Chuck Berry’s spirit lives on through countless songs
New York — Behind so many great rock bands and rock songs looms the music of Chuck Berry.
Like the time a teenage Keith Richards ran into a childhood friend, Mick Jagger, at a train station in England and discovered they were musical soul mates.
“You know I was keen on Chuck Berry and I thought I was the only fan for miles,” Richards wrote to a relative in April 1962. “I was holding one of Chuck’s records when a guy I knew at primary school ... came up to me. He’s got every Chuck Berry ever made and all his mates have, too.”
Berry died Saturday at age 90, leaving behind not only a core of rock classics such as “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” but countless descendants in songs clearly indebted to him in sound and in spirit.
You could assemble a heavenly mix tape just of the hits built around his guitar work. You can hear it overtly in the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” which closes with a near-verbatim homage to “Johnny B. Goode,” in Bob Seger’s “Get Out of Denver” and the Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun,” or in brief passages to songs that might not otherwise remind anyone of Berry, like the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling” or the Who’s “Who are You.”
“It started with Chuck Berry. He inspired us all,” tweeted Rod Stewart, whose Berry-influenced songs included “Hot Legs” and “Stay With Me,” a hit when he was with the Faces. “The 1st album I bought was Chuck’s ‘Live at the Tivoli’ and I was never the same.”
Berry also patented an animated, stream of consciousness storytelling style that artists have been using ever since. Listen to Bob Dylan unfurl his story of paranoia in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or his old man’s boast in “Thunder On the Mountain,” or the Rolling Stones’ mockery in “Respectable,” songs inconceivable without Berry’s “Maybellene” and “Too Much Monkey Business” among others. Berry’s rocking groove and comic spirit inspire Creedence Clearwater Revival’s sci-fi “It Came Out of the Sky,” while Seger’s “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” consciously brings Berry’s teen world into adult life.
So now sweet 16’s turned 31
You get to feelin’ weary when the workday’s done
Well all you got to do is get up and into your kicks
If you’re in a fix
Come back baby, rock and roll never forgets
Critic Peter Guralnick notes that Berry’s influence is both literal, in the way Richards might consciously imitate one of his riffs, and more general in his poetry and novelistic detail. The Cadillac in Berry’s “Nadine” is not just a Cadillac, but a “coffee colored” Cadillac. He says one of Dylan’s great accomplishments was absorbing Berry’s gifts into his own style.
“Dylan called Berry the ‘Shakespeare of rock n’ roll’ and with good reason,” Guralnick said Sunday. “Had the Nobel committee been open to popular musicians before Dylan’s era, they might have given the prize to Berry.”
Berry didn’t just create the music for so many rock n’ roll lives but helped invent the characters — the bored student, the groupie, the would-be guitar hero — and placed them in an American landscape of restlessness, aspiration and motion. The simple pleasure, and underlying boredom, of The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” were the suburban Californians’ take on Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go.” Springsteen’s “Born to Run” is rock romance and adventure in the grandest Berry style.
In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages on Highway 9
And steppin’ out over the line
Up ahead, and moving along, was Berry and the Garden State adventures of “You Can’t Catch Me”:
New Jersey Turnpike in the wee wee hours
I was rollin’ slowly ‘cause of drizzlin’ showers
Here come a flat-top, he was movin’ up with me
Then come wavin’ by me in a little’ old souped-up jitney
I put my foot on my tank and I began to roll