Sunday, March 19, 2017

Farewell, Chuck Berry

Perhaps it's glib to say that Chuck Berry invented Rock & Roll (as I attempted to show in this post, it was more of a group effort), but certainly no one represented or refined Rock & Roll more profoundly. That climbing, nagging riff that began so many of his songs from "Roll Over Beethoven" to "Johnny B. Goode" (two of the very, very few contenders for "definitive Rock & Roll track"). His witty, rebellious lyricism that so perfectly captures the frustrations and joys of the young people who still represent the genre's key audience. That chugging, incessant rhythm. That swing. These are the cornerstones of Rock & Roll, and indeed, they are the inventions of Chuck Berry. 

The man had his serious issues, particularly in the grotesque way he treated women and the belligerent way he treated his fellow musicians. However, the mark he left on music and twentieth century culture in general is unimpeachable. To list every artist touched by his music either consciously or unconsciously would be to list every guitar-based or lyric-focused artist since 1955. To list all of his incredible songs would be nearly as futile, but it does bear repeating that he did more than rewrite "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Johnny B. Goode" over and over-- another glib Rock critic gag. Just listen to his debut album, After School Session, and hear how deftly he handles straight blues, cool jazz, trad crooning, Latin rhythms, and however you want to define the chilling atmospheres of "Down Bound Train". The man was versatile, though he knew that the old "Johnny B. Goode" riffing was something completely, uniquely his own, and he worked it for all it was worth. 

Chuck Berry also possessed a buttery voice and six-string technique and an unparalleled work ethic. He kept pounding the boards until the age of 87 three years ago, and just last year started working on a new album, the fate of which remains unknown. What is known is that whether or not Chuck Berry invented Rock & Roll, it really feels as though Rock & Roll has died with him.

UPDATE: According to Chuck Berry's official Facebook page, his final album CHUCK is currently being prepped for release by Dualtone Records. A release date will be announced soon.
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