On Chuck Berry:

Two pieces I want to link to, written by people I know, yes, no shame in that, I know smart people!

1. Glenn Kenny writes a beautiful and smart essay on Berry for Rogerebert.com – Kenny really knows his music, is a musician himself, and it’s great stuff. His essay also should put a stop to any more glib “Wasn’t that a great tribute to Berry in Back to the Future??” comments (there was a lot of that going around when the news broke, and it made my teeth itch. Thank you, Glenn, for putting down in no uncertain terms what was so WRONG about that scene, and so annoying about that being the first response of so many.)

He synthesized an entire sensibility and also wrote some of the greatest American short-stories-in-song that have ever been sung. On Twitter, the critic Jody Rosen wrote of “Johnny B. Goode”: “Try to find a better American story, more pithily told.” “There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood/Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode/Who never ever learned to read or write so well/but he could play a guitar just like a ringing a bell.” Anybody can say of someone, “He never learned to read or write.” A genius says “never ever learned to read or write so well.”

2. Bill Janovitz, of Buffalo Tom, also weighs in. (Buffalo Tom played at my cousin Mike’s wedding, and Mike wrote the liner notes to a recent Buffalo Tom CD, posted on my site with their permission. Janovitz also wrote a wonderful book about The Rolling Stones, which you all should read –Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones). Janovitz wrote a great tribute for The Observer about Berry, giving terrific in-depth background to the man’s journey, his musical genius, and the context from which he sprung. Janovitz describes an interaction he had with Keith Richards, where the two of them discuss Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee” that made me choke up.

It spills out like one of Jack Kerouac’s scrolls. Wordy, yet with a seemingly effortless flow that belies the craft behind it, the lyric is a prototype, with the sort of cadence that can be heard from the Beach Boys’ appropriation of Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” for the comparatively anodyne “Surfing USA,” through Bob Dylan’s raging “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and beyond into the punk rock and rap of the 1970s.

Let’s hear it for smart cultural critics.

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2 Responses to On Chuck Berry:

  1. KathyB says:

    We had a good number of song story writers when I was growing up. As a child of 11 or 12 I remember being mesmerized by Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go.” Radio played whatever the powers that be said to play. No FM, no splintered off interest channels. Just turn it on (in the car most likely) and listen.

    That song transported me. I could feel the wind on his arm hanging out the window.

    Had the great good fortune to see and hear Chuck Berry in early August of 2000. He was of course the headliner at A Taste of Blue Ash in southwestern Ohio. One of the Cincinnati suburbs. Free show, all you had to do was show up. Nothing fancy about the outdoor venue in August heat, but he was there and he did his thing.

    • sheila says:

      // That song transported me. I could feel the wind on his arm hanging out the window. //

      That’s so beautiful!

      I’m envious that you saw him live. I don’t know why I never did.

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