Long ago, Chuck Berry became part of the furniture. We stopped thinking about him, even when we heard his songs — they were just there to be taken for granted, as comfortable as an old armchair and no more surprising.
Ho-hum, there’s “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Maybellene,” “Rock and Roll Music” and all the others. It’s almost impossible to listen to them now and get any inkling of the revolution they once represented; in fact, they’re so familiar that it’s hard to even really hear them anymore as anything more than sonic wallpaper.
But make no mistake: If Chuck Berry has been part of the furniture for decades, his music is much, much more than that. It’s the floorboards on which rock ‘n’ roll rests.
In the early 1950s, aided immeasurably by pianist Johnnie Johnson, he created the sound of rock ‘n’ roll by supercharging blues rhythms and adding the lilt of country music; others had tried out a similar blend, but none had the drive and swagger of Berry.
And nobody summed up the attitude better than Chuck Berry. His songs helped create the sound, but just as essentially they created the myth:
“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 ringing a bell”
Who didn’t want to be that country boy? John Lennon did. Keith Richards did, and still does. In fact, just about everybody who’s ever strapped on an electric guitar has played a Chuck Berry riff and copped a little Chuck Berry attitude.
Elvis Presley may have been the king of rock ‘n’ roll, but Berry created the true template of the genre — musically, lyrically and attitudinally.
(It’s interesting that Elvis, who you could say lived Chuck Berry songs like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Promised Land,” rarely covered Berry’s songs until later in his career, when he had the experience to do them justice.)
Over the years, his contribution may have faded, because it was so easy to take for granted. We heard the songs so often that we stopped hearing them at all, even when they came on the radio. We stopped noticing the delicious wordplay: “As I was motorvating over the hill” … “Arrested on charges of unemployment” … “I don’t want your botheration” … “Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’/And the poor boy’s on the line.”
Maybe it didn’t help that he could be a cranky, difficult man, that even admirers like Richards found him impossible to deal with, that he seemingly showed up for concerts caring more about collecting his fee (in cash, please) than about putting on a great show.
But he usually did put on a great show anyway, because he was Chuck Berry, dammit, and a show full of Chuck Berry songs and Chuck Berry riffs and Chuck Berry lyrics and Chuck Berry attitude is pretty much a definition of rock ‘n’ roll.
So with his passing at the age of 90, let’s not reduce Berry to a handful of classic songs, a few guitar riffs and a duck walk. Let’s rearrange the furniture and realize how much he gave us, and how unrecognizable popular music would be without him.