry brought to popular music remains largely unappreciated, presaging The Beatles by years.
But most importantly, Chuck Berry understood the concept of rock and roll and its meaning to those who listened. The same youths he depicted in his songs, with their simple hopes and setbacks and possibilities, were the ones the music belonged to. He knew this, so he wrote about love, he wrote about cars, he wrote about school, he wrote about dancing, but transcending and uniting all of these, he wrote about defiance – he actually wrote about rock and roll music and embodied it in style and sound.
There may be no better document of frustration with mundane, day to day bullshit than ‘Too Much Monkey Business,’ with Chuck’s exasperated grunts after the verses saying more than some artists say in a career. When the police inevitably come knocking to break up the party in ‘Around And Around,’ the joint just keeps right on rocking. ‘Johnny B. Goode’ was groundbreaking in its assertion that one could overcome their lowly circumstances and achieve true, genuine greatness with a guitar and this music. Imagine the dreams that that song instilled.
For my money, though, “Roll over Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news” is and will remain rock’s definitive mission statement. That line is one of few completely perfect lines in all of recorded music and truly says it all. Let everything sacred get out of the way. It may sound crude, it may offend you, but this music is about change and it’s here for everyone. In the 1950s they called it rock and roll but the spirit that drove it has always been here – averse to conformity and ordinariness, questioning of and resistant to authority of any form, inspiring us to create, making us get up and dance and fight and drive fast and be in love and do anything with reckless, foolish passion. It has started revolutions and moved mountains. Chuck Berry arrived at the perfect historical moment, electric guitar in tow, and gave that spirit an entirely new voice and further reach than it could have ever otherwise known. We live in a world he helped shape and we’re all the better for it.
I listened to all the Chuck Berry albums I have after hearing the news, my somewhat limited collection consisting of ‘His Best, Volume 1,’ ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Rarities,’ and his debut, ‘After School Session.’ I turned the volume all the way up, enjoying that irreplaceable 50s grit that modern recording technologies have all but eliminated from music. I danced my ass off and sang along fervently (likely unnerving my neighbors further). I picked up my own guitar but quickly put it down, realizing I couldn’t possibly keep up. As I let myself soak up the joyful fury of the classic songs for the nth time, it dawned on me that no one has come closer to the essence of rock and roll than Chuck Berry and no one possibly could, and that’s why his loss is so sad.
Losing Chuck feels like losing an entire genre, an entire way of thought. I feel it personally and on behalf of every other musician I’ve ever loved because none of them could have been what they were without him. Most wouldn’t even exist. He was more than an inspiration; he was an origin. His disciples helped the music grow up, perhaps, but his music suggests that in its juvenility, rock and roll had already assumed its purest, most perfect form.
There will not be another Chuck Berry – there cannot be another Chuck Berry. But that’s as beautiful a truth as it is a sad one. In his unassuming way, he personified revolution and became a true American visionary. Every great change in music since his time rides the waves that he set in motion, and they will remain in motion forever, awaiting who or whatever comes next.
It’s all there in that clip from the French TV show. Chuck and his band in the center of a visually imposing ring of dressed-up high-class purveyors of all that is beautiful and fine and acceptable in culture – the old guard, mostly frozen in their seats, faced with a performer of unprecedented physicality, crassness and aggression with seemingly no inhibitions. But midway through his first song some start clapping and we see that the cracks had already started to form.