From the cover of Chuck Berry in Memphis, 1967.
My first girlfriend grew up in Saint Louis and, as a young girl, would sneak over to Chuck Berry’s house and sit by his guitar-shaped swimming pool. There were always a few little blonde nymphets lounging by his pool, and if you were clever, you could get there by slipping around one of the hedges—you never had to go near the main house, which was, so I hear, out of bounds. But the pool was open, and this would’ve been in the late sixties, back when his songs were part of our national currency but no longer on the radio: before “My Ding-a-Ling” became a number one record, swelling his bank account but degrading his currency precipitously, turning a national treasure into a dirty joke. Imagine if the Beatles’ biggest hit was “Octopus’s Garden.” It’s worse than that.
“Look, I ain’t no big shit, all right,” Berry told Rolling Stone in 2001:
Nat King Cole’s diction, Maya Angelou’s poetry, Duke Ellington’s elegance … My music, it is very simple stuff. I wanted to play blues. But I wasn’t blue enough. I wasn’t like Muddy Waters, people who really had it hard. In our house, we had food on the table. We were doing well compared to many. So I concentrated on this fun and frolic, these novelties. I wrote about cars because half the people had cars, or wanted them. I wrote about love, because everyone wants that. I wrote songs white people could buy, because that’s nine pennies out of every dime. That was my goal: to look at my bank-book and see a million dollars there.
At once overly modest and overly cynical, Berry undersells his gifts by a country mile. His lyrics (Maya Angelou’s poetry? Really?) not only sing themselves, they sound like they’ve been singing themselves forever: “As I was motorvating over the hill … ” “My uncle took the message, and he wrote it on the wall … ” “Up in the morning and out to school … ” “She moves around like a wayward summer breeze … ” They’ve got the clarity and toughness of the best lines from Raymond Chandler, but they swing from here to next Tuesday, and without them you’d never get to Dylan’s “The pump don’t work / ’Cause the vandals took the handles.” Not a chance.
Those songs are part of my DNA, but I know next to nothing about their writer other than the occasional scrap of gossip—about playing with unrehearsed pick-up bands, wanting to be paid cash on the barrelhead, and tales of run-ins with the law over crossing state lines with young women while being black. Race, he said, was not a factor in his songs, but of course it was one in his life.
I know, from my friend, that he loved having blonde girls sitting around his pool, because—well, why not?—and because then, as now, the Saint Louis police didn’t take kindly to the politics of cool or the mingling of races.
“This girl Marcie was the one who dared me into going over with her,” my friend told me:
“She was a bad girl, she smoked behind the gym and dressed like one of the Shangri-La’s, a Catholic-school uniform but way too tight. She’d been there before, she knew how to get in. But I kept going over, and she moved on to other adventures. I’d bring schoolbooks over and read them by the pool while the other girls were there with movie magazines. Things weren’t so good at home, there were fights, but there I could sit and read my homework. Dickens. Dostoyevsky. ‘Crime and Punishment?’ He saw what I was reading and gave me a funny look.
“ ‘Have you read it?’ I asked.
“ ‘Yes I have,’ he said and walked away.
“I had a cousin who was interested in Eastern religions and spirituality. I was there with a book she’d given me by Edgar Cayce, and he got very agitated, wanted to know if I believed in reincarnation and in the beyond. And he started telling me a story.
“Bo Diddley had been backstage with him one time and was talking about magic and the radio. Back then a lot of people believed that the radio was magic, that sound waves traveled to different dimensions, maybe all the way to heaven. You ever get this little shiver in your spine, Bo Diddley asked him, like it’s hot and cold at the same time? That means someone’s been making love while a song of yours is on the radio. It goes right through the air and slips back into your soul. You know?
“I think Mr. Berry might’ve chuckled a bit, but he was uneasy. He was a private man. It was one thing for teenage girls to come and sit by his pool, quite another for strangers to come into his soul unannounced and uninvited.
“And then, you ever get a sudden pain in your left foot, sharp, like a needle’s gone into it? That means somebody died while your song was on the radio. Somebody died.
“That was too much. It spooked him, and he’d gone to the library and checked out all the books they had on mysticism and magic. Madame Blavatsky and books on past lives and the occult. He read through most of them, but it made his head spin, and he stepped away from all of that.
“ ‘I don’t know,’ he said, and he shook his head. ‘I wouldn’t let any of them work on my car. Not one of them.’
“He pointed to my book.
“ ‘What do you think? Do you believe in heaven?’ I sat there looking down. ‘What about the devil? You believe in hell?’
“ ‘If you’d been to my home, you wouldn’t ask,’ I said. ‘You wouldn’t ask that. I don’t know why I said that. It just came out. But his face changed, and his voice got soft.
“ ‘Do they hit you?’
“I shook my head.
“ ‘Not ever?’
“ ‘They ever hit you, you know you can come here.’
“And I can’t tell you why, but after, I never went back.”
Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.
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