Chuck Berry's Complicated, Sex Scandal-Ridden Rock 'N' Roll Legacy | Phoenix New Times

This Won't Be The Most Flattering Piece You've Read About Chuck Berry

There's nothing simple about the man credited with creating rock 'n' roll.
Chuck Berry leaves a complicated legacy behind.
Chuck Berry leaves a complicated legacy behind. By Universal Attractions [Public domain]/ via Wikimedia Commons
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I'm not particularly a Chuck Berry fan, so I won't be jumping on the bandwagon that left the station on March 18, 2017, when he died at age 90.

I'm also not a Chuck Berry apologist or hater or scholar. What I can write, though, is that I do wholeheartedly and unabashedly love rock 'n' roll, so thank you, Chuck. You and your guitar were as responsible for inspiring a lot of my favorite music as anyone, so really, thank you.

What I can't do, though, is look back at a particular time and remember that first Chuck Berry song that reached into my soul like so many others have written about over the last few days.

I did know some of his iconic lyrics, and we do share a birthday (October 18), but teenage me could not have given much of a fuck about the duckwalking guitar god from Missouri. Prior to 1985 and the last five minutes of Back To The Future, I'm not sure I gave Berry a whole lot of thought outside of hearing his music on the radio from time to time.

There was something charming about the concept of Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly character unwittingly inspiring Chuck Berry (with Berry's own guitar licks), even for a non-fan like myself. But it also showed the massive naivete that surrounds the true origins of rock 'n' roll in mainstream media.

Rock 'n' roll has not always just been there, even though for most living fans of the genre, it seems like it has. There was a time without rock music, but when it was born, Chuck Berry was there, soaking it all in and helping to usher in the first waves of its maturity.

Was he the father? I don't know. Supposedly, he was inspired by musicians like Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker, and truly, why wouldn't he be? But he was also an innovator.

Berry's guitar playing was inspired by rhythm and blues music, but it didn't sound like anything else that came before it, and it certainly inspired many that came after him, including literally every popular guitar player and guitar band of the '60s (the Beatles, the Who, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones, to name a few).

There is a mix of country twang, dirty blues, and amphetamine-fueled machismo in Berry's playing that helped get music fans' blood boiling in the '50s and set the table for much of what rock music became over the next two or three decades.

If you watch 1987's Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll, a documentary tribute to Berry, you can see a lot of those '60s-era folks lining up to pay their respects, and there are no shortage of quotes making their rounds right now about the inspiration that Berry and his songs offered musicians, especially those of how shall we say, a certain age.

Even punk rock would be a lot different without Chuck Berry. Could there have been a Sex Pistols, Ramones, or Cramps without him? Probably not, but he wasn't just a guitar player. He wrote his own lyrics, too.

"Riding along in my automobile, my baby beside me at the wheel," starts "No Particular Place To Go" from 1964.

These were the first Berry lyrics I remember learning. The lyrics portray the supposed youthful innocence of the 1960s that TV shows like Happy Days (ABC, 1974 to '84) and movies like American Graffiti (1973) wanted to us to believe in, even if the reality of those days for a performer like Berry was nothing even close to innocence.

Berry spent the better part of 1962 and 1963 incarcerated for transporting a 14-year-old Apache girl across state lines (and having sex with her). Ironically, the two Berry songs on the American Graffiti soundtrack are "Almost Grown" and "Johnny B. Goode."

I also remember learning something new about Berry in 1991 as I watched a video of a man purported to be Berry pissing on a young, blonde woman while waiting for Crash Worship to take the stage at the Kennel Club in San Francisco that spring. While Crash Worship's ritualistic musical bacchanal was way more memorable than the video, seeing what might have been one of the legends of rock 'n' roll taking a piss on another human being on the big-screen TV next to the stage was pretty alarming, even for those days.

By all accounts, Berry was a man of odd, often bathroom-related sexual appetites. (He was sued by 60 women in 1990 for allegedly filming them while they used the bathroom at a restaurant he owned.) One has to wonder if he and President Trump ever visited some of the same places in Russia.

Looking at Berry's legacy now, though, I'm a bit conflicted.

Chuck Berry was a talented man and he was also a creep. He was a talented creep who was clearly brilliant and innovative and manipulative and disrespectful to other human beings without shame.

He broke laws, wrote some great songs, and played a mean guitar — definitely not the first or last to do that. But it is still odd how in this day and age when people seem to be so willing to publicly shame anyone they determine to be less than honest, much of what has been recently written about Berry ignores or glosses over multiple arrests for a handful of crimes, some of which were sex crimes.

So while I can't celebrate that part of his life (and if two consenting adults want to get their golden shower on while listening to "Maybellene" then go for it, I suppose), I also can't ignore that life without Chuck Berry in this world would have been a lot less interesting.

Hopefully, Berry is enjoying the big (consensual) restroom in the sky as opposed to whatever the opposite of that experience would be somewhere down below. But way more importantly, if there is anything good that comes of out his death, perhaps those he victimized can now feel some well-deserved peace.

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