When aliens finally intercept one of the two Voyager spacecraft and decode the audio on their golden phonograph discs, their first and only exposure to Earthly rock’n’roll will be through Chuck Berry. Not Elvis, not the Beatles not Bowie. Chances are long after our sun has gone nova and destroyed the inner solar system, “Johnny B. Goode” will survive out in space until the heat death of the universe.
From Saturday Night Live, April 22, 1978:
Kreeg Antwoord (Dan Ackroyd): [ coughing ] You see, it all started on August 20th, 1977, when NASA put up a recording of the sounds of Earth on Voyager I. A two-hour long tape included, uh, natural sounds of animals, a French poem by Gaugliere, a passage from the Koran in Arabic, messages from President Carter, United Nations Secretary Kurt Waldheim, music — everything from classical to Chuck Berry.
Maxine Universe (Laraine Newman): Uh — and you’re saying that the, uh — another civilization has found the tape?
Cocuwa (Steve Martin): Yes. They’ve sent us a message that actually proves it. It may be just four simple words, but it is the FIRST positive proof that other intelligent beings inhabit the universe.
Maxine Universe: Uh — what are the four words, Cocuwa?
Cocuwa: The four words that came to us from outer space — the FOUR words that will appear on the cover of Time Magazine next week — are: [ he holds up the magazine” “Send More Chuck Berry”.
Makes sense to me.
In the 1950s, it was Chuck Berry and not Elvis, Bill Haley or anyone else that showed where popular music was going. Not only did he adapt the jump blues of people like Louis Jordan and figured out how to make rollickin’ R&B for the new-fangled electric guitar, he also wrote songs that dealt with his personal experiences. “Thirty Days” talked about his juvenile delinquency while “You Can’t Catch Me” was when he tried to outrun state troopers on the New Jersey turnpike. “Riding Along in My Automobile” was cruising “with no particular place to go” while “playing the radio.” Whether deliberately or not, his songs for young people were about young people.
His guitar stylings and his sense of rhythm was the foundation of pretty much all of rock’n’roll. Berry formed the crucial connective tissue between R&B and rockabilly and the rock that was to come. He was studied and copied by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and covered by The Beatles. The Rolling Stones considered him a role model with Keef adopting the roll protege. Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, the Beach Boys, Jimmy Page, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and even Judas Priest adored him. Ramones-inspired punk was in many ways a reactionary turn back to the days of Chuck Berry.
But Chuck was no saint. He was an actual punk in the original sense of the word. He had many run-ins with the law over the decades: stealing cars, robbery, tax evasion. There was his infamous 1960 conviction of taking Janice Escalante, a 14-year-old Native American hat check girl from Arizona, across state lines for the purposes of sex. Despite all kinds of holes in the prosecution’s case (not to mention an apparently racist judge and an all-white jury), he was fined $5,000 and sentenced to five years in prison. There were appeals but in the end, Berry ended up serving about 18 months.
In 1990, he was sued by several women who claimed they were spied upon in the bathroom of Berry’s restaurant, The Southern Air, in Wentzville, Missouri. While not denying he’d installed the camera, he claimed he was looking to catch an employee who was stealing. The case was settled by class action, with Berry reaching a deal with 59 women. Shortly after, a raid on his home found videotapes from the camera and some pot. The whole affair resulted in a six-month suspended sentence and an ordered donation of $5,000 to a local hospital.
Berry also gained a reputation as a real prick. Gigs had to be paid for in cash in advance. He was often ungrateful and vindictive. Sometimes he just phoned in performances with bands he didn’t even bother to rehearse. But because of his importance to music, people just shrugged, saying “That’s just the way Chuck is.”
Berry continued to perform throughout his entire life. In the 80s, he was still doing 100 nights a year. By the 2000s, his time on stage had been reduced to a regular monthly show at a restaurant called Blueberry Hill in his native St. Louis. When he turned 90 last year, he announced that he was going to release his first new album in 38 years sometime in 2017. The record, called Chuck, is done, but it has yet to be released.
In a May 2016 article in The New York Times Magazine, Chuck Klosterman posed this question: “Which rock star will historians of the future remember?” After debating the merits of Elvis, The Beatles and Dylan, he came to this conclusion:
Let’s assume all the individual components of rock shatter and dissolve, leaving behind a hazy residue that categorizes rock ’n’ roll as a collection of memorable tropes. If this transpires, historians will reconstitute the genre like a puzzle. They will look at those tropes as a suit and try to decide who fits that suit best. And that theoretical suit was tailored for Chuck Berry’s body.
Rock music is simple, direct, rhythm‑based music. Berry made simple, direct, rhythm‑based music.
Rock music is black music mainstreamed by white musicians, particularly white musicians from England. Berry is a black man who directly influenced Keith Richards and Jimmy Page.
Rock music is preoccupied with sex. Berry was a sex addict whose only American No. 1 single was about playing with his penis. [“My Ding-A-Ling,” 1972]
Rock music is lawless. Berry went to prison twice before he turned 40.
Rock music is tied to myth and legend (so much so that the decline of rock’s prominence coincides with the rise of the Internet and the destruction of anecdotal storytelling). Berry is the subject of multiple urban legends, several of which might actually be true and which often seem to involve cheapness, violence and sexual defecation.
“If you tried to give rock and roll another name,” John Lennon famously said, “you might call it Chuck Berry.” That quote is as close as we come to a full‑on Sousa scenario, where the person and the thing are ideologically interchangeable. Chuck Berry’s persona is the purest distillation of what we understand rock music to be. The songs he made are essential, but secondary to who he was and why he made them. He is the idea itself.
Chuck Berry was found unresponsive at his home in St. Louis today.
In his memoir, Life, Keith Richards wrote this: “The beautiful thing about Chuck Berry’s playing was it had such an effortless swing. None of this sweating and grinding away and grimacing… just pure, effortless swing, like a lion.”
BONUS: Chuck Berry reviews some of the people who followed him. (Via Tom)
BONUS BONUS: Here’s me on the CBC talking about Chuck’s legacy.