Friday, October 12, 2018


Rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry passed away at age 90 on March 18 and left a long, permanent shadow that falls over those who took up the guitar after him. It's a thick, rich shade from which precious few rockers manage to completely extract themselves. He created the language and vocabulary of rock ‘n’ roll, both as a musician and songwriter. His body of work, truly, is the Gold Standard against which all others are judged. The foundation he was the (unintentional) architect of is broad, pervasive, an idiom at once unique yet familiar, simple yet subtle, a kind of music that could be adapted in any number of ways and continue to be renewed with each new visionary. We plugged in a guitar and wrote a lyric of joy and confusion.

He is, I think, to rock and roll what literary critic Harold Bloom claims for Shakespeare, the originating standard of genius by which all other artists in the arena are held to. What we have in Chuck Berry’s body of work is a collection of songs that achieve that elusive blend of styles in precisely the right proportions. His songs sold millions; they spoke to audiences across racial lines; and his rock ‘n’ roll changed the way we engaged the world. It rocked. Berry essentially created rock ‘n’ roll, as we think of it. A sharp sense of the ‘40s swing, the charge of a rhythm and blues beat, and a guitar style combining a bittersweet sting of blues and the spritely twang clarity of Nashville-style guitar. Berry listened widely, taking in the grit of the blues and the earnest sincerity of country and western storytelling. The swing of R&B, charging it up with country-accented guitar lines, and perfecting a limited but resolutely brilliant set of guitar licks that redefined how the instrument came to be played. It’s been argued that Berry was the most important guitarist rock ‘n’ roll has ever known; one can, in my view, be a jazz guitarist, although one might not have bothered to listen to or learn Joe Pass or Charlie Christian licks. If a player decides to forgo Chuck Berry’s sublime and simple genius and focus rather on the knee-jerk hi-jinx of shredding, one relinquishes the right to be called a rock ‘n’ roll guitarist. If you can’t play Chuck Berry, you can’t rock. It’s that simple an equation. His solos are the best models of economy, with their double-stopped bends and twangy fills, all buoyant with a crucial sense of swing. Decades of convoluted solos, once the example of what to do on the frets, have been swept to the curb, ashes of former glory, while Berry’s fret inventions are still with us, a part of American memory. Knowing Chuck Berry’s sound, feel, and off-hand playfulness is a metaphysical necessity for the rocker; it is less a style to master than a lifestyle, a way of honing your wits and working your way through the tragic subjects life awards us with.

And then there’s his particular genius as a lyricist. He was, as John Lennon proclaimed in the seventies, the original and greatest rock ‘n’ roll poet. Not a philosopher, neither gloomy nor introspective, Berry had the genius to appeal to mostly white teenagers growing up in the ’50s. He was a black man with a talent for telling stories that, while hardly meditating on the Dark Night of the Soul, took on experiences and issues that were critical to young people. Dating, school, part-time jobs, homework, cars, dealing with loneliness, trying to fit into a world they didn’t make—Berry presented a splendidly idealized world of teens trying to make sense of the world as they endeavored to find their path through it. What was profound was Berry’s skill—his literal mastery of conveying the scenarios without prejudice or pretentious language. His diction was flawless, his word choice splendid; he preferred ordinary words used in interesting ways, coming up with rhymes and resolutions that were both surprising and credible. His persona was that of the young man on the move, a traveler from place to place, town to big city, nation to nation, searching for pleasures and joy, an innocent hedonist of a sort, who takes the promise that the country in which he lives is dedicated to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Avoiding the marsh of clichés, platitudes, and inept phrase-making about American exceptionalism, Berry's True Believer hacks through the verbal foliage and offers up an American where everyone gets a seat at the lunch counter and has money for the jukebox:

Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today.
We just touched down on an international runway.
Jet-propelled back home from overseas to the USA
New York, Los Angeles
Oh, how I yearn for you.
Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, and Baton Rouge
God, I long to be at home back in old St. Louis.

Did I miss the skyscrapers?
Did I miss the long freeway?
From the coast of California
To the shores of the Delaware Bay
You can bet your life I did.
until I got back to the USA.

Looking hard for a drive-in
Searching for a corner café
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
Yeah, and the jukebox was jumping with records back in the USA.
I'm so glad I'm living in the USA.
Yes, I'm so glad I'm living in the USA.
Anything you want, we've got it right here in the USA.

Ah, we're so glad we're living in the USA.
Yes, we're so glad we're living in the USA.
Anything you want, we've got it right here in the USA....
Back in the USA" by Chuck Berry

What makes America great? Chuck Berry isn’t waxing poetic about the morose verities of Patriotism or the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Berry, In fact, does not concern himself with any idea regarding America as a historical force; he does not tip a hat or allude to an assumed consensus view that his nation and its traditions were an inevitable consequence of unstoppable millennial forces. He had an idea to project, a narrator to create, a credible voice to fashion, and a voice to speak of an America that might be recognizable on most citizens radars. Berry’s America was an America as one all-encompassing present, where the details of revolutions, world wars, and struggles for worker and minority rights were irrelevant, if they existed at all; this wasn’t a country where a seeker like Berry’s cheery Everyman had to genuflect to the flag and statues of dead white men; this was a place of many constant and permanent marvels. Skyscrapers, long highways, California coastlines, 24 hour diners where burgers are always frying on the grill—this was America as an Ideal Type that never closes, where the explaining ideology of what America was supposed to become was reversed and were now descriptions of a Nation that had fulfilled its promise to its citizens, new and old.

Berry won't discuss God's plan for the nation in the course of human events and isn't much concerned with destiny, ethics, or the brick and mortar of building political consensus. Berry was visionary, no less than Blake, Yeats, or Whitman, and what he envisioned was an America that kept its promise of allowing an Everyman like himself (and every person) to engage in Life, liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. It's a Utopian, yes, simply expressed, but within Berry's lyrics is uncommon eloquence that brings up the idea of what the soul of a nation requires. Fewer sermons and more life; fewer lectures and more laughs; less anger and sadness and more joy. Berry's hero was a man who wanted to have fun and sing about it too.

Berry created the rock ‘n’ roll songwriter as we currently understand it—the participant of events giving hot-take impressions or a narrator framing a story of the daily frustrations, habits, and quests of young Americans looking for both the meaning of life and fun. His language was colloquial, slangy, and full of advertising coinages and mispronounced foreignisms, place names, and an American hybrid of words consisting of short syllables drawn from telephone chatter to movie screen patter. His subject was the life and times of white teenagers, a simple terrain, but Berry’s treatment was rich, his language was subtle, his rhythmic accents were unexpected, and his rhymes were ingenious, surprising, and fresh, commanding our attention to the tale he framed and relayed like the master he was. The language was direct, emphatic, uncluttered, and devoid of decorative qualifiers. The words had immediacy and intimacy, an unforced statement of being, and rocked, swerved, and danced on the fast-motion rhythm of Berry’s fabled guitar chords.

Berry, in my opinion, the most important singer-songwriter musician to work in rock and roll, has described his songwriting style as geared for young white audiences. Berry was a man raised on the music of Ellington, Count Basie, and Louie Jordan, strictly old-school stuff, and who considered himself a contemporary of Muddy Waters, but he was also an entrepreneur as well as an artist. He was a working artist who rethought his brand and created something wholly new, a combination of rhythm and blues, country guitar phrasing, and certainly clear narratives that wittily, cleverly, and indelibly spoke to a collective experience that had not been previously served. It's another aspect of country music that Berry admired and was astute enough to bring into his own reconfiguration of culturally dispersed American musical styles, which was the beautifully compact, uncluttered storytelling of masters like Hank Williams.

Fittingly, another Williams, William Carlos Williams, warned against abstraction or attempts to make an image or a perception seem more extraordinary than they already were. Our senses already avail us of a universe infinitely astounding as it already is; attempts to link the detail, the object, and the fleeting sensation to the addled guesswork that passes for metaphysical investigation merely cloud the beautiful, powerful, and amazing. "The thing itself is its own adequate symbol," said Williams, an idea not lost on Berry. As with WCW, Berry practiced an idealized American idiom: colloquial yet uncluttered with a slang that would age badly, informal but articulate, and bristling with quick wit and clarity. I don't think that rock and roll as a form is played out by any means, as the occasional records I have a chance to review or a cursory scanning of what new guitar throttling is available reveals hooks, riffs, lyrics, and licks that satisfy one's requirement that rock and roll be, somehow, dually dumb and refined without seeming as if the artist in question is breaking a sweat.

What Berry did was create a kind of songwriting that was artful even as it seemed artless. For his part, I would concur that Berry didn't have it in mind to cause a musical revolution that would be such a monumental influence on an astounding number of creators over an amazing number of decades. Clearly, his purpose was to write songs that could afford him a comfortable living or better, and with all the keen instincts of an entrepreneur willing to experiment with his product, he set out to create music that was unlike anything anyone had done before. He was one of those artists where you could discern influences both obvious and obscure—Duke Ellington, Basie, Louis Jordan, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, and other country artists—but, most incredibly, you were witness to how he transformed his materials into a distinct singularity. We've discussed some of the sub-textual matters that are rife in Chuck Berry's body of work, matters that critics given to close readings of texts can expand on and provide us with how deceptively simple this man's music, lyrics, and worldview are; there is more here than meets the ear. Berry had no message, of course, in transmitting secret meanings or in being vague, allusive, or otherwise conventionally "poetic" with his songs. But I do believe that the artist is not always aware of every submerged implication that their music might have. That is the aspect that makes this kind of music worth talking about when it's good enough to make you play it more than once over a set period of months, years, or decades.

He was Whitman with a rhythm section, a cogent Kerouac; he was Eliot with a backbeat. His long string of hits were tight, vibrant, concise masterpieces—ageless innovations that motivated later talents with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, John Fogarty, and Dylan. Speaking of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis remarked, without reservation, "You can’t play anything on modern trumpet that doesn’t come from him, not even modern shit." Decades later, John Lennon’s famous line comes to mind, no less on point: "If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry."

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