RIP Chuck Berry, inventor of the rock lyric, interpreter of teenage dreams

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Chuck Berry in 2007 Associated Press

Great. Now Chuck Berry’s dead too.

Make your list of everything that didn’t suck about American life in the second half of the 20th century and just see if Chuck’s influence isn’t lurking at the root of damn near every item.

Let’s limit ourselves to the obvious: rock ‘n’ roll, which he invented if anyone did. Not the music, which no one did -- R&B and C&W had been so intimately crossbred through the years that to pretend “rock” had been added to “roll” according to some secret formula during the 1950s is a taxonomist’s fantasy. But as a cultural phenomenon, rock ‘n’ roll was born when savvy adults began writing closely observed lyrics about teen obsessions -- about all their convoluted hormonal and commercial and vehicular and idealistic hopes and dreams -- with a knowing distance but without condescension, celebrating adolescence as a unique way of understanding the world while a backbeat told those kids their frantic sexual stirrings offered possibilities no poet had yet put into words for them.

Nobody figured out how to pull that trick off as fast as Chuck Berry. In 1955 Berry walked into Chess Studios a wannabe bluesman. He walked out a rock ‘n’ roll star. The blues number he’d expected to make his name, “Wee Wee Hours,” was relegated to the b-side of “Maybelline,” his first of many songs about an unreliable car speeding after an even less reliable woman, in which he coined the first of many neologisms -- motorvatin’ -- that made our pre-Berry language appear retroactively impoverished. The full-throttle rhythm was both sleek and bumpy, like a brand new Cadillac racing over a backwoods dirt road.

The kids wanted anthems to celebrate their triumph over the past, and Berry was their tribune. On “Roll Over Beethoven,” he added that ba-da-da-DA-da-da-da-da-da-da-DA-da-da-da-da-da-da lick that he’d swiped from the jump blues bands he loved. On “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)” he bemoaned the tedium of their everyday lives and offered rock ‘n’ roll as an alternative. And on the glorious “Sweet Little Sixteen,” he plopped teengirl fandom smack dab at the center of the universe where it belonged and where it’s remained ever since, despite decades of effort by dumb boys and boring men to dislodge it. Chuck Berry flattered his record-buying public by singing not just as though their lives deserved attention, but as though their lives deserved Chuck Berry lyrics.

Here’s Chuck inventing Bob Dylan.

The America Berry described was as surreal as Ralph Ellison’s, and for the same reason, but in the absurd rough-and-tumble of postwar culture he saw more possibilities than traps for a wily black man such as himself. That “little country boy” he made legendary on “Johnny B. Goode”? Originally a “little colored boy,” just as his “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” was “brown-skinned” at the start. And as the critic Dave Marsh once observed, the reason Berry is “looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner cafe” on the full-throated patriotic celebration “Back in the U.S.A.” is because he probably had to pass a bunch of burger joints that wouldn’t serve him.

Chuck’s career was fading even before he was convicted of a Mann Act violation that landed him in the federal pen in 1961. Berry was still stewing in prison when the dead fad he’d pioneered was reborn thanks to a bunch of British kids he never forgave for playing his music wrong. But while Jerry Lee Lewis grew bitter and Little Richard found Jesus and Elvis Presley did the clam, Chuck Berry got to work. Some prisoners study law, or lift weights, or pray. Berry wrote three of the greatest songs in world history.

“Nadine (Is That You?)” is the Technicolor remake of “Maybelline,” another chase after another woman, but with a cawing saxophone and super-charged language. “I was campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat”? You have the rest of your life -- write one phrase that damn good. There’s probably no better musical advertisement for marriage than the footloose “You Never Can Tell,” about two dumb, wedded New Orleans kids who live happily ever after, shimming and canoodling and subsisting on “TV dinners and ginger ale” (kept in their “coolerator,” Berry will have you know). But best of all, there’s “Promised Land,” in which Chuck skedaddles from Norfolk to L.A. in 2:24 and along the way seems to address every promise of American life and how to get by after it’s broken.

And then, by 1965, that was that. There’d be moments of brilliance: At a fittingly rat-a-tat pace, “Tulane” vividly tells the story of hippie chick fleeing the fuzz after her old man gets busted at their head shop. There’d be moments of success: Berry scored his first number one hit with the limp pee-pee gag “My Ding-a-Ling.” But mostly there was work. He toured and toured and played and played and outlived a bunch of the white boys who’d become superstars and voices of their generation by following his blueprint.

"Influential" is a dangerous word. Chuck Berry had the gift of anticipating the language and style and sound we’d need to make sense of our lives for decades to come. But if the British Invasion had never happened, if Dylan hadn’t been the conduit that made Berry’s word-drunk innovations respectable, if all we had was about an hour of brilliant music? Well, American life in the second half of the 20th century would have sucked even more than it often did, but Chuck Berry wouldn’t have been any less a genius.

You can’t isolate a single aspect of his art. The guitar. The look. The moves. The beat. The voice -- probably the most overshadowed of all his skills is that sardonic yank he gives a vowel, that rapid patter we’ve since learned to call flow. All crucial. But the words? I’m hard-pressed to come up with a writer in any medium as infatuated with the sound of American English and its ability to describe and reshape the world as Chuck Berry was. His lyrics challenge every writer to demand that every word you use do every last damn thing it can, and then when you've used those up, invent better ones.

He was 90 years old and now he’s dead, but play his songs and you can hear the grin in his voice, feel the duckwalk in his beat, and recognize a country so vital and ridiculous that it almost deserves the music of Chuck Berry.


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