Thursday, March 23, 2017

Chuck Berry's Gradual Ascent to Heaven

[Apologies to Nels Cline for the title.]

I took a silly test on Facebook that, based on my musical preferences, guesstimated my age at 74. (I'll be 60 in a couple of months, if I still be livin'.) It's a fair cop. For the last decade or so, I've played in a band with guys aging from nine to 18 years younger than me. I'm the only one of us who doesn't like Van Halen. And I'm the right age for that shit -- turned 21 the year their first LP dropped.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago, when I picked up a Julian Cope tome I didn't know existed: Copendium. It's basically an analog version of his Head Heritage website, crammed with musical arcana from "my era" of music (late '60s on up), floridly described in his highly idiosyncratic and unremittingly enthusiastic prose style that makes the relative brevity of the entries advantageous. The pieces are arranged chronologically by the decade in which the subject rekkids appeared. (The '80s are thin because that was the decade Julian was busy telling the world to shut its mouth. I can relate; that was the decade I mostly spent Guarding Freedom's Frontier.) Looking at the entries for the '90s on up, I realized that there isn't a lot of music there that I care about. At a certain point (ca. 1990), everything new I heard started reminding me of something old. And it was surprising to me how much of that "something old" was Black Sabbath.

As a high schooler, I was an oddity among my age cohort for preferring first generation Brit invaders (Animals/Yardbirds/Stones) and their Meercun forebears (Chuck 'n' Bo, Wolf 'n' Muddy, John Lee Hooker) to the Holy Trinity of Grand Funk, Black Sabbath, and Led Zep. (True, I was enough of a partisan of the MC5 and Stooges to earn a trip to the school shrink for my sub-Bangsian English journal droolings over them, and there honestly wasn't a lot separating the bands I dug from the ones I didn't, sonically speaking. But that was the child I was.) And I'd be lying if I didn't admit that when I was first able to lay hands on the Chess catalog, a lot of what I heard seemed to me, as it did to St. Lester's nephew, "kind of bare without the feedback." But I acclimated.

So when I read the news that Chuck Berry had passed, I went to the cabinet where I keep my records and pulled out the copy of Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits that I bought when I was 13, abandoned when I moved to Texas, and got back a couple of years ago via my sister. I wanted to hear "Nadine" for the line "campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat." Like Dylan, there are lines of Chuck's that have seeped into the argot and our consciousness. In songs like the oft-quoted "You Never Can Tell," the oft-covered "You Can't Catch Me," and the secret Freedom Rider homage "Promised Land" (penned in a prison cell), as well as the ones everyone of A Certain Age knows by heart, Charles Edward Anderson Berry (1926-2017) captured the cadences of American speech better than any poet.

As deracinated as his music was -- besides Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, and Springsteen, contemporaries like Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran owed him their jobs -- Berry's life experience, which included stints in prison as well as in the charts, was that of a 20th century African American man. He wanted to get paid, and he demanded respect -- played with pickup bands for years to keep his touring expenses down, then delighted in fucking with them by changing keys and tempos on the fly. In the Hail, Hail Rock and Roll doco (DVD copies of which are fetching a pretty penny right now, along with copies of his out-of-print autobiography), you can see him handing his acolyte and advocate Keef Richards his head for trivializing his lead guitar style.

Chuck was the whole package: an instantly recognizable musical stylist (if not an innovator), a dynamic performer, and the great mythologizer of post-WW2 American consumer culture. Of his generation, only Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis remain, and he casts a longer shadow than any of them. I always say Hendrix was the water I grew up swimming in, as a guitarist, but in a very real sense, Chuck was the air I grew up breathing, as a fan. He has a new album, his first in damn near 40 years, coming out later this year. It might be great. It might be shit. No matter. We will not see his like again.


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