Ray Charles was the grandpa the establishment wanted us to have. Chuck Berry was the uncle they wanted us to forget.
Most of my generation knows little about Chuck Berry the man as much as we’re deeply connected to Chuck Berry the brand. He never won a Grammy. He only had one number-one hit, a cheeky song about his dick. His last album was released in 1979 when he was playing 70 to 100 shows per year in joints nobody could name. He was never idolized in a memorable biopic like Ritchie Valens in “La Bamba,” Buddy Holly in “The Buddy Holly Story,” or Jim Morrison in “The Doors.” He wasn’t easy to explain to corporate America, or even remotely accepted to the puritanical white establishment of the ’80s and ’90s that saw him as a precarious outlaw who needed to be shot down as opposed to deified like the more culturally passable icons of his era, e.g. Ray Charles.
Charles was the spokesman of Diet Pepsi. He sang “America the Beautiful” at WrestleMania 2. He was the grandpa they wanted us to have while Chuck was the uncle they wanted us to forget. When we were kids, he was the black guy with the shiny pompadour we saw in between Nick and Nite and MTV; whose vaguely Latin facial features made him seem effeminate in an era when machismo was a national band on MTV. How could we relate to Berry’s ditties when Axl Rose was telling us that we were in a jungle, and that we were about to die?
Because our parents would remind us, we knew he wrote the song Marty McFly first introduced to us in “Back to the Future,” “Johnny B. Goode,” with a blues riff in B, when we had to follow him for the changes as he torched doo-wop singer Marvin Berry’s nuts off and tickled the underpants of every white teenager looking for that “new sound.” We know The Beatles covered him (we know it, because we prefer the Shirelles covers). We know The Beach Boys ripped him off (but, honestly, we didn’t want to believe it). Milquetoast suburbia never wanted to accept the fact that “Surfin’ USA” was really just a whitewashed California interpretation of “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Never has, never will.
We know, without having to google it, that Berry was one of the first guys to play rock and roll, along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Bo Diddley, Elvis, Bill Haley, et al. He didn’t invent it; then again, nobody did. For us, the name itself is inescapable, “Chuck Berry,” like a Coke, or Kleenex — so synonymous is the product with the brand that we often confuse the brand for the product. “If you tried to give rock and roll another name,” John Lennon once said, “you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.'”
Growing up, my generation’s most dangerous rockstar was Axl Rose. Except Rose lived dangerously, he wasn’t actually dangerous. Berry was. He sexually abused a minor and did time in prison right as The Beatles were crossing over the pond. “Down from stardom, then I fell to this lowly prison cell,” Chuck wrote in his journals when he was behind bars between the years 1960 and 1963.
In high school, Berry was convicted of armed robbery. He began his music career by playing dirty country to sophisticated black audiences — not the quickest road to success. Because he didn’t want to play by the rules of the overbearing government he never really belonged to, Berry always wanted to get paid in cash like some kind of bandit. He was once busted in a Sydney Airport with $50,000 in cash because he didn’t want to pay taxes. He treated fellow musicians like shit. Keith Richard and Bruce Springsteen played with him a few times and each time, without exception, he’d treat them like hired hands or mortal enemies trying to steal his thunder. His pianist, Johnnie Johnson, thought he was a crook.
Berry’s legacy faded over the years. Every teenager in America today knows exactly who The Beatles are; yet the name Chuck Berry, while familiar, means very little. The English bands, while crediting him as the guitarist they aped early on, never got into rock and roll because of Berry or “Maybaline,” his first hit. It was Elvis’ “Baby Let’s Play House” that first seduced English record collectors like Jimmy Page and Keith Richards — a point that we, the Gen X’ers, remember because it was in every rock doc you could name. He was never an activist or someone we could relate. So he didn’t appeal to us like a Kurt Cobain or Johnny Rotten. He was a lawless prick who wanted to use his guitar to fuck, ripoff, and abuse mainstream America to his own liking. That’s why when Chuck died, I felt conflicted and admittedly became emotional.
When I found out he died, the sight of his captain’s hat in a Google Images search made me feel as if I was looking at the funeral photo of my dead grandfather. I didn’t know why. His music never made my feel that way. I remember The Beatles covering “Roll Over Beethoven” in countless late-night TV ads as a kid; I remember in 1992 the cover from “Beethoven,” a family film about a slobbering St. Bernard. I never associated the song with Berry. I still don’t, but when I found out he died, I weeped. I got wasted, I listened to his music and got triggered on social media when I saw some of my favorite rockstars, like Izzy Stradlin, post generic 140-nothings about him and expected, as we all do, that by Tuesday some hipsters going to write a think-piece about how “problematic” he was.
One of the greatest rock’n’roll artists to ever exist . His music lives on !
— Izzy Stradlin (@IzzyStradlin999) March 19, 2017
Hail Hail Chuck Berry!!! None of us would have been here without you. Rock on brother! https://t.co/tOMuQzUgPX
— Lenny Kravitz (@LennyKravitz) March 18, 2017
RIP Chuck Berry pic.twitter.com/4nyUSNK9T7
— Joe Perry (@JoePerry) March 19, 2017
I didn’t care when David Bowie died. Prince’s death, an artist I basically worshiped for most of the ‘80s, never caused me to cry. When Michael Jackson died, I was pissed off, but when Berry went on Saturday, I felt like rock and roll died with him. My generation never connected with his music, but his simplified riffs were high in concept and low in details. It was was his apolitical, simple, dirty, and sexually charged guitar that reconfigured rock and roll into something more dangerous. He was for the baby boomers what the Ramones were for kids like Jeffrey Dean Isbell, who relied on the rudimentary riffs of Johnny Ramone to learn how to play. He was simple, direct, blunt in his approach to creating music out of thin air — something that seems outdated in the age of digital maximalism and sampled beats.
Maybe with his death, his legacy will grow. Maybe more kids will know his name as opposed to the pioneer cliches — there are, after all, too many dads to credit with the birth of the rock baby. He was certainly one of them, someone I will at once worship and despise. He’s one of the reasons we have rock and roll — even if he’s also one of the reasons we want to distance ourselves from it, an art form never meant to be pretty or safe. Chuck Berry, in that sense, is rock and roll.