Monday, 20 March 2017

Rock and Roll Shakespeare

Chuck Berry died on Saturday, 18 March, 2017.

Some twenty-five years ago on a Macintosh Plus, I created a HyperCard stack (remember those?) called Chuck's Intros. It was a little quiz in which the user had to identify recordings made by Chuck Berry, based on a few bars of his guitar intros. Not too many people seemed to care about Chuck Berry back then, but I enjoyed using the stack from time to time as a way of sharpening my own recognition of his wonderful intros.

I had been a Chuck Berry fan for a long time. I still am. I have no idea how I discovered him, but I knew him before the Rolling Stones released Come On back in the early 1960s. I expect I got to hear of Chuck because of my liking of Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and everything else Rock and Roll. Holly recorded Brown Eyed Handsome Man, of course, so that might have been my introduction, trying to figure out the intricate lyrics. What with witness stands, the Milo Venus and references to baseball, I was at a loss!

Arrested on charges of unemployment,
He was sitting in the witness stand

The judge's wife called up the district attorney

She said, "Free that brown eyed man.

If you want your job you better free that brown eyed man

Flying across the desert in a TWA,
I saw a woman walking 'cross the sand

She'd been walkin' thirty miles en route to Bombay

To meet a brown eyed handsome man

Her destination was a brown eyed handsome man

Way back in history, three thousand years,

In fact ever since the world began

There's been a whole lot of good women shedding tears

For a brown eyed handsome man

It’s a lot of trouble with a brown eyed handsome man

Beautiful daughter couldn't make up her mind

Between a doctor and a lawyer man

Her mother told her darlin’ go out and find yourself

A brown eyed handsome man

Just like your daddy—he’s a brown eyed handsome man

Milo Venus was a beautiful lass

She had the world in the palm of her hand

She lost both her arms in a wrestling match

To meet brown eyed handsome man

She fought and won herself a brown eyed handsome man

Two, three count with nobody on

He hit a high fly into the stand

Rounding third he was headed for home

It was a brown eyed handsome man

That won the game, it was a brown eyed handsome man

Chuck Berry was the Shakespeare of Rock 'n' Roll, the Bard of the Beat; no other songwriter was quite able to match Berry's masterful ability to summarise in a few verses and with brilliant phrasing the hopes and wishes of youth. Nobody wrote lyrics like him. And they just seemed to flow effortlessly, despite their clever rhymings, unusual settings, and occasional strange words.

Chuck's personal life might have been somewhat questionable (though much of the allegations against him were very likely racially based), but his music was simply wonderful: Carol, Little Queenie, Sweet Little Sixteen, Memphis Tennessee, Roll Over Beethoven, School Day, No Particular Place To Go, You Never Can Tell, Brown Eyed Handsome ManJohnny B. Goode, Promised Land… and many, many more. I still have well over a hundred of his recordings in my iTunes library. (It is rather unfortunate, however, that he seems to be as much remembered for his one really rubbish number, My Ding-a-Ling, as he is for the rest of his catalogue. Still, he seemed to enjoy playing the number live, so who am I to judge?)

I read his autobiography shortly after it was published and enjoyed it greatly. If you're interested in his real story, you might wish to try to find a copy for yourself.

Above all, keep enjoying his music.