No Particular Place to Go: Chuck Berry Exits at 90
by Kevin Harvey
Chuck Berry is dead. How odd. He wasn’t the kind of guy who inspired warmth, but still you never expected him to actually die. You thought he’d slip out of sight, his absence unnoticed for years, until one of his pals asked: Hey, have you seen Chuck lately? No one has seen him in years! Geez, he must be 104, 105! What’s going on here?
No, even in this age of Trumpian distortion, I’m going to take the TIMES at its word: Chuck Berry is dead. And then admit publicly that Chuck Berry troubles me, that I can’t quite get a handle on his work, the great body of which we all know so well that, like Motown, the life was long ago played out of it. Still, when I heard he’d died, I told my wife: He’ll make the front page of the TIMES - because he deserves to be on the front page.
So here’s my problem: I saw him perform in the early 70’s on a double bill with Bill Haley. Not only did Haley have his spit curl perfectly in place, but
he was playing with his original musicians and they refused to mail it in. Bill Haley, so corny he transcended corny, played as if being Bill Haley mattered at least as much to himself as to his audience.
Chuck Berry was a whole other story. Famous for his righteous indifference, he was sloppy to the point of cynicism. He’d blown into town, demanded the money upfront, assembled a rhythm section in the parking lot - kids so unskilled that he had to physically instruct them in keeping time - rushed through a set ending with the wretched My Ding-A-Ling, and then split as
if the law was still on his trail.
And yet, secure in his legend, he lived on: 48 years longer than Elvis, longer than the criminally underrated Bo Diddly, who did much more than simply sing about himself. His only remaining peers, by my count, the extraordinary Little Richard, a genius with a head like an Easter Island monument, and the ragged Jerry Lee Lewis reduced now to suing his family for abuse of the elderly. Killer, indeed. (Which reminds me: Along with the Science Fiction writer Allen Steele, I once watched Lewis, as pale and paper-thin as Peter Cushing, perform Whole Lot of Shaking Going On as a solo waltz! It was unforgettable.)
I digress for the sake of context: Berry was a genius, a cornerstone creator of Rock n’ Roll when it was still Rock n’ Roll, and he will be forever remembered as such. From Billy Lee Riley to Buddy Holly to Carl Perkins, they are nearly all gone now. The trick to enjoying Berry’s songs will be to avoid the work that’s been played out so many times it threatens to become mere wallpaper. Perhaps the next time you find yourself stumped in an aisle at CVS, Rhiannon will be followed by, say, No Particular Place to Go... think, what if instead it was the long buried, brain-frying instrumental O’Rangutang, attached now to the re-issue of Chuck’s St. Louis to Liverpool LP? Or I Never Thought, which sounds like it could have been co-written by Bob Dylan circa Bringing It All Back Home? Or the sublime short story in song, Havana Moon? There are so many.
It might be enough to force a listener to bypass for a while the work that has been so long in the spotlight glare of show biz and send him or her searching
in the dimly lit back rooms of the Rock n’ Roll mansion, where Chuck can be found wearing a beret and playing The Things I Used to Do. Assuming he really is dead. And assuming his fans have the will and imagination to investigate the greatness that allowed Berry to survive the Big House and return to the world willing to play on, however big the chip on his gigantic shoulder.
To quote Mr. Berry: You never can tell.