Imagine, if you will, aliens, grey ones, with those big eyes, travelling through the universe and finding a capsule in the sky, representing the people from the planet Earth, a peaceful place (or so it looks from space). On the capsule, the aliens find a recording – it is “Johnny B. Goode”, the 1958 ur-narrative of rock music, Horatio Alger as channeled through the experience of Southern working class youth. “He never learned to read or write so well,” sings Chuck Berry, who died on Saturday at 90 years old, “but he could play his guitar just like-a-ringin’ a bell”. A sort of rock folk-tale, young Johnny can’t do much except play guitar. Perhaps he’d sit by the train tracks and strum along with the implicit music of a train chugging by, and the engineers would gather from near and far to hear this country boy play. Seeing this, poignantly, his mother reminds him that some day his name would be in lights, but as far as we know, he’s just playing for the engineers down by the tracks, quite likely “on the wrong side,” as they say.
As we sit and ponder our fates, socialism or barbarism or all that, no matter which we way go, Johnny will still be playing his hollow-bodied Gibson in a billion years. Like Johnny’s mama, NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Record Commission chose this song to be amongst those that would be representative of our species, and this was back in 1986, well before the days of unlimited data and 8 hour playlists.
Carl Sagan personally wrote a letter to Berry, thanking him for his service in “this world”, and there is something so appropriate and so materialist about Sagan’s sentiment here. Berry’s music in general, and this song among a few in particular, is where rock music became aware of itself as form – it became not just what disc jockeys and record shop-keepers labelled a hodge-podge of genres, it was when the basic form of a “rock aesthetic” first came into existence.
In “Rock & Roll Music,” over a rhythm equally Caribbean and Nashville, Berry basically explicates the form, the importance of the back beat (the drummer playing “on the twos”), and declares victory over modern jazz. “Roll over Beethoven” ups he ante even more, after a brash guitar riff, Berry throws shade at Ludwig Van, while celebrating the very existence of what he clearly seemed to aware that he’d invented, after all “if she’s got a dime, the music will never stop.” Rock music may not have been reducible to a commodity, but it was certainly a hot commodity, in a changing culture, starting to loosen its belt after years of McCarthyite conformism.
In many ways, rock music was initially a creature of radio, at a time in which a lot of what had been on radio for decades had migrated to the world of television, hence more space for music, and more powerful airwaves and better “Hi-Fi” receivers. DJs in big cities, Black, Jewish, Italian, Irish, working class, played a variety of styles, Hank Williams and then the Moonglows, followed by T-Bone Walker and then perhaps something from Cuba. It all seemed to make sense together in a configurational sense, and some artists, whether by osmosis or intent, absorbed all of these different forms, down to minute detail, like tube-amplification of hollow-bodied electric guitars, percussive upright bass, rhythm provided by a second guitar or piano and drummers with an ear for polyrhythms. Most of the founders, with the exception perhaps of Elvis Presley, a spectacularly talented vocalist who never understood his own art, were journeymen. Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, all performed for years before they suddenly were in Hollywood movies and on American Bandstand. These figures, from the Midwest and the south, black men and “hillbilly’” white men, were not the archetypal figures that grey-flannelled America wanted as models for their kids.
Of all of these founding fathers (and for better or worse, mostly fathers), Chuck Berry was probably the most influential in the broadest sense. No Chuck Berry? No punk rock, no doom metal, no intensive sonic development based on a 1/4/5 chord pattern. Just as the separation of the direct producers from the means of production set in motion the conditions of possibility for the primitive accumulation of capital and the development of the capitalist mode of production, Berry’s primitive accumulation of rhythm and blues, Chicago jump blues, country music, vaudeville and folk and whatever else hit the airwaves of St. Louis to create a form that transcended and preserved all of these forms. He was, in hindsight, the first truly serious rock music artist. Long a fixture at nightclubs in St. Louis, playing to interracial audiences, he signed to the legendary Chess Records in Chicago, home of the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Demoing a country song (Berry extensively performed what was then called “Hillbilly music”), he re-wrote “Ida Mae” as “Maybelline” and began a string of hits from the summer of 1955 onwards, gaining even broader attention with the aforementioned “Roll Over Beethoven” in the summer of 1956, often touring alongside of Carl Perkins, the originator of “Blue Suede Shoes”.
Keenly aware of being one of the few black artists, along with Little Richard, to have made the still mostly white “rock music” milieu, even early in his career, Berry wrote the slyly autobiographical “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” A series of good-humored doggerel was taken as Berry boasting of his appeal to non-black women, but to complicate things, none of the women referred to in the song are specifically referred to as white, and, in turn, the key verse has a young woman ruminating over whether to marry a “lawyer or a doctor.” Her mother tells her to marry someone like his own father, “a brown-eyed handsome man.” And indeed, as the lyrics travel, over Berry and pianist Johnnie Johnson’s floating shuffle, they move from the courthouse in an American city all the way to India and back, and then back in time – even Venus De Milo lost her arms fighting for a “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.”
It would seem that Berry is at once making an existential observation with implicit politics, like mid-sixties Dylan. Brown-eyed handsome men like him were still nothing but objects, whether sexual or otherwise, indeed the song ends with a “brown-eyed handsome man” hitting a home run.
Songs like this, or “No Particular Place to Go” or “You Never Can Tell” marked Berry apart from early rock music songwriters in that they were observational and impressionistic, not just words thrown together to fit the rhythm. It was for this reason, likely, that Berry retained such an iconic status, canonized by Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs, compared with Shakespeare by Bob Dylan, worshipped by John Lennon.
For better or worse, Berry was the original archetypal rock and roller, and he survived it all. There is no doubt that that from the beginning of his career, when he was charged with statutory rape and for the subsequent half century, Berry embodied the toxic masculinity as well as artistic adventurousness that constituted the “worse” of the rock aesthetic. Berry’s lawyers, going back to when he was originally charged, often pointed out that his lifestyle, such as it was, was no different from the many white musicians that he toured alongside – indeed Jerry Lee Lewis had married his pre-teen cousin! Berry may have done some heinous things, but there is no doubt that he was also subject to police repression as a successful black musician.
Yet there is often, whether for David Bowie or anyone else, a focus on artists’ terrible qualities when they die, as satirized in the Onion headline “Man Always Gets Little Rush Out Of Telling People John Lennon Beat Wife.” Berry’s art was historically specific, as was his behaviour, yet the targeting of black artists, by both the police and the public, for the same types of things that their white contemporaries were given passes is as important for us to keep in mind as the behavior itself. It is simplistic to say that art “transcends” this kind of behaviour, but it would be apropos to say that Berry was the bearer of the world in which he was thrust into and only partially understood, but perhaps better then most.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Berry had to keep touring or licensing his name to restaurants and theme parks to make a living. Berry was not in the game to make friends – when the Beach Boys re-wrote a number of Chuck Berry songs while not giving him songwriting credit, Berry pioneered rock and roll litigiousness. When Berry played for the hippies, he ran a tight ship and was a tough negotiator on his own and his band’s behalf. When filmmaker Taylor Bickford and Keith Richards put together an “all star tribute concert,” as were common in the 80s, to be filmed, Berry was notoriously surly, and a number of stories circulate about him and Keith Richards getting into fistfights.
The most important thing about Chuck Berry, beyond his catalog of songs is the fact that without him, more than any of his contemporaries, rock music as we know it would not have developed. Sonically speaking, as a guitarist, he invented a hybrid of rhythm and lead playing that was at once economical, even minimalist as it was original. To Bo Diddley’s invention of a sludgy sound that would beget heavy metal, Berry invented a sound and style of songwriting that not only gave rise, notably to Jagger/Richards and Lennon/McCartney, but perhaps even more so to proto-punk and punk music. Notably the same band, the MC5, that brought Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra-styled free-improvisation to rock music also extensively covered or modelled the basis of their songs on Chuck Berry’s songs. Of course, they were also explicit revolutionary socialists. There was something in Berry’s perfection of simple but sophisticated working class art that was as intrinsic component in moving towards an avant-garde perspective as was One Dimensional Man and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
There is no cult of Chuck Berry, there doesn’t need to be. Warts and all, he was the real deal. Life still is confusing when everyone is pursuit of a Brown Eyed Handsome Man.
Jordy Cummings is a critic, labor activist and PhD candidate at York University in Toronto, and a contributing editor at Red Wedge.