Back, To The Future

Editor’s note. American Songwriter, July/Aug 2017

When Pablo Picasso saw the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux in southwestern France for the first time, in 1940, he remarked that modern art had invented nothing. The sophistication of the 17,000-year-old images — mostly animals in the form of bison, bulls and horses, some of which appear to be in motion — humbled him to the point that he questioned his own ideas about art, and his role in its history. Or so the story (which may be totally apocryphal) goes.

In 1955, Chuck Berry released “Maybellene” to the world. The song introduced an iconic guitar sound and several Berry themes that he’d continue to thread throughout his songs: girls, cars, and the open road. Sixty-two years later, the tune crackles with such energy and spirit one is left to wonder whether modern rock has invented anything. With few exceptions (The Beatles’ Revolver and Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”), it seems there has been little that has approached the heights of “Maybellene,” that has kicked open the doors with such force and promised so much new life.

Berry died this March at the age of 90. “He is rock and roll in its pure essence,” Keith Richards wrote in Rolling Stone after his passing. “He was the granddaddy of us all.” John Lennon, also one to acknowledge his debt to his forebears, famously said Berry’s name was synonymous with the art form.

Before his passing, Berry recorded an album of original songs called Chuck that was released this June. It was his first release since 1979. Some of the songs date back to the ’80s, and the story of how the album came to be made is a long and circuitous one. Berry enlisted help from his family and his new record label Dualtone, whom we interview in the cover story.

By all accounts, Berry was a complicated man, guilty of some indiscretions in his time that are hard to ignore. But there are also testimonies that reveal a generous spirit and beloved family man. It seems fitting that Berry sprang from St. Louis, a town on the Mississippi River, that mysterious waterway traveled by Huckleberry Finn and Jim that is symbolic of so much of the nation’s history and racial past. Like his fellow founding father, Elvis, Berry synthesized blues, R&B and hillbilly music to create a whole new sound that transcended racial lines and perhaps sought, on some level, to bridge that great divide.

As Stephen Deusner points out, Berry taught us how to be a rock songwriter. “He wrote with verve and clarity, borrowing from the American songbook and using ‘Wabash Cannonball’ and ‘Old Brown Jug’ as the raw materials.” Berry once told Robbie Robertson that he drew from poetry to craft his early songs. Lennon certainly appreciated his lyrical innovation. “In the ’50s, when people were virtually singing about nothing, Chuck Berry was writing social-comment songs, with incredible meter to his lyrics,” he said.

Berry is not just an artist for this world. Back in 1977, when NASA launched the Voyager 1, “Johnny B. Goode” was featured on the “golden record” carried by the spacecraft, along with selections from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and bluesman Blind Willie Johnson. The record was meant to serve as a document of life on Earth in our time and as a potential gift to extra-terrestrial life. Now in interstellar space, it is the farthest man-made object from the planet.

“This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings,” former President Jimmy Carter says on the record. “We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” Indeed.

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