“When I first heard Chuck Berry, I didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a hillbilly. Little did I know, he was a great poet, too. And there must have been some elitist power that had to get rid of all these guys, to strike down rock ’n’ roll for what it was and what it represented –not least of all being a black-and-white thing” — Bob Dylan
“When I put my foot down, start. When I put it down again, stop” — Chuck Berry
I’ll forgive listeners for thinking he died twenty years ago. Hell, when “You Never Can Tell” zoomed off again in the spring of 1995 on the fumes of Pulp Fiction’s unleaded Chuck Berry already seemed a strange voice from a distant star, a titan not banished so much as absorbed. For my generation he was the glowering star of 1987’s Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, Taylor Hackford’s documentary about Keith Richards scared shitless by an idol — a moment captured on film that no one is likely to see repeated (how can anyone quake at Mick Jagger after Chuck Fucking Berry scolds you?). I can’t imagine Berry, a man of fearsome intelligence, and how he responded to Back to the Future, in which very Canadian and hence white Michael J. Fox invents rock and roll by playing “Johnny B. Goode” several years before Berry purportedly shook the complacency out of suburbanites listening to the Penguins’ “Earth Angel.”
Chuck Berry invented the idea that a singer-songwriter could play shit-hot guitar. He invented the idea that a singer-guitarist could write songs. He dispelled the notion that only Cole Porter wrote sharp lyrics. Until Bob Dylan he was the wittiest singer-songwriter in rock and roll, the lyrics sung in a suave, assured burr and put over by the ineluctable momentum of his guitar. As integral to the Berry sound was pianist Johnnie Johnson, who after Little Richard invented rock and roll piano: those rolling lines, born of gospel, pounded by knuckles, meant for staking out rhythm. Melody came second (that’s where Berry’s voice and guitar came in). So integral was Johnson that Richards darkly suggested he deserved credit for the music. It’s possible — does Al Kooper deserve a songwriting credit for “Like a Rolling Stone”? Inventing rock guitar came as naturally as narrative; he wrote his narratives around the hairpin turns of his guitar lines. See “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” still my favorite Berry moment, reflexive and homoerotic. And the lyrics — well. “Tulane” boasts the couplet “We gotta get a lawyer in the thick of politics/Somebody who can win the thing or get the thing fix,” which Elvis Costello spent a career bettering — and trying to sing!
At ninety, with a full life and even fuller paper bags of money, an extensive rap sheet of questionable and legitimate legality, Chuck Berry needs no mourning. Still — it’s like learning that T.S. Eliot died.