Like a fresh-baked pumpkin pie out of the oven, some things need to set before they can be properly served. Charles Edward Anderson Berry died in March of 2017. We all knew him better as Chuck Berry, and his end came at the ripe-old age of ninety years. That is a longevity I wish to all of you who are reading this. As one who has lived through over half of those 90 years, I can assuredly say that I have breathed the exact air Chuck once did. His oxygen and carbon dioxide are in my bloodstream. More profound is the knowledge that I have lived in a world that Chuck helped to shape. Have you ever once been mesmerized by a rock ‘n’ roll beat while cruising in an automobile? If so, then you too have been molded by the art of Chuck Berry.
Chuck created a music that was powerfully virile. Think upon the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones, three groups he sired. Then dote upon his children’s children, amongst whom are Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bruce Springsteen, and the Sex Pistols. There’s more of course. His influence on others can become subtle to detect (Nirvana, Black Keys, or Jack White anyone?). Call it the Six Degrees of Chuck Berry, if you will. The fact is that Chuck’s riffy guitar picking and genius songwriting had as great an influence in rock ‘n’ roll as anyone. Once upon a time, kiddies, rock ‘n’ roll was the leading cultural form of expression in America. Since Chuck was one of the originators’ his sway was even greater. None of this should be revelatory in the least to even the most carefree of connoisseurs.
Partly an overdue epitaph, this piece is also heartfelt homage. Chuck’s music moved me. It moved millions. It was that good. Still, I wonder. 60 plus years after Chuck got it motorvating can there be a future where folks will listen to his mighty music? Or will his 4/4 oeuvre only find its way to the listening populace through a television ad or a stray one-off on someone’s shuffle list? And might the only response to hearing a Chuck Berry tune be akin to that of seeing your dad’s great uncle at a family reunion? Even as Al Jolson’s fame has withered over a century, will Chuck’s songs fail to exist in the collective consciousness in as little forward time as 50, let alone 100, years? I calculate that I will not be around in person to find this answer out. Nor, will many of you, my dear readers.
Over the years, I’ve surveyed youngsters on their listening habits. They’ve informed me, unconditionally, that they love listening to music on their devices and whatnots. But this screen generation is – how shall I put it? – oftentimes superficial. Does this generation really listen to music, or is it merely playing in the background to soothe moments of quiet that could upset their 15-second-attention span? Have earbuds and blue-tooth mini-speakers become the delivery system for a quasi-real-life movie soundtrack over a vacuous existence? How many members of this lonely generation ever choose to sit lonely in a room and kick out the jams, motherfucker?
Those are a lot of questions, and here is one more: Can those ubiquitous earbuds really impart the sonic force that good ole rock and roll enjoys through a pair three-foot-high floor speakers? That’s the ideal setup, one that really kicks out Chuck’s jams. Dig the metal gui-tar clatter! Buckle up for the drum kick! Let the street poetry spin in your imagination! Yaaawp!
I won’t say that Chuck’s days were better than these. I will say, un-hyperbolic-ally, that his music is better than 99% of what is on the 5G network today. Hell, it was, un-hyperbolic-ally, better than 99% of what was on the airwaves back in the ‘50s. Yet, I know that those days – Chuck’s and mine – are never coming back. Time is a guaranteer that the next generation will be unique from the previous one. Pitifully, recorded music has become as archaic as cash. Does anyone own a physical piece of music – a 78, 45, 33, 8-track, cassette, cd – anymore? Not really, right? Music used to be an investment of time and money. The Newtonian Law declared that with the purchase of an lp record, an opposite reaction occurred. That opposing result was that another lp was left unmoved in the bin to collect dust. In Chuck’s day, you couldn’t listen to everything you wanted to, whenever you wanted to. You had to own the music. Hence, there generally was a certain reason you invested in a piece of music. The laws of lust and finance created a natural selection process. This manner of musical managing had its downsides, of course. For instance, I might not be up to paying the $40 for the new Stones’, Lonesome and Blue, vinyl. Instead, I might decide that it would be more special to buy the new albums from Wussy and Boz Scaggs for a similar cost. (Editor’s note: It was a way better deal.) This careful investment in music then led to a further adventure: The adventure of uncovering all the wonderful subtleties and musical whomps in that record. I believe today’s disposable society, with its disposable music, has stunted many an adventure. Today, we expect our music to always be present in the chaos of our lives. A subscription fee is paid – and Voila! – all music is a tap away.
Or: When nothing is special then everything is the same.
A frequent complaint of Chuck’s music is that it is similar, making it hard to differentiate one song from the next. Let’s be upfront, it was seemingly repetitive. The brew that Chuck made true was concocted with twin guitars, piano, upright bass, and a set of drums. This template was maddingly straightforward. It was also a highly disciplined personal approach that he stuck with for his entire career, and the potent cocktail he mixed seemed so replicate-able. So much so, that thousands of musicians formed groups to create their own music using the same Chuck Berry template. The result was psychotic frustration for nearly all of these well-meaning bands. That these musicians could readily create an approximation of the sound was a given; all but the trickiest parts of the guitar licks and solos could be quickly brought about by a hootenanny of adept players. Yet, the real and ever-lasting magic of Chuck’s tunes escaped through their fingers like quicksilver. If only by having a recipe we could make art of the highest magnitude.
Rock and roll, at its highest level, is an art, and is the farthest thing from formulas and science. Emotion and exuberance are required. The best always has bounteous heapings of creativity and commitment. At the dawn of rock and roll, Chuck was one of the very few (maybe six) who wrote both the music and lyrics. So, Chuck’s tunes are always his own. Despite his “formula”, Chuck’s music was more closely aligned to alchemy than templates. In his greatest records – and there are many – Chuck commanded you to dig the metallic gui-tar ch-ime, set against the rolling piano riffs, and huge backbeat. (Never underestimate the quality of Chuck’s sidemen. Wizards in their own way: Johnny Johnson, Lafayette Leake, Fred Belew, and Willie Dixon.) On top of it, Chuck Berry’s wry singing masked the hard, off-hand brilliance of the lyric and writer. On record, Chuck was part Merlin, T-Bone Walker, and Albert Einstein, with Herman Melville, Bill Robinson, and Mark Twain flowing in his arteries.
Through multiple generations (unto his final 2017 album) and across the proverbial finish line, Chuck Berry stayed true to his musical recipe. A great many of his tunes are the rock ‘n’ roll gospel. Amen. Johnny B. Goode from 1958, Chuck’s signature tune, is incontrovertibly one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll hosannahs of them all. It is the obvious Chuck song, and one that we have all heard many times. It is so ubiquitously good that you may have forgotton that it has left our solar system. Here’s the story: In 1977, the song was included in a collection of sounds from Earth aboard two Voyager spacecraft that departed from Cape Canaveral. Both of these spacecraft, launched by NASA, are now far outside of our solar system. Over 10 billion miles distant and still speeding along at about 35,000 miles-an-hour.
Perhaps, in a million years or two, after traveling vast expanses of space, the Voyager spacecraft will be discovered by an alien race in a far, far away galaxy. The notation written on the exterior of the capsule is from former President Jimmy Carter. It will be easily translated by an evolved life form. Carter’s words are invitingly humble: “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.”
Now, excitement mounts in dreaded anticipation of revealment. Although implausible, the possibility that there may be sentient beings of even greater intelligent design than themselves in the multiiverse has disrupted the aliens’ belief system. Even so, their team of scientists and engineers race to assemble a listening device (or turntable, in our parlance). In no time they have a record player that Sony would envy (these cats are smart). The gold-plated record is carefully extricated from the Voyager spacecraft. It can now reveal its aural contents to this distant race. Expectations across their globe are at a fever-pitch. Those aliens not lucky enough to be in attendance at the 1,000,000-plus-seat coliseum are viewing from home on their iPads (the Apple corporation is everywhere). Best of all, huge speaker stacks have been erected to relay the human sounds to the crowd.
The throng is still. Each of them, with their overly developed sense of hearing, captures the sound of the needle as it drops into the groove on the platter. The canonical might of Mozart, and Bach, and Stravinsky ensue. Impressed? These beings are not. The same throng is mildly – to say the least – un-wowed. Heavy breathing and seat-shifting would be an aptly fitting description. In fact, these four-eared, super-intelligent creatures are having great difficulty keeping their five eyes open. The sounds of Louis Armstrong and Blind Willie Johnson stir some of the assembled. But then a second helping of Bach’s canon is next. The heaviness of Beethoven follows. Disappointment and ennui set in. The aliens have heard all this before on their own planet. Unbeknownst to us, they too have elevators.
And then: KABOOM! It’s Chuck Berry’s iconic, Johnny B. Goode intro. Earthlings, you know this one. It’s got that metallic gui-tar ch-ime, set against the rolling piano riffs, and huge backbeat. Out of the speaker stacks the sound is fittingly huuuuge. The foreigners look from side to side in fear…and wonder. And though they have never danced, they start boogalooing on their three gangly limbs. Marriage proposals are exchanged. Babies are conceived. Powerful mojo has been cast across the universe and the creatures are transfigured. Earthlings, we know what hit ‘em in the earhole. Earthlings, we know what punched ‘em in the gut. It’s just that after 60-some years we’ve grown so accustomed to this song, that while we were bobbing on the surface, we forgot how deep was the ocean. Not only does Chuck rap the first 59 words of Johnny B. Goode in less than 17 seconds flat – like we knew he would – Chuck Berry has survived his time and now lives in another.