When I learned about the death of Chuck Berry last week, I didn’t immediately seek out my playlist, but instead consulted two of my favorite books: Colin Dickey’s GHOSTLAND: AN AMERICAN HISTORY IN HAUNTED PLACES (2016) and Greil Marcus’ THE HISTORY OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL IN TEN SONGS (2014).
In their own way, each of these books places Berry’s life and death into a framework of haunting, as if his songs are mini-ghost stories that seem to capture vital truths about American history. Dickey tells the tale of American history as if our country’s often-familiar narratives are tours through the many haunted houses of our past and present. Dickey says from the outset that he doesn’t believe in supernatural ghosts, but rather in the all-too-real ghosts that continue to haunt our historic places–the ghosts of injustice, violence, and lost love. Marcus’ book, which could very well be the best account we have of what rock ‘n’ roll means within the various and often-convoluted contexts out of which our history is summoned, isn’t a traditional year-by-year, hit-by-hit narrative of America, but a new way of understanding our history. As Marcus tells us, “A key to a richer and more original understanding–or a different story from the one any conventional, chronological, heroic history of rock ‘n’ roll seems to tell . . . .might be to feel one’s way through the music as a field of expression, and as a web of affinities.” In other words, the history of rock ‘n’ roll is focused on how any given song connects us in non-linear ways to events both past and present–as if when played, the music makes time stand still, and creates a room where the ghosts of musicians long gone are resurrected in new and often frightening ways, offering us new and strange perspectives on what we thought was already figured out. Chuck Berry may have left the building, but his many ghosts still haunt our waking and sleeping dreams (and perhaps nightmares as well). As Marcus concludes the thoughts he began above, “rock ‘n’ roll may be more than anything a continuum of associations, a drama of direct and spectral connections between songs and performers.”
The songs of Chuck Berry indeed conjure up this “continuum of associations,” and, because they are products of pop culture, are often translated in both strange and familiar ways. This past week I have been reading a lot about how Berry’s songs have influenced other musicians. For instance, we are told that Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” was translated as “Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan. And we all should know that The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” is nothing more than Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” with different lyrics, replacing a surfboard with an automobile. Although John Lennon consistently denied it, “You Can’t Catch Me” was the inspiration for “Come Together,” which ironically signaled the coming apart of The Beatles. And why should we think of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s 1972 hit song “Clair” everytime we listen to Berry’s “Memphis”? These little comparative parlor games have become the stock and trade of music critics and historians–echoed of course by movie critics who are fond of showing how the entire history of the movies can be reduced to two or three pivotal “films” (as movie snobs prefer to say). Of course, Berry didn’t emerge from a vacuum, because his music also took its inspiration from his many predecessors, particularly Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues,” written in 1936 and using the then-popular Hudson Motor Company Terraplane automobile as a metaphor for sexual disfunction (yes, rock ‘n’ roll’s subtext has always been about sex). And who knows what influence Charlie Ryan’s “Hot Rod Lincoln,” the 1955 hit that led to Commander Cody’s later, and better, hit version, might have had. I like to think of “Hot Rod Lincoln” as “Maybelline’s” evil twin.
I see Berry’s ghost every time I watch two of our best car movies: “Two Lane Blacktop” (1971 and soon-to-be-released as a remake again starring James Taylor) and “Vanishing Point” (1971–a good year for car movies). The only thing missing from their soundtracks is “No Particular Place To Go.” And the connections and “continuum of associations” go on and on.
Where all these ramblings lead is to Chuck Berry’s best album he never recorded: Jude Cole’s 1992 “Start The Car,” one of my nominees as best album of the Nineties. From its opening cut, “Start The Car” to its final track, “A Place In The Line,” we hear the ghost of Chuck Berry accompanying Cole’s powerful vocals. A couple of lyrics from this evocative album will suffice:
“Start the car, we gotta move
This ain’t no living, this ain’t no groove
It’s been a long hard road
Come on baby
Let’s drive it home
Start the car . . . . .
We started out for paradise
But this ain’t no promised land”
(shades of Berry’s song “Promised Land”)
Appropriately enough, Cole sings “Maybelline, why can’t you be true” during the audio fade
And in “Open Road” Cole’s protagonist/antagonist sings
“I woke up this morning
In a Motel 5
Brokenhearted, I’m gonna drive through the night
Down the open road
I asked her where we stood
She said Johnny, this ain’t no good.”
I encourage you to seek out Cole’s album this week. It is readily available on various streaming services.
The ghosts of Chuck Berry still haunt us and will continue to do so long after his death. You just have to know where to look to see and hear them.
See you next week with another visit to the haunting world of pop culture.