Chuck Berry’s Dead but the Party Isn’t

By Jake Strickler, Editor-in-Chief

“All those early songs about rock ‘n’ roll were successive movements in a suite in progress which was actually nothing more than a gigantic party whose collective ambition was simple: to keep the party going and jive and rave and kick ‘em out cross the decades and only stop for the final Bomb or some technological maelstrom of sonic bliss sucking the cities away at last. Because the Party was the one thing in our lives we had to grab onto, the one thing we could truly believe in and depend on, a loony tune fountain of youth and vitality that was keeping us alive as much as any medicine we’d ever take or all the fresh air in Big Sur, it sustained us without engulfing us and gave us a nexus of metaphor through which we could refract less infinitely extensible concerns and learn a little bit more about ourselves and what was going on without even, incredibly enough, getting pretentious about it.”

  • Lester Bangs, “James Taylor Marked for Death” Who Put the Bomp Magazine, Winter-Spring 1971

The Promised Land

Zane and I walked out of the St. Louis airport into a muggy August late afternoon somewhere around eleven hours after we’d boarded our initial flight out of Denver. Our journey, to that point, had been tortuous. The cheapest route had sent us through Dallas, but once we’d touched down in the Lone Star State and gotten the OK to turn our small electronic devices on we’d both received a flurry of text messages informing us that our connecting flight to St. Lou had been under-sold and, resultantly, canceled. It was nine in the morning and the next flight wasn’t for twelve hours. That didn’t work for us. We were on a mission with an inelastic time frame: to see Chuck Berry play at a bar called Blueberry Hill in the Delmar Loop at 8:00 p.m.

Chuck played once a month in a subterranean cavern underneath Blueberry Hill (a sort of rock & roll Planet Hollywood with artifacts you could actually spend days, if not weeks, admiring) called the Duck Room with a max occupancy around 200 people. Tickets went on sale at a pre-announced time and tended to sell out in about four minutes. I’d snagged three. Zane and I made two, and the third was meant to go to a girl who danced with the Houston Ballet at the time and who was my first kiss when I was six years old.

The ballerina and me.
Me and the ballerina, circa 1957.

I was going to ask her to marry me when Chuck played  “Reelin’ and Rockin’” (“Well, I looked at my watch; it was 9:54/ I said, ‘Dance, ballerina, go, go, go, go, you go/ Reelin’ and a-rockin’/ We was reelin’ and a-rockin’/ Rollin’ ‘til the break of dawn/ Well, I looked at my watch, it was 10:05/ Man, I didn’t know if I was dead or alive”). A lot can change in eleven minutes, and, in retrospect, I’m thankful that she was denied the time off by the Ballet’s Himmler-esque (by her description) director in the tenth. Like Lester Bangs stated in his 40-page manifesto about why James Taylor deserves to be murdered which I began this thing with a lengthy quote from and will continue to pillage liberally, this song became a “nexus of metaphor through which [I] could refract less infinitely extensible concerns and learn a little bit more about [myself].” But this isn’t a story about a girl; it’s Chuck’s story.

I haven’t introduced Zane, though. Zane’s one of the few people I would trust with my life. The outside observer wouldn’t be able to determine why; we’ve both committed innumerable depraved and violent acts against one another. That’s the exact reason, though. To steal from Lester Bangs again, we’re both rock & roll lifers: we both (ready?) collect songs “that get banned from the radio and get played by their proud owners never at parties for the titillation of giggling cases of arrested development but rather at home alone sitting in front of the speakers so you can pick up on that full charge of bravado and self-affirmation even if the basic image is as corny at least as John Wayne” and in which “those guitars blast you through the wall, out cross the rooftops ‘tween antennas of your neighborhood, straight out of your cell into perfect release in a troposphering limbo of blizzard noise, at last home free.” In short: we might be rock & roll monsters but we’re on the same wavelength, even if that wavelength dictates that we occasionally come to blows. When the fire to fly to Missouri for a night and see Chuck Berry play lit up within me, it immediately zapped over to Zane by transitive property of the Party.

And so we found ourselves stranded in the Dallas airport. Plan B was to secure an ample supply of malt liquor, consume it on the Grassy Knoll, map out trajectories and determine whether the shot that whacked Jack really could have come from the book depository, and then catch the return flight to Denver in the morning. But Plan A, sweet-talk, won out, as it somehow tends to do with us. That’s how we ended up on a flight to, of all places, Memphis, and then onward to St. Louis, zig-zagging our way around middle America like a mad amoeba.  We landed with time to spare, caught a cab, and checked into our hotel, which was swankier than either of us, or the surrounding environs, deserved. We laid down and grabbed a few minutes of shut-eye.

No Particular Place to Go

Chuck Berry’s gone now. He passed natural, pronounced dead in his Missouri home at 1:26 p.m. on Saturday, March 18th. He was 90 years old, which puts him at 87 when Zane and I saw him. He played the Duck Room a mere handful times after that night, so our timing was, tragically, fortuitous. Since Chuck’s death, I’ve been reading obituaries obsessively, plumbing expert opinion on what Chuck meant to other people. A major question that has plagued rock critics – “professional,” amateur, and, like your writer, semi-pro – is what exactly Chuck Berry did. What differentiated him? What made him into an American cultural lodestone and international sensation despite the presence of intense competition and popular style that changed faster than you could say do the watusi?

Lester Bangs: Literature as Rock & Roll, Rock & Roll as Literature
Lester Bangs: Literature as Rock & Roll, Rock & Roll as Literature

There are two major rock critics whose opinion I hold stock in. The first is the aforementioned Lester Bangs (Deceased 1982: accidental overdose of over-the-counter cough syrup, found with the turntable needle skipping on The Human League’s Dare). You may be familiar with him from Phillip Seymour Hoffman (also now deceased, also drugs, not sold over-the-counter) doing a great job pretending to be him in Almost Famous.  In a September 1975 article Creem Magazine article about Kraftwerk, he wrote: “They used to call Chuck Berry a ‘guitar mechanic’ (at least I heard a Moody Blues fan say that once). Why? Because any idiot could play his lines. Which, as we have known since the prehistory of punk rock, is the very beauty of them. But think: if any idiot can play them, why not eliminate human mistakes altogether, punch ‘Johnny B. Goode’ into a computer printout and let the machines do it in passive acquiescence to the Cybernetic Inevitable?” Yet he also, in his diatribe/death threat against James Taylor, said that Chuck “might be the greatest songwriter of all time.” It’s been more than 40 years since Bangs wrote those lines, and I don’t think we have a computer that could spit out anything even approximating the cultural resonance of “Johnny B. Goode.” Please let me know if I’m wrong.

Sam Phillips with somebody you may recognize.
Sam Phillips with somebody you may recognize.

The other critic (still alive, not having fallen victim to Robitussin addiction, and currently writing at the top of his game) is Peter Guralnick. In October of last year, Guralnick wrote a strident defense of Chuck (who he apparently didn’t even think was in need of defending in the first place) for Rolling Stone titled “Why Chuck Berry is Even Greater than You Think,” in which he stated, “As much as Percy Mayfield remains the Poet Laureate of the Blues, Chuck Berry will always be the Poet Laureate of – what? Of Our Time.” In 2015, Guralnick published a 700-page biography of Sam Phillips (subtitled The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll), founder of Sun Records (home, at least for their early years, of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc.). Sun was the Memphis-based rival to Leonard and Phil Chess’s Chicago-based Chess Records (to which Chuck remained loyal until moving to Mercury in 1966). Guralnick regales us with two absolutely fantastic anecdotes in this book.

Jerry Lee Lewis doing "The Jerry Lee Lewis"
Jerry Lee Lewis doing “The Jerry Lee Lewis”

The first involves Phillips visiting Chess Studios, witnessing one of Chuck’s sessions, and concluding (despite his abhorrence of the Chess brothers’ production skills), that “[Chuck] had that abandon. You listen to the lyrics, man, [and] you want to do a little bit of everything that he talks about in his songs. It almost didn’t matter what you did at the board, it didn’t matter what the subject of his song, it was the vitality of the man and the music – there was simply no way you could keep that from coming out.” The more colorful story revolves around an ill-fated tour organized by Dick Clark and headlined by Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Every night was a knock-down, drag-out fight between Chuck and Lewis over who would headline. One night, Lewis, who had drawn the short straw and gone first, reportedly assembled a Molotov cocktail using gasoline and an empty Coke bottle that he then used to burn his piano to the ground following his set, saying, “I’d like to see any sonofabitch follow that.” Buddy Holly, presumably, hid in a broom closet for the duration. Jerry Lee’s mother sat him down following this pyromaniac tantrum and told him, “You and Elvis are good, son – but you’re no Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry is rock ‘n’ roll from his head to his toes.”

One of the best post-mortem analyses I’ve stumbled across, surprisingly, comes from a layman (albeit an amateur sax-man): “The man was inseparable from his music – both were utterly original and distinctly American. He made our feet move and our hearts more joyful. And along the way he changed our country and the history of popular music.” Before I reveal the author of that statement, I’d like to replicate an experiment that a Media History professor conducted on a class that I took with her in college. The terms are very simple: hit play on the following video and let it run for one minute. I know that we have the attention spans of gnats, but just fight the urge to check Tinder and let “those guitars blast you through the wall, out cross the rooftops” for one little minute.


Did you cheat? Try it again.


I’ll wait.


Joey Ramone, a Chuck Berry disciple, helping tear down the Berlin Wall
Joey Ramone, a Chuck Berry disciple, doing his part in 1989.

OK, now, did we all make it here in honesty? In that minute, did your finger tap against the desk in time with the music? Did your toes, or your whole foot, move with the beat? If you completed this exercise in earnest, then the answer is yes. Some part of you moved. And you proved Bill Clinton right. Chuck, more than anybody who came before him, was able to cast a spell upon any rube within hearing range of his music that drew them, no matter how briefly, into the Party. What’s more, Chuck Berry made the world move. The Chuck Berry guitar lick and the Bo Diddley beat appeal directly to a primal, pre-linguistic chunk of our lizard brains, transcending language and culture. And that’s something stronger than ideology. Screw Reagan firing the air traffic controllers; it was “Maybellene” that brought down the Berlin Wall.

jackie-brenston-rocket-88This doesn’t get us any closer, however, to answering the question of why Chuck? He wasn’t the first to send his audiences spiraling off into fits of violent mania and – that word again: abandon – with a hyper-charismatic stage presence or a solo. Those honors go to jazz guys like vibes-man Lionel “Hey-Bop-a-Re-Bop” Hampton who would “jump in the audience and wail at everybody with sweat-claps and jumping fools in the aisles, the drummer vastly booming and belaboring on the stage as the whole theater rocked” (Jack Kerouac, “History of Bop”) and his sax player Illinois Jacquet who “would tear into those wild jams and end up flat on [his back] in the middle of the stage kicking into the air and holding the sax up like a big pacifier and blowing jive blasts past melody while the audience of zootsuiters howled with glee” (Bangs). Hell, he wasn’t even the first one to tie together rock & roll and the automobile. Chalk that one up to Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston with what music historians generally agree is the very first recorded rock & roll song “Rocket 88,” as well as to Sam Phillips for being the only cat nutty enough to cut the track, which I, admittedly, find profoundly boring. That was 1951. Chuck didn’t hit the scene with “Maybellene” until 1955; not exactly a prime example of first-mover advantage.

The guy who hits the nail on the head in sussing all this out, though, is the New York Times‘ Jon Pareles. Says Pareles, Chuck’s major contribution was the creation of an “American archetype” that imbued rock & roll music with a rebellious “attitude.” Parales links the rise in Chuck Berry’s popularity to the emergent social phenomenon of the “teenager:” a liminal phase in between childhood and adulthood that, quite simply, didn’t really exist in any form we’d recognize today before the post-WWII period. It was a global phenomenon not limited to the relatively prosperous and unscathed American landscape. This evolution has been documented fastidiously in a couple of tomes by Jon Savage (about 1,200 pages between the two), as well as a fantastic documentary that gives them the archival footage/narration treatment:

"They Calypso! They rock!"
“They Calypso! They rock!”

Hand-in-hand with teenage, of course, comes juvenile delinquency. This isn’t to say, obviously, that youth, crime, and anti-social behavior were strangers to one another prior to V-J Day, but with American post-war prosperity, especially during the Eisenhower years of stereotypical white picket fences and church socials and appropriately heavy petting and the Andrews Sisters, youth in revolt became a moral panic that had to be stamped out in the name of enjoying our television sets and our Frigidaires and our better living thru chemistry and just acting regular, dammit. The kids didn’t want that, though. The kids wanted the Party.

Even though Chuck was pushing thirty by the time “Maybellene” hit the racks, he understood this frustration intimately. His family was what would was considered middle-class at the time, and he didn’t necessarily want for anything. But this didn’t stop him and his buddies from knocking over a couple of stores and stealing a car from its owner at gunpoint when he was eighteen, earning himself three years in reform prison. Why’d they take the car? Well, the one they were driving had run out of gas. Of course, upon later reflection, Chuck tended to pull the “I fell in with the wrong crowd” card, but the question has to be asked: could somebody who hadn’t ever stolen a car at gunpoint have written “You Can’t Catch Me?”

Bangs: “I believe in rock ‘n’ roll…and I believe in the Party as an exhilarating alternative to the boredom and bitter indifference of life in the ‘Nothing is true; everything is permitted’ era, just as it provided alternatives in the form of momentary release from the repression and moral absolutism of the fifties. The Party is one answer to how to manage leisure in a society cannibalized by it, but it’s not bread and circuses either because you can’t co-opt jive because jive is true folk music that liberals can never appropriate or master and only an urban aborigine will understand.”

chuckberry1972_gruen_webuseonlySam Phillips, to translate: “You can be a nonconformist and not be a rebel. And you can be a rebel and not be an outcast. Believe in what you believe in, and don’t let anybody, I don’t care who it is, get you off that path.” This is exactly what Chuck Berry offered kids in America in the mid ’50s: a middle path, a way to experience the release and – again – abandon of rebellion and nonconformity without going whole-hog weirdo. He was safer than the beatniks and the be-boppers with their reefer (and their harder stuff) but, at the same time, he was a whole hell of a lot more dangerous than the Andrews Sisters. The message of his songs was simple as simple can get: “I don’t care about school. I don’t care about Beethoven. I don’t care about your stuffy suburban existence. I do care about chasing girls and driving fast cars with the windows down and the stereo cranked.” And he made you move! That, brothers and sisters, is the Party. You could be Susie P. Straight-Laced in public, without a single black mark on your report card, but in your room, behind a door shut tight, you could drop the needle on “School Days” and dance and thrash around without a care in the world until your legs fell off. And there were a million kids all around the country all doing the same exact thing.

Rock & Roll Music

Unslept, haggard, and more than a little tipsy, Zane and I had made it: Blueberry Hill. The line to get down into the Duck Room snaked through the tables and barstools and display cases out onto the sidewalk. The ballerina’s ticket went to a dude who’d flown in from Germany with nothing more than the hope of being able to buy an extra ticket off of somebody. I didn’t take a cent from him; those in the Party look out for one another.

The international theme was prevalent; the concert was more or less a rock & roll UN Conference. Zane and I may actually have been in the minority as red-blooded, born-and-bred ‘Mericans. Ahead of us in line were two gorgeous girls from Valencia who our sweet-talk didn’t go over so well with. The Asian nations were heavily represented, as were the European. Some jerk from France stole my idea and proposed to his girlfriend onstage. He was miles ahead of me, though; had a ring and everything. She said yes.

Chuck onstage in the Duck Room
Chuck onstage in the Duck Room

And then there was Chuck. Seeing the man appear in the flesh was maybe the only time in my life I’ve been honest-to-goodness starstruck. Time slowed down and things developed a hyper-real edge to them. There he was in signature silk shirt and captain’s hat. He was tangible. But there was obviously something diferent about him: it was that irrepressible vitality that Sam Phillips had seen bursting out of a Chess Records session booth in the late ’50s. If I felt like being hyperbolic, I’d call it an aura or something but there’s no need for New-Agey nonsense with Chuck Berry: what it was was an absolute command of presence.  At 87 and with his mental faculties obviously beginning to falter, Chuck was still in total control. He was there for the Party, he hadn’t let a room full of revelers down once in sixty years, and he wasn’t about to start.

There’s not much else to say about the performance. You sort of…well, you sort of had to be there. It could easily have felt like exploitation; slap Chuck’s hat on him, wheel him out, let him do his guitar thing, and then sit back and count the cash. But with his son beside him on a matching Gibson and his daughter on backup vocals, it felt like anything but. Chuck was out there doing what he loved for the people who loved him. The band was his safety net. The very few times he did hit a false note or drop a line (for example, after the intro lick to “Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck spent the next four bars just repeating “New Orleans…New Orleans…New Orleans…”), they stepped in.  Not to take over, not to be a Chuck Berry cover band, but to simply set him upright like a flipped-over slot car: the wheels might still be spinning but it ain’t goin’ nowhere until it’s back on the track.

When it was all over, everybody filtered out of the Duck Room and into cooled late summer air. We knew we’d all just seen something special: for a couple of hours in a bar in Missouri, time had looped back upon itself and myth had became incarnate. None of us knew that Chuck only had a handful of performances left in him. He certainly hadn’t given any indication that he was running out of steam. This is why his death came as such a shock to me; I’d always considered Chuck, in the vein of Bangs’s characterization of him as a “guitar mechanic,” something of a perpetual motion machine. I thought he’d keep going until the Party was over. And maybe the Party is over. Who knows? But I’m here. And Zane’s still here. And, although he might not be physically with us anymore, Chuck is forever, eternally, here.

chuck berry 1

Around and Around

Perhaps the most profound thing that the NYT’s Parales says in his tribute to Chuck is that his music has become a part of the DNA of, well, everything that’s come since. Case in point, and, yes, Chuck won that lawsuit. The type of rebellion Chuck served up may have been relatively benign, but what he really did was give the world a set of building blocks. Like Keith Richards said when he presented Chuck with the award that made him the very first inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, “I stole every lick Chuck ever wrote.” He left out the stories about the time Chuck punched him in the face for touching his guitar or the time Chuck tried to set him on fire for kicks.

The perfect example of this influence can be found, funnily enough, in the place where your average Joe is most likely to become acquainted with Chuck’s music today: Michael J. Fox pretending to play “Johnny B. Goode” in 1985’s Back to the Future. After getting us through the first verse and chorus, Fox’s time-traveling Marty McFly succumbs to the demands of the Party and covers three decades of Berry-spawned musical history. He becomes Link Wray knocking out surf riffs through a hole-punched, sound-distorting amplifier; Hendrix at Monterey Pop, throwing his guitar behind his head; Pete Townshend at Leeds soaring through the air and doing the windmill thing; Eddie van Halen finger-tapping his way through “Eruption;” and, finally, coming back to the place he started, Illinois Jacquet writhing around on the ground like a snake-handler overcome by the Holy Spirit of the Party. The audience (all white) is left with their jaws on the floor, as is the band (all black; race is something I couldn’t even touch here if I had any hope of bringing this thing in under 10,000 words). “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet,” Fox says, “but your kids are gonna love it.”

The scene is incredible for its acknowledgment of the fact that you can take virtually any movement within the rock & roll constellation and draw from it a straight line back to Chuck Berry and the men and women he shared the stage with. Through this lens, the Party becomes a unified field, growing and evolving with each new style, each new discovery of what can be accomplished with three chords and the application of any kind of frustration – sexual, racial, socioeconomic, political, whatever. Anytime the status quo is bucked, the Party is behind it. With Chuck Berry’s death, a physical link to the Party’s foundation has been severed, but he, like so many before him, has now become a part of the Party’s mythos: a father, an originator, a starry dynamo in the machinery of night.

I could write about a million more words about Chuck Berry, but I think this is a good place to let it lie. I’ll let Lester Bangs play us out, because he wrote it so much better than I ever could:

“So what’re you gonna do? Well, different people have different tastes. That’s a fact. And I don’t even really much care what it is myself at this point, so long as it comes from the Party line. Which is nothing to worry about, because this ain’t the kind of party you join or carry around a card for; this is a kind of party you LIVE. And it don’t even much matter when you do that, because the Party, though its flame may flicker low and all but gutter in these juiceless times, goes on forever…[it’s] never been stopped yet, and when our number comes up we can all get back to the Party in the real way we know it should be: wailing joy from coast to coast just as Martha and the Vandellas prophesied in ‘Dancing in the Street:’ ‘Callin’ out, around the world/ Are you ready for a brand new beat?’

And, until it comes, there’s always myth.”

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