Sunday, January 14, 2018

IN MEMORIAM: Chuck Berry

Purchase The Great 28 

A lot of people claim to have invented rock 'n roll.

But, that's a prodigious bit of boasting, to say you invented the genre, when the very mythology of the origin is so varied, so colorful, so joyously populated by gods and heroes.  So, where was rock 'n roll made, and where and what from?

To be sure their are ethnographic explanations and tracing the origins of the sound make for great myth-making and listening.

But, the argument pertaining to its exact origin remains as varied as the source materials.

No amount of explication or analysis or research can answer the question and assign a singular forefather to the origins of rock. No Cronus, just many, many Titans. And the myths are there for you to pick and choose from, but in reality, the birth of rock 'n roll is a singularly personal thing. What we lack in historical consensus, we make up for in in the purely individual.  It's about a gut feeling, a deep vibe, a startling, life-altering chord change inside you that get not so much strummed as lit up and electrified and sent shivers all up and down your spine. Rock 'n roll was invented when you heard your first truly, foot shuffling, head bobbing, heart throbbing, "pants dropping" (Springsteen), earth shaking, heart attack making, soul quaking song.

So, who to believe?

I believe Little Richard when he said "The blues had an illegitimate baby and we named it rock 'n roll."

I believe Alan Freed was spot on when he adopted an African-American slang phrase for having sex and used it to describe the new sound that he was spinning--a sound that mixed rhythm, blues and something swinging and new. Freed broke racial barriers by playing black artists on the mainstream airwaves and putting those same bands on stages together in racially mixed concerts.

I believe Jack Newfield, who said in a 2004 article from the New York Sun that rock 'n roll was a "Black and White alloy" of many, many great players, from Ike Turner to Jerry Lee Lewis.

I believe Elvis Presley, who was humble about his part in rock's invention and insisted that he simply took his influences and added something of his own and what came out was what he loved. I believe he truly was the King

Rock 'n roll has its origins, to be sure--historic, cultural, geographical. And it has its legends. Like any great monolith of our dreaming that holds sway in our fascinated imagining should--Rome, the Vikings, the Great Wall of China--the great ideas and events are bigger than even their own definition.

But I think the real inventor of rock 'n roll resides in the listener's own heart. No amount of explication or analysis or research can answer the question and assign a forefather to the origins of rock. It's about a gut feeling, a deep vibe, a starting, life-altering chord change inside you that is not so much strummed as lit up and electrified, sending shivers all up and down your spine.

For me, it was Chuck Berry.

Blistering guitar licks, snazzy suits, a ridiculously athletic and unselfconscious strut--called the duckwalk--that he employed on stage.

Chuck Berry.

He made me want to pick up a guitar.

I could never master his leads when I played guitar, but I tried hard to learn "Johnny B. Good". His car crusing a road rhythms were easier for me, and I still love that sound. When a Chuck Berry song comes up on shuffle, I inevitably get the same rushing excitement that I did when I first heard that ripping, siren call sound of his Gibson hollow-body.

I heard that sound, and I thought, that is rock 'n roll. That is where it comes from.

The heart of rock n roll is an embodiment of spirit--something wild inside you that might be unattainable. It is all gut, a stirring fire that burns from your inner-self all the way out. What it makes you feel is what truly defines it. That's a wonderful little covenant to enter--if you don't love music, don't feel the almost indescribable thrum down in the part of your soul that speaks most closely with the gods--it won't matter to you who invented rock 'n roll.

Extracurricular reading:
Who Really Invented Rock 'n Roll?, from the New York Sun

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