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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Sorry. Not Elvis. Chuck.

[Eagle eyed commenter Sam espied Glenn Reynold’s interesting and insightful essay on Elvis Presley at TCS: The King Of Anti-Fascism.
He’s right, sorta. My father used to go and see James Michael Curley lead parades and orate in Boston. Politics used to trump entertainment, or be the entertainment, until quite recently. But Elvis belongs with the likes of Bing Crosby and Sinatra. He did not trump them, he just piled on the bobby soxers.

Elvis went up the front stairs and asked your big sister to go to the movies. He really wasn’t all that subversive. It was Chuck Berry that came up the back stairs, round about midnight, and asked your mother if your father was home. And he did it to the whole damn world. Here he is in France in 1965:]

[I wrote this on Chuck’s birthday. I stand by it:]
It’s Chuck Berry’s birthday. He’s eighty. Happy birthday Chuck, you magnificent mean weird wonderful hack genius AMERICAN.

He’s all those things, surely. And not American. AMERICAN. Only America could possibly produce such as he. The rest of the world loved him, of course, but they could never cobble together a guy like him. The Europeans sent us a bronze broad to stand in our granite harbor, perhaps so something familiar would be standing there when they bolted that dusty museum they inhabit and finally got here. We sent them Chuck Berry records as a way to show them: This is how we roll.

If you read Chuck’s bios, you’re bound to find people desperately trying to minimize and pooh-pooh his criminal background. The gun he used in a carjacking was broken, so it doesn’t matter… Don’t buy it. Chuck is what he is, and never really made any bones about it. He really was kinda mean and edgy and hypersexual and avaricious and pushy and grasping and grabby. Who cares? He went to jail occasionally, and that was that. Chuck had a chip on his shoulder after he got out of jail, but then again, he had one before he went in too. It doesn’t matter.

Chuck Berry is important in the context of the 1950s. He was a big star in the sixties, too, because a whole lot of British bands adored him and mimicked him. He made a little money in the seventies by making a fool of himself with songs like My Ding-A-Ling— simply dreadful, and not very fun, really, for a novelty tune. After a while, Chuck just showed up in varying states of sobriety, with an untuned guitar, plugged it in, then blasted away with an endless procession of ad-hoc bands he didn’t have to pay or acknowledge –sometimes a few Beatles or Stones, sometimes a bar band–he didn’t seem to acknowledge the difference — just cashed the checks all the same. But the fifties; man, he defined America in the 1950s. Forget Elvis.

I offered that video with the underwater sound to show you what the fuss was about. Look at him. The stage is too small for him, and the world is his stage. America was the most important thing in the world at the turn of the twentieth century, but no one knew it. It took World War I to show what paper tigers the european empires were. America shirked the big mantle, and avoided its responsibilities as a great power until the hakenkreuz and the rising sun were waved right in our faces. So we shrugged and rolled up our sleeves and pounded the world flat again — the way we liked it. And the Soviets stood there after, leering over half the globe, and said they would bury us.

There was the sobriety of Eisenhower. The muscle of the finned cars rolling off the assembly lines. The educated children newly minted by the public school. There was Jonas Salk and a million others who beat not only microbes, but fear of sickness itself. Hollywood gilded the country in pictures, and then gilded itself. There were things raucus and fun and serious and thoughtful bubbling out of the radio, and eventually the TV. Broadway shone like a thousand Folies Bergere.

And Chuck Berry, from the center of our universe: Saint Louis, stood up like a man and looked you straight in the eye –fearless. He was full of optimism and bonhomie and his own brand of charm. I’ll strut, thank you, like the peacock I am. He didn’t wink or pinch, he winked and pinched, and meant it. No idle threats, no meaningless boasts. Chuck don’t flirt. Chuck asks flat out with a twinkle in his eye and an angel on his shoulder and the devil in his heart. And he’d put up his fists if you wanted it, and laugh with you after,too–when you were beaten.

Bury us? We Berryed you.

4 Responses

  1. The official Chuck Berry site lists his birthday as Born in St. Louis on October 18, 1926.

    I’m thinking you must be young. Why the hatchet job?

  2. As I said in preface, I wrote this on his birthday. He was eighty in October of 2006.

    I’ve been thinking I must be young for a very long time myself.

  3. I saw him at the Fillmore in the “My dingaling” period. He was fabulous, even if the band was not. I wonder if anyone in space will ever come across that capsule we sent out with the Chuck Berry song on it?

  4. teri- I’m not certain, but IIRC my older brother played with him once. Either that, or went to see him once in a place he knew everybody. Chuck, like many guys that worked that circuit, would have a contract just to show up. The promoter was supposed to supply everything, even the band. Chuck would just show up, plug in his guitar, and start blasting. As you can imagine, it led to very uneven results.

    I’ve played with some assorted acts that traveled like that. Pinetop Perkins, John Lee Hooker. We were in the opening acts and nobody showed up so we were hired right then and there and kept going. Hooker never even spoke to us. Just sat down, stomped his foot and Boom Boom Boom Boom…

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