Chuck Berry could be a pain.
I remember attending one of his concerts, maybe 30 years ago. Early in the show, he spotted a woman video-recording him.
He stopped playing, set his guitar down on the stage and yelled at her.
She stopped recording. That wasn’t good enough for Berry. He wanted the tape.
A security guard ran over and confiscated the camera. That still wasn’t good enough for Berry. He demanded that the guard bring the camera to the stage.
When the guard did, Berry pulled the cassette out of the camera, broke open the casing, unspooled the videotape on stage and then tossed the camera back to the woman in the crowd. She beat a hasty retreat.
Berry picked up his guitar and began playing again. He didn’t start the song over. He just picked up where he left off and didn’t say another word that wasn’t a song lyric for the rest of the show.
Admittedly, he had a right to stop her, but a word of apology or explanation to the hundreds who had paid good money to watch him perform and hadn’t broken the rules wouldn’t have been amiss.
But that wasn’t Chuck Berry. He wasn’t always an appealing figure. He had legal troubles — prison stints for robbery and tax evasion, and a lawsuit for, allegedly, videotaping women without their knowledge in the restroom of a St. Louis restaurant he owned. There’s also plenty of evidence that he was neither generous nor truthful when it came to the contributions his piano player Jimmie Johnson made to his songwriting.
Such is life.
Great artists often aren’t admirable human beings.
Perhaps that is why, in his “Studies in Classic American Literature,” D. H. Lawrence warned us never to trust the teller but always to trust the tale. Human beings can lie, falter and fail, but a story that is true is always true.
At his best, Chuck Berry was a teller of tales that not only told the truth, but did so with a beat we could dance to. In his finest work, he was like a duck-walking Walt Whitman, a bard who conjured up sagas in which the singer’s yearnings were every bit as large as the American landscape he inhabited.
Consider “Johnny B. Goode,” the rollicking anthem that he, Elvis and scores of other poor boys who followed them in search of rock ’n’ roll’s pot of gold made their musical memoir.
Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play the guitar just like a ringing a bell….
After setting up this tale of a kind of hip-shaking Abe Lincoln – a talented poor boy who sees and seizes America’s promise – Berry lets loose with perhaps the most liberating chorus in rock.
Go Johnny go
Go Johnny go
Go Johnny go
Go Johnny go
Johnny B. Goode
Berry wrote a companion piece to “Johnny B. Goode,” another rocker called “Promised Land” in which the American landscape once again looms large in the story.
It’s a song about a poor boy trying to make it from Virginia to California in pursuit of his dreams. He travels by bus, by train and by plane. He encounters one hardship or obstacle after another, but, with pluck and the help of both strangers and friends, he finds his way.
Swing low sweet chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone;
Cut your engines, cool your wings,
And let me make it to the telephone.
Chuck Berry died recently. He was 90.
He left behind a messy personal legacy but a body of work that reads – and moves – like a rock ’n’ history of America.
And, like so many great artists, he wrote – and sang – his own epitaph. It, too, is from “Promised Land:”
“Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’
“And the poor boy’s on the line.”
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].