Monday, March 20, 2017

Brown-eyed handsome man:
Chuck Berry (1926-2017)

TO THE LIVING, we owe respect,” Voltaire once observed. “To the dead, we owe only the truth.” By that reasonable metric, the hole in our lives and the depth of the truth of our foundational cultural love are both exponentially bigger, wider today than they were before Saturday, before tragedy and poetry came at us from an unexpected angle, in a statement from the County Police Department of St. Charles, Missouri.

“St. Charles County police responded to a medical emergency on Buckner Road at approximately 12:40 p.m. today. Inside the home, first responders observed an unresponsive man and immediately administered lifesaving techniques. Unfortunately, the 90-year-old man could not be revived and was pronounced deceased at 1:26 p.m.

The St. Charles County Police Department sadly confirms the death of Charles Edward Anderson Berry Sr., better known as legendary musician Chuck Berry.

The family requests privacy during this time of bereavement.”

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A galaxy of kindred spirits and cultural co-conspirators appeared almost immediately. Alice Cooper tweeted that Berry was "the genesis behind the great sound of rock 'n' roll. All of us in rock have now lost our father," he said.

On Twitter, Mick Jagger weighed in, as we knew he would. “His lyrics shone above others & threw a strange light on the American dream. Chuck ... your music is engraved inside us forever.”

Jagger’s Rolling Stones fellow traveler Keith Richards spoke up too: “One of my big lights has gone out.”

@questlove said: “Thou Shall Have No Other Rock Gods Before Him.” And Huey Lewis tweeted a homage, saying straight-up that Berry was “Maybe the most important figure in all of rock and roll.”

Huey Lewis got it right. Chuck Berry wasn’t just present at the beginning. He was the beginning. Before Dylan, before the Beatles or the Stones, before Jagger or Hendrix, before Michael or Bowie or Prince ... there was Chuck.
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ALL DUE props, but there’s no way Dick Clark could possibly have been America’s oldest teenager. Clark lived and died by the musicians he could put on American Bandstand, including Chuck Berry, who appeared on Clark’s show (already a proven hitmaker) not long after its debut in 1957. Without that music, American Bandstand would have had nothing to stand on, would have had nothing to be. Chuck Berry was the oldest American teenager before Dick Clark ever put his music on TV.

Some of the obituaries from the mainstream media found elaborately deceptive ways to mischaracterize Berry’s role in the music, to somehow place him amid events that were already happening, like he was a man trying to catch a train that’d already left the station. “Journalists are getting it wrong,” Questlove tweeted. “#ChuckBerry didn’t help define or was part of the fabric: he literally was THE STANDARD of rock n roll.”

Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Ray Charles were the A, T, C and G of rock music’s DNA. Either by writing the songs (a genetic code of musical notes), or by synthesizing that code for presentation to a presumably wider and more palatable audience, those four men were generally indispensable to the music that is today so intertwined with our culture, our ethos, our world view.

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Elvis and Little Richard were as much or more popularizers of music by others as they were songwriters of their own, helping to bring that music into a broader exposure. Similarly, Ray Charles was a composer early in his career, but went on to ultimately become more an interpreter of the American songbook than a composer of the necessaries in that songbook, to any great degree.

Of this necessary quartet, Chuck Berry was the full package: a man with a spirited, dexterous, fiercely original guitar style; the ravenous self-confidence that typified the American ethos of the mid-50’s; the vision to blend country-western motifs with R&B; and a consistent command of songwriting: lean, smart, poetic, lashing, subversively topical, on point in ways that practically no one understood (or at least admitted to understanding).

He codified the swagger, the chords, the style, the sonic vocabulary, the social context of rock n’ roll. On Saturday, Bruce Springsteen called him “the greatest pure rock ’n’ roll writer who ever lived.” And he was.

And if you’ve played a guitar at any time in the last 60 years, you should get down on bended (and maybe arthritic) knee and give thanks. Without Chuck Berry, rock n’ roll does not exist. Full stop.

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CONSIDER ONE of Berry’s better songs, and one of his lesser-known songs, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” for a guide on how to speak to an audience no one was paying attention to. The song was a series of slice-of-life vignettes that all hinged on the presence of the character of the title as leitmotiv, as linchpin, as the catalyst no one saw coming.

Arrested on charges of unemployment,
he was sitting in the witness stand
The judge's wife called up the district attorney
Said you free that brown eyed man
You want your job you better free that brown eyed man.

Flying across the desert in a TWA,
I saw a woman walking across the sand
She been a walkin' thirty miles en route to Bombay
To get a brown-eyed handsome man
Her destination was a brown-eyed handsome man.

One lyric does it for me:

Two-three the count, nobody on,
He hits a high-fly into the stand.
Rounding third and heading for home
It was a brown-eyed handsome man
That won the game,
It was a brown-eyed handsome man.

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He could have been talking about anyone with brown eyes, but he wasn’t. When that song was released in 1956, it was just eight years after Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues. America was only months into the civil rights experiment started by a very young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. We were a decade away from the Black Power movement, generations away from #Black Lives Matter. But even then, Chuck was speaking to black America. It wasn’t code-switching, it was winking to a black American population that was about to go into the crucible: S’ all right. We’re gonna get through this. Just hold your head up. We’re winners. We’re everything we think we are.

That song was a subliminal anthem for black America. “Arrested on charges of unemployment”? Black people relate, then and now. The song’s an ode to empowerment that didn’t sound like an ode to anything. It celebrated our status as disrupters, as shit disturbers. As survivors.

That song remarked on the African American ability to be (borrowing a phrase from Reggie Jackson) one of the major straws stirring the American drink. It was never announced as such, and certainly not promoted that way in 1956. But it spoke to young black Americans like few things could, at a pivotal time in our history.

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CHUCK DIDN’T do that a lot. He didn’t have to. He was on point, he was of the moment even when he maybe didn’t realize. In the same song he speaks of “flying across the desert in a TWA.” That name-check is documentary, a marker of our time and our culture. “TWA.” Who did that then? Who does that today?

In the song “Run Rudolph Run,” his indelible Christmas chestnut, Berry catalogs the desires of children wishing for holiday presents according to the 50’s. In the song, Santa’s asked to “take the freeway down,” one of the very first weaves of a fixture of postwar industrial American life into a rock and roll anthem. One little girl in the song wants “a little baby doll that can cry, sleep, drink and wet” — a clever nod to the tail-finned consumerism just starting to rear its head in the 50’s. And so Santa makes haste, with Rudolph lighting the way, “whizzing like a Sabre jet.”

A Sabre jet? There are living Americans old enough to have been a part of that era who don’t even know what a Sabre jet was; that component of 1950’s-era American military technology is something that probably went over their heads, something they'd remember to forget. Not Chuck. The artifacts and everydays of our culture were part of what powered his best songs.

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“Sweet Little Sixteen” anticipated our ravenous celebrity culture, right down to the pursuit of autographs that typifies that culture today. “You Never Can Tell” (you know, the Jackrabbit Slim song on Pulp Fiction) glorifies the sweet dilemmas of a modern love story. In the seven(!) verses of “Too Much Monkey Business,” you’ll find a catalog of our conflicts with everyday life, as pertinent now as they were when the song came out in 1956.

And the protagonist of “Memphis” pleads with “long distance information,” trying to put a call through in an era way before the digital performance we take for granted today. In the song, covered by just about everyone, Berry presents one of the simplest, most evocative, most eloquent expressions of longing and the desire for human connection ever written:

Help me, information, more than that I cannot add
Only that I miss her and all the fun we had
But we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree
And tore apart our happy home in Memphis Tennessee.

Last time I saw Marie she's waving me good-bye
With hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye.
Marie is only six years old, information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee.

Chuck Berry achieved so much because he was of us, and his experience was of us. All of us. At once, his musical vision seemed to be fully-formed and ecumenical, and didn’t hinge on race or gender or other distinctions, even when he did, occasionally. Even when society happily let those distinctions come to bear on him. Constantly.

He paid a price for being so brashly self-assured. A lot of people had problems with that coming from him and people that looked like him. Being a brown-skinned brown-eyed handsome man had its risks and dangers in mid-century America. Just like it does today.

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PETER GURALNICK, writing in an October 2016 essay that Rolling Stone republished on Saturday, got close to the unknowable core of Chuck Berry:

“He is, like many of us, his own best advocate and his own worst enemy, but the particular problem for Chuck is that, for all of the accolades that have come his way ... to this day he has not been unambiguously embraced in the full artistic terms he deserves.

“There are undoubtedly a multiplicity of reasons for this (race would certainly have to be factored in), but the principal reason that Chuck has not been lifted up on a wave of critical and biographical hosannas is Chuck himself. His unwillingness to ingratiate himself. His unreadable apartness. The deep-seated sense of anger and suspicion that can unexpectedly flare up and turn into overt hostility, with or without provocation (check out the 60th-birthday, star-studded performance documentary, Hail! Hail! Rock N' Roll, which is both brilliant for its uplifting artistry and maddening for its self-inflicted failures). Most of all, I would guess, it comes down to his determined, uncompromisingly defiant refusal to conform to anyone else's expectations but his own.”

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HE NEVER stopped moving. He never stopped playing. According to the Chuck Berry website, a new album, “Chuck,” will be released later this year (CBS Sunday Morning says it's coming in June). It would be “his first album in nearly four decades,” the website says.

Like Bowie and Prince, both lost to us too soon not long ago, Chuck Berry will be in his next phase what he’s long been in this one: a presence as necessary as oxygen, a force as inescapable as gravity. A figure deserving of respect and truth.

In 1977, when the folks at NASA launched the Voyager I satellite, they included a so-called Golden Record, a phonograph disc that collected a potpourri of the sounds and images of we earthlings of 1977. The sound of thunder, waves breaking against the shore, automobile traffic and the greetings of people in four dozen languages are included; so are the music of Bach, Beethoven, mariachi music and folk music from Azerbaijan.

The record also includes “Johnny B. Goode,” as recorded by Chuck Berry in 1958. It’s the only rock song on the record attached to Voyager I, which, according to NASA, entered interstellar space in September 2013 — the farthest human-made object from the earth.

Which needn’t be a surprise to us. We’ve already known for 60 years what some lucky extraterrestrial in the constellation Camelopardalis will find out sometime over the next 40,000 years:

Yeah. Chuck Berry was out of this world.

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