Chuck Berry, Neoclassicist

July 24, 2012 | 16 12 min read

I want to run, I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside
I want to reach out and touch the flame
Where the streets have no name.
(U2, “Where the Streets Have No Name”)

Way down South they gave a jubilee
Them Georgia folks they had a jamboree
They’re drinking home brew from a wooden cup
The folks dancing there got all shook up.
(Chuck Berry, “Rock and Roll Music”)

Now, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and because I’m one myself I know how devoted rock and roll fans are to their favorite bands, but it must be seen that compared to the Chuck Berry lyric, the U2 lyric is, well, shit. I say this as a fervent admirer of U2 and one who was lucky enough to witness the band perform “Where the Streets Have No Name” in 1987 or so, when to hear it for the first time was to be swept up in a tide of communal idealism. Who could argue with such lofty sentiments, especially when accompanied by the surge of the Edge’s ringing guitar and the most propulsive rhythm section in all of rock? Alas, there isn’t a word, phrase, or image in the whole song not utterly staled by cliché. As in much of the best rock and roll, the majesty of the music disguises the triteness of the lyrics.

coverThere’s no triteness to be disguised in “Rock and Roll Music.” It is what “Where the Streets Have No Name” manifestly is not: poetry, or at least a variety of folk poetry that delights in language and its own expressiveness. Not that “Rock and Roll Music” will ever be mistaken for “Sailing to Byzantium” or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In the first place, it’s a song, with lyrics not intended to be experienced apart from the music. Secondly, it derives from and relates to pop culture, not high art; as he cheerfully admits in his Autobiography, Chuck Berry has read a total of six books in his life. Yet who would disdain the wit and ingenuity of a typical Chuck Berry lyric merely because it lacks the density of Yeats’s Byzantium poems? Good and great poetry lies all around us. Whether it comes to us over a car radio or in a heavily annotated textbook, it’s still poetry.

In a long-ago television interview I half remember, Berry described his songwriting method as entirely commercial. He studied the market and hit upon three common denominators for the mass (mostly white) teenage audience he aspired to reach: school, because school was the locus of teenage social life; cars, because teenagers in the car-crazy fifties and early sixties couldn’t wait to get the keys to the ignition in their hands; and love, because “everybody falls in love, or wants to fall in love.” Two things struck me about that interview – that Berry conceived of songwriting in terms more collective than subjective (the opposite tendency – I hurt! I suffer! I’m famous! – tends to be the norm in rock and roll); and that he had the delicacy to understand that while everybody wants to fall in love, some people never will. So in addition to his acuity and catholicity, I’d add another attribute to the list of Chuck Berry’s compositional distinctions: his humanity. That he himself, according to Keith Richards and others who have worked with him, has all the charm of a rattlesnake only adds to the poignancy of his lyrics. When I consider what Chuck Berry the man might have wanted to do with a sweet little sixteen-year-old girl (he says almost as much in his Autobiography, a book that does nothing to allay his reputation for sleaziness), the tender solicitude of that song seems even more remarkable:

Sweet Little Sixteen
She’s got the grownup blues
Tight dresses and lipstick
She’s sportin’ high-heeled shoes
Oh but tomorrow morning
She’ll have to change her trend
And be sweet sixteen
And back in class again.

Exactly: a sixteen-year-old girl is at once an innocent child and a sexual agent. This doubleness so disturbs us that we (meaning middle-aged men like me) tend to conceive of such a creature as childlike or provocative but not both. Well, sorry – this sixteen-year-old girl is hot as a volcano but still elicits all the paternal protectiveness the song bestows on her.

Note also that Sweet Little Sixteen isn’t “wearing” high-heeled shoes; she’s “sportin’” them. You could say that “sportin” is to “wearing” what poetry is to prose. Or you could say that it’s the right verb for the right line, providing the necessary linkage, as it were, between vehicle and tenor. Or you could say nothing at all and just dig it. I could no more define poetry than I could play guitar like Chuck Berry (I’ve tried – it’s harder than it looks), but I do know that the one thing all poetry must have is a love for language that ultimately transcends instrumentality. Words mean things, and the better the poem, the more meanings attach to the words, but in the way that painters fall in love with paint itself – pushing it, pulling it, scumbling it, scraping it – poets fall in love with words. Like any true poet, Berry has what James Schuyler, in “The Morning of the Poem,” called the “innate love of words,” the “sense of / How the thing said / Is in the words, how / The words are themselves / The thing said.” Given the poverty of the standard rock and roll lexicon, where words like “baby,” “love,” “run,” “hide,” “want,” “need,” “live,” “die,” and “bodacious” circulate with depressing regularity, the key words in Berry’s songs stand out as poems in themselves: “calaboose” for car in “No Particular Place To Go” or “hound” for Greyhound bus in “The Promised Land” or “motivatin’” for what might be described as “motoring joyfully but with determined purpose” in “Maybellene.” Those six books he read more than sufficed. Berry’s idiomatic exuberance derives not from the written word but from oral traditions in African American and even Southern white culture. No surprise that a black musician would draw on the structural template of the blues, but that the same musician would see the compatibility of blues structures with the narrative sense of country music – that sounds a bit like the birth of rock and roll, actually. (Elvis Presley made a similar discovery coming from the opposite direction.) The catalog of place names in the first verse of “Sweet Little Sixteen,” for instance, is echt-country, yet the song itself is as stolid a twelve-bar blues as any composition by, say, Willie Dixon, who, as a matter of fact, played bass on it. So where are they rockin’?

They’re really rockin’ in Boston
In Pittsburgh, PA
Deep in the heart of Texas
And round the ‘Frisco Bay
All over St. Louis
And down in New Orleans
All the cats want to dance with
Sweet Little Sixteen.

You could draw a pretty comprehensive map of America from the poetry of place names in Chuck Berry’s songs. Norfolk Virginia, downtown Birmingham, Houston town, Albuquerque, Los Angeles: they’re all there in “The Promised Land,” inventoried with great good humor even when the traveler encounters, as we all do from time to time, “motor trouble that turned into a struggle.” Wouldn’t “The Promised Land” make a better national anthem than that unsingable and bellicose dirge we’re stuck with?

I left my home in Norfolk Virginia
California on my mind
I straddled that Greyhound and rode him into Raleigh
And on across Caroline . . .

Workin’ on a T-bone steak a la carte
Flying’ over to the Golden State
When the pilot told us in thirteen minutes
He would set us at the terminal gate.

Swing low chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone
Cut your engines and cool your wings
And let me make it to the telephone.

Los Angeles give me Norfolk Virginia
Tidewater 4-10-0-9
Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’
And the poor boy’s on the line.

Now, some people might suspect the motive of a songwriter who could write such a paean to place when the place in question subjected him to constant racial harassment. But Berry never concealed his motive – to make as much money as possible. How American is that? That a man who had every reason to begrudge his country could write “The Promised Land” or the even more besotted “Living in the USA” (“Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner café . . . / Yeah, and the juke box jumping with records like in the USA”) is, for me, cause for the profoundest patriotism. Furthermore, unlike “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s national anthem of Depression-era populism, “The Promised Land” doesn’t ask that you hate the rich or share the singer’s sectarian politics. (Listen to the rarely sung verses four and five if you don’t believe me.) I do hate the rich, but that’s because I’m not as generous of spirit as Chuck Berry is. All that “The Promised Land” and “Living in the USA” ask of you is that you love American place names, not be a complete stiff, and maybe appreciate a “rare hamburger sizzling on an open grill night and day.”

Although the right word is ideally a poem in itself, you still have to put one next to another. This too Berry does with masterly efficiency. The way his words roll off the tongue in “Tulane” and “Downbound Train” and so many others turns language into music – a useful quality for a body of songs not known for their melodic invention. (Let’s face it, Chuck’s thing is rhythm, not melody.) Most pop song lyrics don’t scan on the page and don’t need to, but sometimes Berry’s compositional regularity requires the assistance of some classical versification, as in the giddy triple meters of “School Days”:

Up in the  /morning and / out to school
The teacher / is teaching / the golden / rule
Ameri/can his’try / and practi/cal math
You study / ‘em hard and / hopin’ to / pass
Workin’ your / fingers right / down to the / bone
The guy / behind you / won’t leave you / alone

Ring ring / goes the bell
The cook in / the lunch room’s / ready to / sell
You’re lucky / if you / can find / a seat
You’re for/tunate if / you have time / to eat
Back in the / classroom op/en your books
Gee but the / teacher don’t / know
How mean / she looks.

No, Berry probably didn’t know he was using anapestic, dactylic, and amphibrachic feet, but neither, I suspect, did the anonymous author of “There Once Was a Man from Nantucket,” and he (or she) was a genius too.

Chuck Berry has had a hard life: reform school, two prison terms, financial exploitation, bankruptcy, racial discrimination, and much else. It is not his manner to rehearse his private grief in public, though the sly braggadocio of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and the crypto-autobiography of “Johnny B. Goode” trade playfully on his public image. Whether the pathos of “Memphis, Tennessee” derives from his own domestic sorrows is, strictly speaking, beside the point, though in a song this tender and touching, no supposition seems entirely extraneous. At any rate, “Memphis, Tennessee” is one of the greatest story songs in American music, all the more affecting for being so offhand and bouncy. (Berry himself, so he says in his Autobiography, played the swooping bass and “the ticky-tack drums that trot along in the background.”) What appears on first listening to be just another comic ditty about frustrated pedophilia (or so I used to interpret the top-forty version by Johnny Rivers that I knew as a child) turns out to be the desperate plea of a divorced father barred from any contact with his six-year-old daughter. The narrative builds to its final revelation piece by piece, with incidental details carrying an emotional load too freighted to be acknowledged outright: that the girl is furtively trying to reach her father; that the father has taken refuge with relatives; that although he now lives in the sort of place where messages are written on the wall, he once lived in a house high on a ridge overlooking the river; that the girl’s mother, not he, has broken up the family. And all of this – the heartbreak, the loss, the wit – by way of a conversation with a telephone operator:

Long distance information, give me Memphis Tennessee
Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me
She could not leave her number but I know who placed the call
‘Cause my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall . . .

Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me goodbye
With hurry home drops on her cheeks that trickled from her eye
Marie is only six years old, information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee.

Berry’s take on the song in his Autobiography may seem naïve, but to me it sounds like the very definition of classicism: “The situation in the story was intended to have a wide scope of interest to the general public rather than a rare or particular incidental occurrence that would entreat the memory of only a few. Such a portrayal of popular or general situations and conditions in lyrics has always been my greatest objective in writing.” Add a “sir” and complicate the syntax a bit, and this could be Dr. Johnson speaking to Boswell or Sir Joshua Reynolds. Although “Memphis, Tennessee” addresses a more adult audience than Berry’s more typical ballads of teenage life, even the ballads of teenage life are classicist: we were all teenagers once and we have all fallen, or (to observe Berry’s astute qualification) want to fall, in love.

Blues, country and western, Johnsonian neoclassicism: these are the traditions that nurture Chuck Berry’s lyrical art. But really, who gives a damn about the categories when you’re listening to something as smoking as “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”? Many critics have taken this song to be a pointed avowal of black pride (not exactly a safe career move in 1956), and since the songwriter himself is unquestionably a brown eyed handsome man, blackness (or brownness) is very much to the point. In fact, the opening lines – “Arrested on charges of unemployment / He was sitting in the witness stand” – call to mind all too clearly the sort of harassment that black Americans have had to endure. But there’s that classicism again – all women, everywhere, have been falling for a certain kind of handsomeness “Way back in history three thousand years / In fact ever since the world began.” This would include the Venus de Milo (here reimagined as a modern girl named Milo Venus) who, like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is “No more, but e’en a woman.” Why should it be any different for her than for the judge’s wife in the first verse who “called up the district attorney / She said you free that brown eyed man / If you want your job you better free that brown eyed man”? Never, it seems to me, has the universalizing tendency of classicism been more cogently expressed:

Milo Venus was a beautiful lass
She had the world in the palm of her hand
She lost both her arms in a wrasslin’ match
To get a brown eyed handsome man
She fought and won herself a brown eyed handsome man.

coverRobert Christgau, in Grown Up All Wrong, wrote that Chuck Berry “was one of the ones to make us understand that the greatest thing about art is the way it happens among people.” Berry himself makes no such claims. He really seems to believe that compared to a transcendent “artist” like Joan Crawford, who “will go down in the history books of even Russia, China, and Arabia,” he is a mere satellite, “circl[ing] a few years in the foreign magazines and then fad[ing] away in the next conventional war.” Far from being a “star,” he merely has a job to do and a check to pick up. Although Berry’s underestimation of his own talent seems incomprehensible, it did save him (and us) from the windy grandiloquence of songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Anyway, it’s a refreshing twist – the rock auteur who, for once, doesn’t think he’s a genius.

For people of my parents’ generation, rock songwriting seemed a paltry thing, and they certainly would have believed that Chuck Berry lacked anything like the sophistication of Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter. That may be. But I didn’t grow up with Broadway musicals, I grew up with rock and roll, and it is to that happily debased art form that I owe my first exposure to poetry. Before rock and pop lyrics in the late sixties and early seventies turned to the outer reaches of narcissism (gloriously exemplified by Joni Mitchell and John Lennon, among others), they tended to follow in the more impersonal and commercial lines laid down by Berry and that he too was following from lines laid down by Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan, and others. I will concede that, lyrically, Brian Wilson was no match for Lorenz Hart, but the Beach Boys got to me first, and when I was ten years old the perfect couplets of “I Get Around” conjured up a world as glamorously ritualized and unreal as the Arthurian romances, which I read avidly in those days but found a tad pale by comparison:
I’m getting’ bugged driving up and down this same old strip
I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip
My buddies and me are getting real well known
Yeah the bad guys know us and they leave us alone.

It was like first looking into Chapman’s Homer. Language (and not just Wilson’s superb compositions and the band’s gorgeous harmonies) had revealed to me a world more beautiful and desirable than the one I lived in, even if I dimly perceived that no such world could possibly exist. (It sure didn’t exist for Brian Wilson and his brothers, whose hellish upbringing in what looked like a picture perfect California household went unmentioned in their songs.) Not every song, not even every Beach Boy song, held such wonders. Even then a catchy chorus and flashy guitar break served to deflect attention from the nullity of the lyrics. Anyway, if the song was as great as “Be My Baby” or “Louie Louie,” who could complain? Yet as an unprecocious child I had heard enough real poetry in the songs of the Beach Boys and Smokey Robinson and Chuck Berry (usually in cover versions by later bands) to know that words could be more than functional. When, a few years later, pop musicians were suddenly writing lines like “Half of what I say is meaningless / But I say it just to reach you, Julia,” I was ready. If this more inward approach sacrificed some of the charm and playfulness of the Chuck Berry/Beach Boys/Smokey Robinson manner, it offered instead audacious explorations of the self and the permutations of consciousness. I’d call that a pretty fair trade-off.

So I owe a lot to rock and roll lyricists. I wouldn’t necessarily say no John Milton without Chuck Berry, but in my case the great songwriters like Berry helped me do some of the necessary prep work. They helped me to love language. And if there were more sophisticated lyricists before Berry, there have been more sophisticated lyricists since Berry. By now the proposition that certain rock and pop songwriters have achieved depths of feeling comparable to the best poetry isn’t even controversial. Ray Davies, Shane MacGowan, Randy Newman, Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, Morrissey, and many others – some working in a more confessional, others in a more impersonal tradition, and others making any such distinction ultimately meaningless – have all written songs that do what all good poetry does: moves, enlightens, disturbs, delights. Yet it all had to start somewhere, and in rock and roll, much of the greatest lyric writing started with Chuck Berry. (As for the basic musical D.N.A. of rock and roll, Berry pretty much created that too.) He could have said, as many rockers would have, knowing that the music would do most of the work, “Let’s go for a ride in my car, baby.” He didn’t. He said, “Climb into my machine so we can cruise on out.”

is the author of the memoirs College and Library. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, The Rumpus, and Open Letters Monthly. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.