Saturday, March 18, 2017
Chuck Berry Has No Particular Place To Go
Chuck Berry's dead. He was 90. Bonne chance at Saint Peter's gate, Chuck, you're going to need it. You were a magnificent mean weird wonderful hack genius AMERICAN.
He was all those things, surely. He wasn't American. He was AMERICAN. Only America could possibly produce him. The rest of the world loved him, as you can see by watching this video from France in 1965. Europe loved him, but they could never cobble a guy like that together. The important part of his career was already over when this video was made, though few knew it at the time, including Chuck. Europe was already an off Broadway production.
Europeans sent us a bronze broad to stand in the granite harbor outside Ellis Island. It was allegedly a gift, but I suspect they sent it so they'd have something familiar to look at after they bolted the doors on their dusty museum of cultures and fled. We sent them Chuck Berry records in return as a way to show them This is how we roll.
To Europe, America has always been a bad man. The pecksniff attitude their governments have always heaped on us has a dash of cowardice in it. Chuck was a bad man. It made him all the more American to a toff, I imagine. I don't mean he was a bad man in just the figurative sense, though. Chuck was a real live criminal. If you read Chuck's bios, you're bound to find fans desperately trying to pooh-pooh his criminal background. The gun he used in a carjacking was broken, so it doesn't matter...
Don't buy it. Chuck was what he was, and he never really made any bones about it. He really was kinda mean, edgy, hypersexual, pushy, grasping and grabby. Who cares? He went to jail occasionally, and that was that. Chuck had a chip on his shoulder after he got out of jail, but then again, he had one before he went in.
Chuck Berry was important in the context of the 1950s. He was a big star for half of the 1960s, too, but after Nadine, he mostly traded on the fact that a whole lot of British Invasion bands adored him. He made a little money in the seventies by making a damn fool of himself with songs like My Ding-A-Ling. It was simply dreadful, and not very fun for a novelty tune. After a while, Chuck just showed up to his gigs in varying states of sobriety with an untuned guitar. He plugged it in and started blasting away without first bothering to count four with an endless procession of ad hoc bands he didn't have to pay or acknowledge. Occasionally it was a few Beatles or Stones, most often a bar band. He didn't seem to acknowledge the difference. The checks only had one name on them.
But the fifties, man; he defined America in the 1950s. Forget Elvis. Elvis went up the front stairs and asked your big sister to go to the movies. He really wasn't all that subversive. It was Chuck Berry that came up the back stairs, round about midnight, and asked your mother if your father was home. He went up the back stairs of the whole damn world before he was through. I offered that video with the underwater sound and the band that doesn't know the arrangement to show you what the fuss was about. Look at Chuck. The stage is too small for him, even though the world is his stage.
America was the most important thing in the world at the turn of the twentieth century, but no one knew it yet. It took World War I to demonstrate what paper tigers the European empires had become. America flipped the 19th century script and went to Belleau Wood with all the fury of a father turning the car around. When it was over, we shirked the big mantle and went back to our cornfields. We avoided the responsibilities of a great power until the hakenkreuz and the rising sun were waved right in our faces. We shrugged and rolled up our sleeves and pounded the world flat again, because that's the way we liked it. It's easier to drive on.
Then came the fifties. The Soviets stood there, leering over half the globe, and said they would bury us. We yawned. We had the sobriety of Eisenhower on our side. We had the muscle of finned cars rolling off assembly lines uncounted with a sunburned arm out the window on day one. We minted legions ready for the next version of America from public schools with the mortar still setting. Jonas Salk and a thousand others like him beat not only microbes, but fear of sickness itself. Hollywood gilded the country in pictures, and then gilded itself. Something raucous or fun or serious or thoughtful came bubbling out of our radios, projectors, and TVs in an endless stream. Broadway shone like a thousand Folies Bergere.
And then came Chuck Berry, from Saint Louis, the center of our universe. He stood up like a man and looked you straight in the eye. He was full of the optimism of a card sharp and his own unsavory brand of charm. I'll strut, thank you, like the peacock I am. He didn't wink or pinch. He winked and pinched, and he meant every one. There were no idle threats, no meaningless boasts. Chuck don't flirt. Chuck asked for what he wanted, flat out, with a twinkle in his eye and an angel on his shoulder and the devil in his heart. He'd put up his fists if you wanted it, and laugh with you afterwards, too -- when you've said you've had enough.
Chuck Berry outlasted the Soviet Union by a quarter of a century. Bury us? We Berryed you.