Long Live the Poet of Rock

Editor's Note: I wrote this for the New York Times Herald-Record on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death in August, 1997.

He came out of the Black South, shaped by hard times, haunted by the gospel music he heard in church, move by the blues. In 1955, he scored his first No. 1 record with a sound like no one had heard before. A few years earlier, the type of music he played was called “race music,” then R&B, and finally – once it started crossing over to white audiences – rock ‘n’ roll. The apex of his power as a shaper of modern music spanned just a few years; by 1964 he had been killed off by surf music – whose practitioners stole most of his riffs and images – and the Beatles.

But in that short time, he helped to create the seminal sound of rock ‘n’ roll and wrote some of its finest songs. Eventually, the audiences became smaller and he gave in to the excesses wealth had brought him, but his voice and style and sensibility lurk behind almost every rock ‘n’ roll record ever made. 

His name is Chuck Berry. The king is (still) dead – the court poet of rock ‘n’ roll lives on.

Berry was born in St. Louis, and his jangling sound came right off the street. In contrast to Elvis’s spare, countrified arrangements of the 1950s, Berry’s tunes sounded like late night traffic jams, with guitars crashing into drums and horns swerving around staggering bass notes. 

His songs were fresh, vivid, sad, funny and they perfectly captured the longing, confusion, freedom and frustration of teen-age life. No one in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, except perhaps John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, could fit so much observation, insight and imagery into a three-minute pop song. There isn’t a saccharine love ballad or phony sentiment in Berry’s entire catalogue.

Chuck Berry may have been the premier poet of his times, a kindred spirit to “On the Road” author Jack Kerouac and his fellow “angel hipsters“ Allen Ginsberg and Neil Cassidy, who were themselves about to emerge from a wild and secret eddy in the gray, turbid river that was Eisenhower’s America. Our images of the ‘50s are of nuclear families, nuclear jitters, big-finned cars and suburbs rolling out to the horizon, the black fumes from a million barbecues hanging over the landscape like smoke signals.

But there was another America, too. An America that rejected all that order, an America that spawned the Hell’s Angels, the Beatniks, the New Left, Be-Bop, bone-rattling rock ‘n’ roll, and eventually the youth culture of the ‘60s. Berry sang the post-war lament of the returning GIs who had made America safe – a mite too safe:

Blonde-haired/good lookin/ tryin’ to get me hooked/want me to get married and settle down and write a book. Ahhh, too much monkey business for me to be involved in…” 

The early recordings of Elvis and Chuck Berry tapped into the insecurity and discontent of young people trying to find a place in the postwar world, a world where all questions – except the most important one, survival – seemingly had been answered.

Cars were at the center of teen-age life in the 1950s and Berry was among the first rockers to make them an important motif in his songs. It wasn’t hard for teen-agers to read beneath the lines of “No Particular Place to Go,“ whose frustrated hero has both his car and girl revved to the redline only to discover her “safety belt” is stuck:

All the way home I held a grudge/for the safety belt that wouldn’t budge.

Elvis‘s first hit was the dark and beautiful “Mystery Train,” and like many of the hits that followed, it drew on Southern folklore and evoked the lonesomeness of valleys hidden somewhere down in the Choctaw. Elvis took old forms and made them new – many of his hits were songs that had been around for years, like Rodgers and Hart‘s “Blue Moon” or Bill Monroe‘s old bluegrass standard, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Some of his pure rockers – “Hound Dog,“ “Good Rockin’ Tonight” – had been R&B hits on black labels just a few years before.

Elvis created a mythology of lost love, mysterious hearts and surreal spaces – like the Heartbreak Hotel and that euphonic Jailhouse – that seemed to exist outside of time. The air of tragedy and drama around his songs fired teen-agers, allowing them to meld the mundane details of their own lives with the far more dramatic myths Elvis was crooning. 

Unlike Elvis, Berry had actually lived a teenager’s life, hanging out at dances in St. Louis and cruising the city in a ‘34 Ford. Elvis was 19 and already a star in 1955; Berry was close upon 30. He had seen more of the world and had a deeper connection to the musical forms that grooved together to form rock ‘n’ roll; he was a hard-working Delta bluesman who got his break when Muddy Waters caught his act in a St. Louis nightclub.

Berry made his music out of the drama – or lack of it – in the lives of teens themselves. Elvis’ lyrics were rarely specific: we never find out who the Hound Dog is nor to whom he entreats, “Don’t be Cruel.” Berry had a journalist’s eye for detail and he drew characters with names and faces and histories. He laments that “Maybelline” has “started back doing those things you used to do” and the listener does not need to ask what those things might be. 

In song after song, Elvis took his battered heart and retreated to Lonely Street. That wouldn’t do for Berry. When his lover leaves him in “Thirty Days,” he vows to “call up a gypsy woman on the telephone and send out a worldwide hoodoo, that will be the very thing that will suit you. I’m going to see that you’ll be back home in 30 days.“ 

Elvis, of course, was more than a singer. He was a symbol of a generation, an icon, a one-man sexual industry. In the ‘50s, those were things only a white boy could be. It certainly wasn’t plausible, in 1955, to cast Berry as a potential sex fantasy to white teenage girls. But he sure was.

Scandal dogged his entire career. Twice he was arrested and charged with “white slavery” for traveling across state lines with young white women – “whipping up a Mann Act,” they used to call it. In his autobiography, he recalled the countless times cops, rednecks or fraternity boys threatened him for so much as flirting with white women. Despite their celebrity, it was clear to artists like Berry that while they were welcome to entertain, certain social boundaries were not to be crossed – a black man, even a famous one, was expected to know his place.

Berry’s arrogance and perfectionism – on stage, he once unplugged a bass player who couldn’t keep time – rankled many of the white promoters who put on the shows. In his autobiography he recalled that as he pushed forward in the worlds of songwriting, performing and celebrity, the words of his father haunted him: “Black men have often dreamed their last dream where they thought they had a right to be.”

Still, the appearance of Blacks as pop music headliners in the 1950s – as events in Little Rock, Selma and Montgomery, came to a head – was a political statement in and of itself. Berry wrote rock ‘n’ roll‘s first black pride anthem, “Brown-eyed Handsome Man,” capturing the imagery of the entry into major league baseball of blacks such as Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby:

Two-three the count with nobody on 

he hit a high fly into the stands 

Rounding third and heading for home 

It was a brown-eyed handsome man 

That won the game 

It was a brown eyed handsome man.

The song even dared to suggest interracial romance, albeit humorously: 

Milo Venus was a beautiful lass 

She had the world in the palm of her hands

She lost both her arms in a rasslin’ match 

to meet a brown-eyed handsome man

She fought and won herself a brown-eyed handsome man.

With the exception of the novelty song “My Ding-A-Ling” in 1972, Berry’s string of hits came to an end in 1964. Everyone from the early days of rock had a rough run in the ‘60s. Elvis made those dreadful movies – including one in which his implausible rival in love was Bill Bixby! – and Chuck played the club and festival circuit. 

But his sound is fresh and timeless 40 years after he laid down his first tracks at Chicago’s Chess Records. No amount of synthesizer wizardry has managed to approach the eclectic rhythms and meters that drove his songs. Nor did he lose his vitality. While Elvis was a-moldering in his grave, Berry teamed up in 1987 with Rolling Stone Keith Richards to make the performance documentary, “Hail, Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll.” It doesn’t take much to look vital next to the cadaverous Richards, but the wiry, leering, vein-popping Berry seemed not to have aged since he advised Beethoven to roll over and give Tchaikovsky the news. 

Berry was the architect of what remains the essential rock ‘n’ roll song – especially the extended guitar solo at the heart of nearly every number. And Chuck could play, too, wielding that oversized guitar like…well, you can’t say like what in a newspaper… as he duckwalked across the stage.

Elvis will always be the king. But of what? His identity has been so tangled up in an American kitsch quilt of after-death sightings, Roswell-style conspiracies and Vegas schlock for so long that it is hard to remember what he once stood for, or what made him Elvis – those sweet, brooding stripped-down recordings he cut nearly one-half century ago at the Sun Studios in Memphis.

The truth is that Elvis was an anachronism in rock by the mid-‘60s. That marvelous sneer lives on in a thousand would-be guitar heroes, but his musical style is but a faint echo in most of the pop that followed him. He is about as real and vivid today as Mickey Mouse – he even has his own theme park, Graceland.

And so if it is Elvis you mourn today, fine. If it is rock ‘n’ roll you mourn, there is no need. Just put on “Johnny B. Goode” (vinyl, of course) because the whole past and future of the music is in there: 

He never ever learned to read and write so well but he could play a guitar just like a-ringing a bell.

Go, Chuck, go.

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