Saturday, March 18, 2017

RIP Chuck Berry

"If you tried to give rock-n-roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry.'"—John Lennon

Chuck Berry is gone. He died today at the age of 90.

In a musical genre where old age is much more wishful thinking that anything based remotely in reality, Chuck beat the odds and fooled 'em all, like he always did. He outlived basically everyone who came up with him in the early days of rock-n-roll and so damn many who came up under his influence. 90 years in rock-n-roll is an ice age, and era, so much more than a lifetime. And still it hurts so much that he's gone. Gone too soon. RIP Charles Edward Anderson Berry. And damn.

It's hard to say that Chuck Berry invented rock-n-roll, because so many people played a part in this magical and in many ways still indescribable invention that we now call rock-n-roll. Did Chuck invent it? Did Elvis Presley? Did Roy Brown and Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner? Did Hank Williams? Did Ike Turner? Did Jerry Lee Lewis? Hell, did the amazing Big Mama Thornton?

Yes to all. And no to all. Rock-n-roll emerged from the lava, from the magma. Thanks to giants like all of those mentioned above and others. Thanks to people with the talent, the vision and, yes, the balls of Chuck Berry.

Here's what we know. If Chuck Berry didn't invent rock-n-roll—and I am not contending he did (see above paragraph)—he sure as hell refined it. He did what Miles Davis did to jazz. What Marvin Gaye did to soul. What Johnny Cash did to the American songbook and what Michael Jackson did to pop. He wasn't the first, but it's really hard to argue that anyone did it better. And in Chuck's case, that anyone did it better for longer.

Here is what I will say tonight, while mourning a man I never met (I saw him in concert once in the late 1980s, something I now am just so damn grateful for) but have listened to devoutly and worshipped since I was just a young white boy in Catholic high school 30+ years ago.

Chuck Berry invented rock-n-roll guitar.

Chuck Berry invented rock-n-roll songwriting.

Chuck Berry invented rock-n-roll as therapy for the twisted, haunted soul.

And Chuck Berry invented a sound. A sound so unique, so whole, so complete and so overpowering that the only way to describe it is "the Chuck Berry Sound."

What Chuck Berry did was he took everything his brilliant ears and body ingested and made it into something more. The blues and doo-wop and boogie woogie and jazz and country and gospel and the sweetest soul sounds you ever heard. And he took them all and he added those elements that only he had, those tortured and lovely and brutal things lurking inside his brain, and he strapped on his Gibson guitar and he mixed them all together in a musical jambalaya that no one had ever tasted before, and he hooked us in one bite. From the opening, ear-splitting strains of "Maybelline" on through, he fed us rock-n-roll like no one had ever heard or imagined before. And in doing so he foretold so much of what was to come. From the Beatles and Rolling Stones who worshiped him to Jimi Hendrix who bled him, from Stevie Wonder who channeled him in unimaginable sensory ways to Chuck D. and the forerunners and geniuses of rap and hip-hop who used his streetwise tales and too-cool-for-school skat-a-tat lingo to blaze their own trails, Chuck Berry saw it all. Maybe he's not  the father of rock-n-roll (or maybe he is). But to me, anyway, he is more. He's the father of the 20th century sound. And beyond.

As an equal parts musical fanatic and sports fanatic, the best comparison I could always make to Chuck Berry was Magic Johnson. Outsized and overbearing, playing the same old game in a way we never imagined it could be played. To picture Magic is to picture Chuck—the effervescent smile and devilish gleam in their eyes, always one step ahead of everyone else, seeming to make it up as they go but always in such dynamic and rhythmic control, 1,000 different ways to wow us waiting at their fingertips. And at the end, a wink. And a promise of more to come. Magic Johnson leading the fast break and firing a no-look pass was the first cousin to Chuck Berry's duck-walking across the stage and stretching it all out in the spirit of unbridled musical ebullience.

The songs explain it all far better than I ever could. The sheer fun of "Too Much Monkey Business." The epic travelogue of "The Promised Land." The torrential sadness of "Memphis." The very  raison d'etre of rock-n-roll stardom that was "Johnny B. Goode." The statement of purpose(s) of "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Rock-n-Roll Music." The rumbling fever of "Downbound Train." The rebellion of "School Days." The outright glory gush of "Back in the USA." The aching of "Carol" and "Nadine." The youthful joyride of "You Never Can Tell." The naughty wink of "My Ding A Ling." On the tale rocks, on the train rolls. Take those Chuck Berry creations and dozens of others and put them under glass. Paint them in oils. Preserve them in amber. Their likes we will never see again. And that we did get to see and hear them, for 60+ years, makes us so lucky. So damn lucky.

Hail, hail rock-n-roll, Mr. Berry. Thanks to you our hearts are beatin' rhythm and our souls will always, always be singin' the blues. 

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