Sometimes you have to separate artists from the art they create.
With his psychotic episodes and wretched hygiene, Vincent van Gogh was no one’s idea of an ideal dinner guest. Richard Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite. Frank Sinatra was mercurial and, according to many accounts, played footsie with mobsters. Marlon Brando’s personal life was a dysfunctional quagmire up to his last breath.
Groundbreaking work can spring from deeply troubled corners.
And that’s something to keep in mind when it comes to Chuck Berry. The rock and roll pioneer who died Saturday at age 90 was by no means a model citizen. He was tossed in reform school as a teenager after a crime spree that included armed robbery and car theft. As an adult, he spent time in prison for tax evasion and transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes. In his later years, Berry toured with the dogged, strictly-business dedication of a paid mercenary, forgoing his own ensemble for frequently haphazard pick-up bands at each stop, and sometimes arguing with promoters about payment up until he stepped on stage and plugged in his guitar.
Still, it’s a measure of Berry’s accomplishment that, 60 years after his heyday, he managed to get front-page obituaries and glowing encomiums upon his death. Sure, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the generation of musicians that followed him owed Berry a debt, but that debt extends to this day – just about anyone who aspires to write a decent set of lyrics or find their way around a fretboard is following in Berry’s footsteps.
There are a whole host of Berry songs readily known by people around the world who otherwise have only the most cursory knowledge of popular music: “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Maybelline” and “Johnny B. Goode,” the latter of which is embedded on one of the Voyager spacecraft floating deep in outer space.
Aside from his gift for melding country and blues, his swagger and his distinctive guitar licks, Berry was noteworthy for the wit and poetry of his lyrics. When moon, June and spoon predominated, Berry was offering passages like this one, from “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”:
“Arrested on charges of unemployment,
He was sitting in the witness stand
The judge’s wife called up the district attorney
Said you free that brown eyed man
You want your job, you better free that brown eyed man.”
No less an authority than John Lennon called Berry “one of the all-time great poets,” and that he “was well advanced of his time lyric-wise. In the Fifties, when people were virtually singing about nothing, Chuck Berry was writing social-comment songs, with incredible meter to the lyrics. We all owe a lot to him.”
When Berry became a nonagenarian last October, he made a surprise announcement that he had completed work on a new album, his first collection of new material in almost 40 years. It will apparently reach stores in June. Given his age, it was bound to be his swan song even if he had logged another couple of years, and, if Berry’s 1970s albums are any indication, it will be a curio – possibly enjoyable, but not even remotely approaching the white-hot inspiration of his best work. But even if it’s something that might have been best left on the shelf, Berry’s admirers needn’t fret – his legacy is already more than secure.