Robert Christgau On Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry in 1975.
Chuck Berry in 1975.
Terry O'Neill / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Fifteen years ago I wrote an essay about Chuck Berry that in updated 1980 form remains a standard text of sorts, the Berry entry in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, so I'm embarrassed to report that there seems to be a lot of mistakes in it. Not that I blame myself too much. Berry was indeed an "obsessively private person" whose story I could only construct from scraps, and if I didn't get his guitar style and half-wish I could learn to exercise extreme caution when inferring from art to life, I stand by most of the critical stuff. Nor do I assume that Chuck Berry: The Autobiography is the whole truth and nothing but the truth — candid, unpredictable, and scrupulously unghosted though it may be. Nevertheless, from this book we're expected to infer a life, and it does look as if that life differs in crucial particulars from the one many of us thought was there.

Like for instance was he ever a hairdresser? Attended the Poro College of Cosmetology, yes, but before he could change careers thataway — he was 29 then, working in his father's carpentry business with years on the assembly line behind him — "Maybelline" was breaking thisaway. Soon he embarked upon a series of personal appearances that continues, with two interruptions for jail time, to the present day. My guess is that Poro got mentioned in his original Chess bio and from there presumptions snowballed — sure is an evocative image, Chuck up to his wrists in Dixie Peach. Since he doesn't debunk the myth, just gives Poro half a sentence on his way to yet another description of his bank account, I don't think he's pulling a fast one. But he's both an obsessively private person and a sly bastard, so who knows?

For me, the big question was whether his marriage fell apart after he was paroled in 1963, because I hung some heavy biocriticism on that one. Once again without making a fuss, Berry reports that it was his wife Themetta (together with his father and brother) who fetched him from prison in one of his Cadillacs, then lets the topic of marriage kinda slide. In the next-to-last chapter, "Heroes and No-Nos," which details his favorite foods as well as offering an astute if contradictory disquisition on interviewers, media and the unreliability of the signifier, he ties things up: "Another story rehashed a few times stated that my marriage was ruined. I have now been married thirty-five years with no separation or divorce." His wife also gets a special acknowledgment: "All of the above could not possibly have surfaced without the patience that Themetta has shared with me." As we'll see, patience was required.

First things first, though — namely, art. "Other than discussing my daughter Ingrid's activities in the music field, I wonder why anyone would want to know I am married with a total of four children," Berry complains. Yet the most frustrating thing about this book is how little it deals with the music Berry claims his chroniclers should examine instead. The man is hail-hailed as the inventor of rock and roll, yet about music he's not even private—just incredibly modest, the offhand professional who'll gig for 45 minutes anywhere if you'll provide the backing musicians and his usual fee. Maybe this is why his influence so far exceeds his personal myth — unlike such mythic claimants as Elvis and Little Richard, he's not a claimant. He credits his barber's brother with showing him "many licks and riffs on the guitar that came to be the foundation of the style that is said to be Chuck Berry's," and later lists "Carl Hogan [of Louis Jordan's Tympany Five], T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, and Elmore James" as the proximate sources of a guitar language with no proximate predecessors. About lyrics he's more forthcoming, devoting a chapter to a song-by-song rundown of how 28 of them were written — with difficulty or at least application most of the time, whether muse or market instinct planted the seed. To read him tell it, his comic vision is all entertainment value, his insight into white teenagers half his age Sumner High School revisited. Is this the inventor of rock and roll? In his own carefully chosen words: "My view remains that I do not deserve all the reward directed on my account for the accomplishments credited to the rock 'n' roll bank of music."

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Periodic references to "the main glory of the thrill of performing" and suchlike notwithstanding, you get a funny feeling from this book: either music comes so naturally to the man that he gives it nary a thought, or he just plain gives it nary a thought. The only album he's cut since Chess folded in 1975, 1979's Rockit, happens to be the groove record he always had in him, but it's one album; his songwriting has been mostly dormant since 1964 or so, and the guitar style that is said to be Chuck Berry's took final shape long before that. What occupies his attention is business — the book is replete with booking lore, entrepreneurial episodes, and references to a small, parsimoniously acquired real estate empire that stretches from L.A. to Kitchener, Ontario. And oh yes, one more thing, as Themetta must know: women. He pursues them, and when he can't pursue them he thinks about it, though you'd hardly know it from his music. "Those artists that improvise or register their lovely feelings in lyrics may be blessed with the formula for expressing love, but I am cursed with only the fantasies and feelings thereof."

Sure there's more. In addition to music, business, and miscellaneous, Berry provides an exemplary history of a black family on the border of slavery (Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri) and three tales of crime and punishment: youthful armed robbery (no prank), contested "White Slave Act" violation (dubious), tax evasion (not quite penny-ante). But Berry's fascination with the fair sex intrudes even into these areas. The family history begins with the notoriously familiar plantation owner, Mistress Wolfolk, by all accounts Chuck's great-great-grandmother, and two of the prison chapters depict a warm, painfully unconsummated friendship with a saintly female social worker. Elsewhere, lovely feelings get completely out of hand. Two boyhood brushes with alluring white women yield to memories of his first erections yield to teen romance yield to a lesbian who left her mark yield to the saintly Themetta, who never yields, though she presumably bends plenty. He spends three paragraphs with a blonde prostitute Leonard Chess bought him, two pages with a blonde French journalist who stood him up but didn't let him down, a whole chapter with a blonde "multimillionairess" who patiently coaxed his manhood to its puissance. There's a paternalistic chapter about a Boston hippie who forsakes drugs to come work for Chuck, a chapter and much more about his assistant of 30 years, Francine Gillium, who leaves him temporarily for bringing other women around, though her sexual ties to "Mr. B" remain cloudy. The "ardent girl watcher" peeps for an hour at Jo Ann Campbell's bath; he never forgets Lucille Ball's held hand, or Loretta Lynn's "two lipped kiss."

Market instinct may have dictated the juicy details; so may the book's Lompoc Prison Camp provenance, "away from the satisfactions (of a rolling stone) that a man in isolation yearns for in such places." Nor is the focus all that close; apparently Chuck is saving the hot stuff for the sequel he projects, "the true story of my sex life." Nevertheless, while noting that the book's racial subtext — after 1955, there's not one liaison with a black woman — is a disturbing metaphor for a career of musical integration, I take its sexual preoccupations for what they're worth, which is plenty. Chuck Berry: The Autobiography is no cocksman's boast. It's all the love songs the man never found in him, devoting as much space to insecurity and might-have-been and outright failure as to blissful fulfillment, and almost none to "conquest." And while its vulnerability and latent mother worship are probably a bit of a con, what else could anyone who loves this difficult man and obliging artist expect? Without question, the con bears his mark; his songwriting may have dried up, his gigs gone rote, but his memoirs occupied his attention. The 250 pages he completed in Lompoc were just the beginning: "In 1987, after nearly eight years of writing and rewriting like a slave of my own criticizing, I decided to let it go as it is, raw in form, rare in feat, but real in fact. No ghost but no guilt or gimmicks, just me."

Unlike Little Richard's or Iggy Pop's taped as-told-tos, this history isn't oral, and unlike Ian Hunter's diary it isn't merely written. It's as worked as John Lennon's nonsense pieces or Patti Smith's poetry, maybe more — a finished book written by a man who in 60 years has gotten through "six hardbacks" ("paperbacks by the dozens but only for stimulation"). Its strokes and its gaucheries share the unassuming freedom from convention that graces every passage I've quoted. Berry is determined to "write well," but on his own terms, because for him there can be no others, and if he's silly sometimes, that's part of his secret. Though it's hardly the first untutored writing to display such charms, its intensity, consistency, and idiosyncrasy set it apart. After all, lyrics have always been this artist's greatest strength, and while he's not quite as good at making language fresh in prose as he is in song, his book isn't some washed-up movie star's ego trip. It's part of his oeuvre, on a par with Rockit if not "School Day" or "Promised Land."

As such, of course, it's open to your interpretation — I wasn't kidding about the unreliability of the signifier. Says Mr. B: "Any word read or heard only conveys the meaning that is available to the person reading or hearing it from his individual understanding of that word. . . . The number of words that are to be heard or read multiplies the complexity of the message and therefore greatly diminishes the probability of identical conceptions being reached by two different minds."

In other words, any old way you choose it. If you think the man is any less private now that he's told his all, think some more. I eagerly await the true story of his sex life.

This essay was originally published in the Oct. 27, 1987 issue of the Village Voice.


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