Many of the tributes to Chuck Berry’s life, times, and work in the wake of his recent death at the age of 90 have had difficulties dealing with the complexities of his legacy. We've placed him in the Mount Rushmore pantheon of rock 'n' roll architects, alongside Fats Domino and Little Richard, all witnesses of the mid-'50s when the “race” music of R&B mixed with country and became rock 'n' roll. Berry was the singer/songwriter originator, trailblazer, the DNA source from which all great rock songs were born in the '60s. Without him there would be no Beach Boys “Surfin’ USA”, no raging John Lennon vocals in the Beatles’ cover of “Rock and Roll Music”, no Bob Dylan torrent of wordplay in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (a hipster’s re-write of “Too Much Monkey Business”), and absolutely no Keith Richards, who noted on Twitter at the passing of Berry, “One of my big lights has gone out.”
There's no need to legitimize Berry’s bona fides, and there will be no excusing here of his personal indiscretions. He blazed like a demon for at least ten years after “Maybellene”, his 1955 debut single. These songs were driving, propelled three chords, and dream tributes to girls gone bad, chases after dream girls, odes to teen troubles like “School Days” and “No Particular Place to Go”. Certainly in retrospect we can look at a 31-year-old man writing and recording “Sweet Little Sixteen” in 1958 and cringe at the implications, but it’s less a song about going after the teen in question than a salute to a rock 'n' roll fangirl (“Her wallet’s filled with pictures / she gets them one by one…”) She comes to life every weekend when she’s at the rock 'n' roll shows, but come Monday morning she’s back in school again.
A mix of legal issues, racism, and changing cultural tastes meant that by the mid-'60s Berry would become a legacy act, still writing and releasing new records but really making his living as a touring artist. That his only #1 song came in 1972 with the execrable “My Ding-a ling” was not the only stain on his legacy. A Mann Act conviction (transporting an underage 14-year-old girl across state lines for the purposes of prostitution) meant a 20-month stint (February 1962-October 1963) in jail. He also spent three months in jail in 1979 for tax evasion, and a late '80s class action lawsuit filed by over 50 women who claimed he’d installed cameras in the women’s room in several of his restaurants was settled out of court. Details regarding all these cases make it difficult to separate the man’s poor impulse control from the pure joy of the man’s recorded output. How do we deal with what can diplomatically be called complexities and realistically called predatory actions and abuse of celebrity status?
In his 2003 book All Shook Up: How Rock and Roll Changed America, writer Glenn C. Altschuler examined Berry’s Mann Act conviction and effectively concluded that race was an unavoidable impediment to justice. “Chuck Berry was a sexual threat and a target of opponents of the civil rights movement as well as foes of rock and roll.” The girl in question was a prostitute, Berry was touring Mexico and the American Southwest and had the audacity of opening a nightclub in a mainly white section of town. Had all these factors not been in play, and had Berry been a white man, he most surely would not have been convicted. This is hardly about excusing actions, but it’s important to put things in their proper context in early '60s southern United States.
Think about this: how would Berry be considered had he died in 1968, at 42, just like Elvis Presley? Neil Young posed a variation of this idea in 1979: “It’s better to burn out / than it is to rust.” Elvis’ tailspin was probably five years before his 1977 death, so an argument could be made that this self-anointed “King” slipped away long before his death. There was no such fate for Berry who, in his 1987 memoir Chuck Berry: The Autobiography seemed to see his motivation as a performer back in the early '50s as a black man bridging the world of the white fans and his own culture, that is; “code-switching” a half century before that term ever took hold:
Listening to my idol Nat Cole prompted me to sing sentimental songs with distinct diction. The songs of Muddy Waters impelled me to deliver the down home blues in the language they came from, Negro dialect. When I played hillbilly songs, I stressed my diction so that it was harder and whiter… it was my intention to hold both the black and white clientele by voicing the different kinds of songs in their customary tongues.
In effect, Berry was not only the true king of rock 'n' roll, the architect and originator, but he was also a cultural anthropologist. He understood the world of the rock 'n' roll music he had created, where literal division lines between white and black audience members were torn down once they surrendered to the rhythm. Berry’s autobiography is cringe-inducing when he recounts scores of female conquests and paints many of the women as people just looking for an angle. It’s golden, though, when he writes about the origins of the songs. Here’s what he had to say about “Johnny B. Goode”:
The gateway from freedom, I was led to understand, was somewhere close to New Orleans, where most Africans were sorted through and sold. I had driven through New Orleans while on tour and I’d been told my great grandfather lived ‘way back up in the evergreens.'
If Berry was about anything, beyond rock 'n' roll and personal sexual indiscretions at points in his life that are hard to ignore, he was about the promise of America, the promise of your place in the world, a dream that might have been deferred for his people then and now, but a dream that was always in reach. Take this opening line from “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”: “Arrested on charges of unemployment.”
The hero is a stranger in his own land and he drifts through history. He starts the song pleading his case on the witness stand and ending it by winning a baseball game. In the middle, Berry takes us back 3,000 years to assure us “There’s been a whole lot of good women shed a tear / for a brown-eyed handsome man”. Venus DeMilo becomes “Milo Venus was a beautiful lass / She had the world in the palm of her hand / But she lost both her arms in a wrestling match / To get a brown-eyed handsome man”. It’s a remarkable song for 1956 and equally potent today. “The audience was primarily filled with Hispanics and ‘us’,” he wrote of the inspiration behind the song. “But then I did see unbelievable harmony among the mix.”
With 1959’s “Back in the USA”, Berry revels in the ecstasy of what this nation has to offer.
New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, the cities spill out in the second verse. He missed the skyscrapers, freeways, “From the coast of California / To the shores of the Delaware Bay”. Free from identity politics, this is still a song about freedom that race may deny him. Not even the regular horror of the pre-Civil Rights era in the United States can dissolve this beautiful, joyous, celebratory song. Berry was simply expanding on the sentiments of poet Langston Hughes’s “I too”: “I, Too, sing America.” No matter what you want to do to me, they're saying, this is my land as well as yours.
There’s a similar feeling of exaltation and joy in Berry’s “Promised Land”, written during his 1962-1963 jail sentence. Like any great folk artist (and Berry borrowed as much as the acoustic balladeers), the song takes its melody from “Wabash Cannonball”. In a little over two minutes, our hero goes from Norfolk, Virginia to California via Greyhound Bus, train, and finally a jet airliner. “Swing low sweet chariot, come down easy” he asks, like a prayer, "Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin.’”
The American story has always been about journeys, trips, movement from one place to another. At the deepest core of our spirit is the urge for going. We came here, conquered, spread ourselves from small New England villages and headed out west to a wondrous golden valley, and we are still moving. Berry understood that. In September 1977, his classic “Johnny B. Goode” was included on a Gold Disc that journeyed with the Voyager I and II space probe into the dark, infinite unknown of outer space. The audio sections of the disc included greetings in 55 languages, a Brandenburg Concerto, Senegalese percussion and Peruvian panpipes and drums. Contributions from the United States included blues from Blind Willie Johnson, jazz from Louis Armstrong, and Chuck Berry’s prototype rock masterpiece about a guy who could play like a ring and a bell
“We cast this message into the cosmos,” President Jimmy Carter wrote in a 29 July 1977 statement accompanying the Voyager:
This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday… to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.
Go, Johnny! Go!