Every year, at around this time, the radio station WFMU hosts a fundraising marathon. The highlight is usually Yo La Tengo’s marathon-within-a-marathon covers session, which lasts for three hours or so. Callers who pledge a hundred dollars get to request a song – any song. YLT do their best to play it. Most of the time, there are too many songs to get to, and so, as the mini-marathon draws to its close, the band does an extended medley. On Saturday, YLT set that medley to the tune of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray’. Midway through, they sang a good portion of Chuck Berry’s mysterious ‘Memphis, Tennessee’. Weirdly, the words fit the tune perfectly. But then I was reminded of Berry’s response, in 1980, to recordings by Wire, Joy Division and the Sex Pistols. ‘So this is the so-called new stuff,’ Berry said. ‘It’s nothing I ain’t heard before. It sounds like an old blues jam that BB and Muddy would carry on backstage at the old amphitheatre in Chicago. The instruments may be different but the experiment’s the same.’ An hour later, a friend called to tell me that Berry was dead.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry got his start working odd jobs and playing backyard parties and juke joints in East St Louis, and ended up at a club called the Cosmopolitan. ‘The music played most around St Louis was country-western, which was usually called hillbilly music, and swing,’ he wrote in his autobiography.
Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of the country stuff on our predominantly black audience and some of the clubgoers started whispering: ‘Who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?’ After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed trying to dance to it. If you ever want to see something that is far out, watch a crowd of coloured folk, half high, wholeheartedly doing the hoedown barefooted.
A local guitarist had told Berry that 80 per cent of the popular songs out there were based on the chords to George Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’. So Berry learned enough chords to play ‘almost 80 per cent’ of the songs he had heard. ‘I worked until I had matched over ninety popular songs together with their lyrics and began to sing them before people as often as I had the opportunity,’ he said. ‘I even took the guitar on dates and sang to the girl I’d be with.’
That attention to detail served Berry well when he turned his hand to songwriting – smart and systematic, he plugged every possible variable into the equations at hand and wrote anthems that were reverse-engineered to appeal to rock and roll’s core constituency of disaffected teenagers.
The songs were ‘intended to have a wide scope of interest to the general public rather than a rare or particular incidental occurrence that would entreat the memory of only a few’, Berry said. But the lyrics were fine-grained and cinematic. Berry’s sweet little sixteen-year-olds carried ‘wallets filled with pictures’, and his teenage newlyweds crammed their iceboxes with ‘TV dinners and ginger ales’. His country folks lived in log cabins ‘made of earth and wood’ and drank their moonshine ‘from a wooden cup’. Berry is celebrated for his neologisms: ‘botherations’ and ‘coolerators’ (in ‘Memphis, Tennessee’, tears are ‘hurry home drops’). But his images and similes are just as impressive, and his sense of control is startling: when Berry shouts to the city bus driver – ‘Hey conductor, you must … slow down!’ – the song slows with him.
Berry’s first single, ‘Maybellene’, was loosely based on a country song (‘Ida Red’ by Bob Wills), set against a two-beat country rhythm. It came out, and crossed over, in the summer of 1955; for the next five years Berry wrote one classic after another, and musicians climbed over each other to cover him. The Rolling Stones announced themselves with ‘Carol’ and their first single, ‘Come On’ (which sounded uncannily like a Rolling Stones song already). The Beatles staked out ‘Rock and Roll Music’ and ‘Roll Over, Beethoven’. ‘If you tried to give rock and roll another name,’ John Lennon said, ‘you might call it “Chuck Berry”.’ And while Bob Dylan claimed Little Richard as his role model, his three-stroke character sketches, his sense of humour and his maniacal, machine-gun approach owed everything to Berry. (Listen to ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ next to Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’.) Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ is father to ‘Come Together’ by the Beatles, ‘1970’ by the Stooges and two songs (‘State Trooper’ and ‘Open All Night’) on Bruce Springsteen’s best album, Nebraska.
Berry drafted and redrafted, relentlessly, and polished his songs to a high sheen. Of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ he said: ‘My first thought was to make his life follow as my own had come along, but I thought it would seem biased to white fans to say “coloured boy,” and changed it to “country boy”.’ ‘School Days’ started out as the less-inclusive ‘Teenage Days’. ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ referenced Pittsburgh, Texas, San Francisco, St Louis, New Orleans and Philadelphia because he knew that shouting out place names was a good way of getting his songs played in those places. Like Wallace Stevens, Chuck Berry was a poet-actuary.
By most accounts, he was a hard-nosed, cynical man. For most of his career he travelled solo and played with whomever he was paired with. (The way Berry figured it, more or less correctly, every band knew all of his songs already.) The concert promoter Bill Graham described a typical encounter in his memoir:
There was a knock on the door. I opened it and there was Chuck Berry. I shook his hand. I said: ‘How you doing Chuck? You’re a little late.’
He didn’t move or speak. He set his guitar case down on the floor and stood there staring at me. ‘Right,’ I said. ‘You want to get paid before you go on.’
I went in and got the chequebook. Some bands would take a cheque and deposit it. Others wanted the cheque cashed right then and there. I made the mistake of looking over at Chuck Berry and saying: ‘You want cash or a cheque?’ The look he gave me was: ‘Are you out of your mind? Why do you ask such a stupid question? I won’t even honour it with an answer.’
‘OK,’ I said. I took the cheque, wrote it out, and moved it over to his side of the desk.
He signed the cheque on the back. Then he moved it halfway over toward me. Like into the medium, neutral zone of the desk. He still hadn’t said a word. I pushed $800 in cash over to his side of the desk. He counted it out in front of me. He took the money in one hand, slid the cheque all the way over to me, and put out his other hand for me to shake.
‘Mellow,’ he said.
I took the signed check and stuck it in my pocket. He put down his coat and unpacked his guitar. I said: ‘Chuck, are you ready?’ I thought he would say: ‘I gotta go to the bathroom. I gotta change my shoes or my shirt.’ He said: ‘Let’s go.’ It was like: ‘You want me to fight ten rounds? I’ll fight ten.’
He walked onto the stage. I said: ‘Chuck, you want me to introduce you to the band?’ He looked at them. He said: ‘Hello, hello, hello,’ to each one in turn. There was no set list, no nothing. They had no idea what he was going to play.
I went to the microphone and said: ‘It’s a great honour, would you welcome please, the Man, Chuck Berry.’ One, two, one, two three. They went right into it.
Chuck did his thing. He did his chicken dance back and forth across the stage. After forty-five minutes, he came back over to my side of the stage. The kids were going crazy, screaming: ‘More! More! More!’ Chuck put his guitar in his case. I said: ‘Chuck, what’re you doing?’
‘What is it?’ he said. ‘What is it?’
I said: ‘Chuck, listen to that applause.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘I don’t hear it. I don’t hear it. They don’t want me.’
He was doing this jive Scatman Crothers routine on me. ‘YEAH!’ they were all screaming. ‘MORE!’ He couldn’t help but hear it.’ They don’t want me, boss,’ he said. ‘They don’t want me, boss man.’
I knew it was a number. But I figured I had to get into it, or else.
‘Chuck,’ I said. ‘They want you. They want you.’
‘They don’t love me,’ he said. ‘They don’t love me.’
By now, he was strapping on his case to leave.
‘They want you, Chuck,’ I told him. ‘You can’t leave. They love you.’
He leaned over to me. ‘They love me?’ he said. ‘They want me? I’m going out there.’ He opened up the case. ‘I’m comin’,’ he said. ‘I’m here. And I love you.’
He went back to the microphone, and said, ‘Yeah, you love me, you want me, yeah, and one, two, one, two, three.’
What he was really saying to me was ‘They want me, they love me, but you’re not paying me enough money. Why aren’t you paying me more money? Next time, you’re gonna pay me more, right?’
And I was saying: ‘Right.’
None of it showed: Berry’s delivery was unfailingly euphoric, and his playing was so enthusiastic, so urgent – so heroic, really – that you never really noticed how crude it was, how out of tune the guitar had gone, how savage the whole thing sounded. (If you did notice, so much the better: you might have got the idea that you, too, could make as glorious a racket.) Eight years ago, I saw Berry performing on a Los Angeles talk show – he sang ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and duck-walked across the stage like a twenty-something. He was a month shy of his 82nd birthday.