I can’t remember when I first heard of Chuck Berry. I dimly knew of him before “My Ding-a-Ling” hit the radio in 1972, and I suspect I knew he was a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll, but that’s it. As the 50s pop culture nostalgia wave crested in the middle of the 1970s, he would have been just another member of the gallery—and I choose the word gallery deliberately instead of pantheon, because they were just guys to me then—the people whose music invoked the vibe of an era I wasn’t old enough to remember.
It would be a few years before I learned more about Chuck Berry, and it’s likely that my education came from a syndicated radio show. At my first paying radio job, it was my responsibility to play the tapes of Sunday at the Memories, hosted by longtime Colorado jock Ray Durkee. Although the show spanned many decades, Durkee loved the 50s the most, and the first historical context I had for Chuck Berry probably came from him.
Since then, I’ve learned that it’s hard to overstate Chuck Berry’s place not just in music history, but in history, period. Charles Hughes, author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South, tweeted Saturday night that Berry was “the primary author of the Declaration of Independence,” which is a superb metaphor for what Berry did. His music was liberation on 45: in his songs, kids didn’t have to be dutiful students and couples didn’t have to keep one foot on the floor. Like Thomas Jefferson in his Declaration, Chuck Berry told us that the course is ours to chart; we don’t have to answer to oppressors just because they say we do, or because we’ve answered to them up til now. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that any teenager who ever rebelled against a parent, a teacher, a cop—any authority figure—is one of Chuck’s children.
A lot of the memorializing of Berry mentions his jail time, his tax troubles, his insistence on being paid in cash, and his quirky performing style in recent years (performing in medley form, rarely a whole song, baffling the pickup bands who backed him as they tried to keep up). But all of that is trivia, and it doesn’t erode Chuck Berry’s place on rock ‘n’ roll’s Mt. Rushmore.
Scientists think that the faces on Mt. Rushmore will be there eons from now. Chuck Berry’s influence might last about as long. Last summer, Chuck Klosterman published But What If We’re Wrong?, in which he tried to imagine which certainties of today might eventually be proven wrong, just as the certainties of 500 and 300 and 100 years have been proven wrong. As part of the thought experiment, he asked which single artist will stand for rock ‘n’ roll a century or two from now, just as John Philip Sousa stands for the entire genre of martial music from 100 years ago. Klosterman settled on Chuck Berry.
And there’s this: On April 22, 1978, Saturday Night Live broadcast the single greatest episode in its history. The last sketch of the night featured Steve Martin, Laraine Newman, Dan Aykroyd, and Jane Curtin as psychics predicting tomorrow’s headlines. Martin’s character predicted that a message from extraterrestrials would appear on the cover of the next week’s Time magazine, sent after they intercepted the famous Voyager Golden Record, which had been launched into space the previous August. Among other artifacts, the record contained audio samples of human culture, including “Johnny B. Goode.” “It may be just four simple words,” Martin says of the message, “but it is the first positive proof that other intelligent beings inhabit the universe.” And then he holds up the cover, which reads, “Send more Chuck Berry.”
They know. As we should.
I don’t do a lot of obituary posts at this blog because other people do them better than I do. Professor O’Kelly knocked out a beauty on Saturday night, for example. This piece from The Guardian, although it’s Anglo-centric and some of the references will be lost on Americans, is really good on Berry’s revolutionary role. Stephen T. Erlewine says that Berry was the sound of 20th century America. And you should read Peter Guralnick’s memories of Berry because you should read everything Peter Guralnick writes.
(Pictured: Greg Lake at a snowy rehearsal for an outdoor show in Montreal, 1977.)
We went to grade school together, and to the same church. When I started to really notice her, she was tall, with long hair, and glasses that made her look really intelligent (which she was), and I liked her.
She liked me, too, although not in the same way I liked her. I am sure you understand the difference.
It should have been easy. I should have been able to open my mouth and say, “Would you like to go to a movie/the dance/the game with me?” But I could not form those words in her presence.
One day, I hit upon an alternate plan. A conversation among a bunch of kids had gotten around to music, and she mentioned a group that she liked: Emerson Lake and Palmer. I had heard of them, but I hadn’t heard anything by them. And I made the following leap of logic: She likes ELP. If you listen to ELP, maybe you will like them too, and that might make her start to like you the way you like her.
I see now that there were some flaws in the plan, but 14-year-old me thought it made a lot of sense.
So I borrowed a copy of Brain Salad Surgery. (It might have been hers, actually; she was a kind and generous person even at 14. Or I may have snagged it from the public library.) Honesty compels me to report that I had trouble figuring out what she liked about it. I wouldn’t be confused for long, however. My adolescent prog-rock stage was not far off, and within a year or so, I became an ELP obsessive.
I was a keyboard nerd, so Keith Emerson was the focus for me. But Lake’s voice was the perfect instrument for the stories the band wanted to tell: the war between humanity and computers in “Karn Evil 9,” the brief and tragic love between a soldier and a nurse in the overlooked “Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman” from the otherwise-disastrous album Love Beach, the wild west tale of “The Sheriff,” and whatever the hell “Tarkus” is about. Several of his songs from the Works albums, co-written with Peter Sinfield—especially “Closer to Believing,” “C’est La Vie,” “Lend Your Love to Me Tonight,” and “Watching Over You”—are powerfully romantic. Lake’s acoustic guitar work on “Lucky Man,” “From the Beginning,” and “I Believe in Father Christmas” is beautiful, and his electric solo on “Battlefield” from the live album Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends still blows me out of my chair.
In 1977, Emerson Lake and Palmer played two shows in Madison within
an eight-month a five-month span. I went to both. If she went to either, it wasn’t with me. We were friendly all through school, though, and we stayed in touch after we went to separate colleges. One year, we were at the same New Year’s Eve party and she let me kiss her at midnight. She invited me to her wedding, and as I sat in the church, a guy in his 20s with his own life and his own wife, a little piece of my heart broke as she went up the aisle.
And suddenly, it’s 2016. Greg Lake dies, and somebody posts the story on Facebook. She comments, and I decide to jump on. “True story that you probably don’t know,” I write. “I started listening to Emerson Lake and Palmer because you said you liked them, and it was easier than asking you for a date.”
“I hope they brought you the years of happiness that they did for me,” she responds. “And I’d have probably said yes.”
(Pictured: the Raiders, whose 1971 hit “Indian Reservation” has an interesting backstory.)
In this cursed year of 2016, which has cost us so many people we love and led to so much misery besides, you may have failed to notice the death of singer/songwriter John D. Loudermilk in September. He was 82, and he died having written or co-written a number of songs in the late 50s and early 60s that were once quite familiar, and may still be familiar to the sort of geek who hangs out in these parts: the garage-rocker “Tobacco Road,” first recorded by the Nashville Teens; “Waterloo,” a big country hit for Stonewall Jackson; “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” recorded by the Casinos and later by Eddy Arnold; “Abilene” and “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” both hits for country-pop singer George Hamilton IV; the Everly Brothers’ “Ebony Eyes”; “Sittin’ in the Balcony,” made famous by Eddie Cochran; “Norman,” “Paper Tiger,” and “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry),” recorded by Sue Thompson; and the country smash “Talk Back Trembling Lips,” a #1 country hit for Ernest Ashworth, with pop covers by Johnny Tillotson and others.
(Digression: listening to some of these songs while writing this post, I found it remarkable how many of them I remember hearing on Mother and Dad’s radio before I had one of my own. You couldn’t turn on country radio in the late 60s without hearing something by John D. Loudermilk, apparently.)
Loudermilk hit the Hot 100 four times himself: his version of “Sittin’ in the Balcony,” released under the name Johnny Dee, hit #38 in 1957, and “Language of Love” reached #32 in 1961. He also hit the country chart twice between 1963 and 1965. Loudermilk’s most famous song, however, is “Indian Reservation (Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian).” He recorded it himself in 1960, and Englishman Don Fardon hit #20 on the Hot 100 with his version in 1968. In the summer of 1971, “Indian Reservation” became a #1 hit for the Raiders in a version that sounds a lot like Fardon’s.
“Indian Reservation” plays a part in one of the most infamous moments in the history of American Top 40. Casey Kasem considered Loudermilk’s story of how the song was written to be the most incredible tale he ever presented. Loudermilk told AT40 that after his car got stuck in a mountain snowdrift during a blizzard, he was kidnapped by a group of Cherokee Indians, including one who called himself Chief Bloody Bear Tooth. They held him hostage, performing Indian rituals and torturing him. When they found out he was a songwriter, they asked him to write a song about the struggles faced by American Indians. He refused, and the torture got worse. Finally, figuring it was his only chance at survival, Loudermilk consented to write the song, and his captors let him go after four days. After a few years, when the song became a big hit, the Cherokees’ message finally got out.
Casey told the story on a 1971 edition of the program and repeated it in November 1975 (on an edition of AT40 recently rebroadcast around the country), emphasizing again how it was the most unbelievable tale AT40 had ever told.
Unbelievable is right. The story was a complete fabrication, a trick played by Loudermilk on his AT40 interviewer. This much is true: he was asked by a Cherokee tribal leader to write a song about the Indians’ plight, but it didn’t require any torture to get him to consent. Years later, Loudermilk learned that his great-great grandparents were Cherokee, and that they had been marched west on the infamous Trail of Tears.
John D. Loudermilk didn’t really try to hide the fact that he made the whole thing up. According to his New York Times obituary, the liner notes of his 1971 album Volume 1: Elloree include the words, “P.S. My regards to Bloody Bear Tooth.”
(Pictured: Muhammad Ali speaks to students at St. John’s University in 1971.)
I wasn’t going to write about Muhammad Ali. Others have more interesting things to say and will say them better. But I found myself thinking about growing up in the 70s while Ali was becoming the legend we lost last week. This post is off-topic in that it has nothing to do with music, but squarely on-topic in that it’s very much about the time to which this blog is forever returning.
Back in the days when hamburgers cost a dime and a family of four could eat for less than five bucks, when I was no more than five or six years old, we sat down in a fast-food restaurant, and at a table nearby was a black family.
I had never seen a real live black person before. There was a mother and father and a couple of kids about our age—in other words, a mirror image of us, except for the black part—and we watched them eat the way you’d watch a family of exotic animals in the wild. (I have tried to think of a kinder way to describe it, more than 50 years later, but it’s the only simile that fits.)
I will not tell you exactly what was said around our table as we watched, what my parents told us about black people, only that it was not said with malice; it was the kind of misinformation that came from having utterly no personal experience with them apart from hearsay. They didn’t know any black people, and I doubt they had ever met any, or even seen many, growing up as they did in the rural Midwest from the 30s to the 50s. Nevertheless, in that time, and in the 1960s I’m talking about here, lily-white Midwesterners casually threw around the words “darkie” and “nigger” (although my parents did not), and those words made clear that whoever such people were, they were not like us.
Because black people were not like us, when Muhammad Ali refused to report for induction into the military in 1967, and when he returned to boxing in 1970 and became famous once more for his outspokenness, he was not especially well-liked in my lily-white Midwestern world. I can’t remember what I thought, but March of 1971, many in my world rooted for quiet Joe Frazier to shut loudmouth Ali up. And even as Ali’s fame grew—and as we became more accustomed to flashy black athletes, and we granted greater respect to African Americans in general—there was still resistance to him. Watching him verbally spar with Howard Cosell on Wide World of Sports was entertaining, but it could be jarring at the same time. Nobody else talked like that. Nobody either black or white, but Ali’s blackness, because it was alien to so many, made his flamboyance seem especially outlandish. When he lost to Leon Spinks in February of 1978 (a rare fight that was on broadcast TV in prime time when we could see it), many people were happy the next morning that Spinks had shut loudmouth Ali up. He was the most famous man in the world, yes, but universally beloved, not yet.
Ali’s reputation, from the 60s to the 80s, was a more problematic thing than we like to remember. Not because of him—hindsight and the judgments of history have shown us that Ali was being the only man it was possible for him to be. It’s because of us, and how we thought about him and those like him.
I believe I am–and I hope that you are—kinder and wiser than we once were toward those whose experiences we do not, cannot share, those of other races, genders, and sexual orientations. Muhammad Ali’s uncompromising pursuit of what he needed to be helped show us how we needed to be. It was not his responsibility to earn our respect. It became our responsibility to give it to him.
(Pictured: Prince takes a bow after playing the halftime show at Super Bowl XLI in 2007.)
After Prince died last month, I wrote a post about him that never got out of the drafts folder, because the day after his death was not the time to be critical of any aspect of his work. I’m not sure a month later is the right time, either, but one paragraph of that post seems worthy of the light of day.
From “Soft and Wet” on forward, you’d have a hard time finding an artist more consistently sexual/sensual than Prince. Michael Jackson sang about matters physical even though it was hard to imagine him even speaking to a woman, let alone bedding one. In the 80s, at least, Madonna was as much about teasing as she was about actually getting it on. Prince, on the other hand, often sounded like he’d just extricated himself from a partner (or two, or three) and hurried out of the sack to make the session. Sometimes, his viewpoint was pubescent: “Sugar Walls,” which he wrote and produced for Sheena Easton, is built on a metaphor that’s only sexy if you’re 12 years old; “U Got the Look,” a duet he cut with Easton, contains the lines “If love is good / Let’s get to rammin'”; Rolling Stone‘s obituary notes that he wanted Vanity, one of his protegés, to call herself “Vagina.” His “Darling Nikki” bears a great deal of responsibility for the Parents Music Resource Center and the parental advisory stickering of albums.
I’m not a prude—not by a long shot—but the sexual content of Prince’s records seemed pandering to me, at least to the person I was in the 80s. It seemed to me then that his focus on sex was a cheap way of getting noticed, and that he was capable of better. But I understand now what a significant aspect of his artistic vision it was. Certain artists in more recent times have tried going the same way—Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, and Beyoncé, for example—but Prince got there first. And probably best.
Plausibly Related: I have not mentioned it here or on Twitter, although I did post a note on Facebook when it happened: my father-in-law died on April 12. (Today would have been his 80th birthday.) Hal had been in failing health for two or three years, and in a nursing home on Cape Cod for about a year. The Mrs. had just visited him during the first weekend in April, and he went into the hospital for the last time a few days after that. We were on the Cape a couple of weekends ago for a memorial service; at some point this summer, there will be a service in western Iowa, where he will be buried next to Ann’s mother, who died in 1992.
I have written about my father’s collection of polka 45s and my mother’s talents as a piano player. But Ann’s parents didn’t seem to be into music all that much. I never saw a record collection in any of their houses; Ann says they had only a few Christmas albums. When she and her siblings were growing up, her parents listened mostly to classical music or easy listening on the radio, but strictly as background. They weren’t consciously putting on Mozart, or anything like that.
After Hal remarried, he seems to have gotten into music a bit more, most likely influenced by his new spouse. A couple of years ago, as he was divesting himself of possessions he didn’t need or want to keep, we inherited a box of CDs that contained some jazz and several terrific Time-Life easy-listening compilations—Henry Mancini, Mantovani, Roger Williams, and so on. The box also contained Robert Palmer’s 1992 album Ridin’ High, a album of jazz and pop standards.
There is one rock ‘n’ roll story that involves Hal. He had a sister who lived in the Seattle area, and after one visit there, he told us about a friend of his sister’s he had met. The friend said her daughters played in a band.
“I think you might know who they are,” Hal said. “The Wilson sisters.”
We thought about it for a second. “You mean Heart?”
“Yes, that’s it.”
(Pictured: Merle Haggard, on set for a performance of “Okie From Muskogee” on ABC’s Music Scene in October 1969.)
Over the past weekend I spent several hours on airplanes, time made far more bearable by Merle Haggard: The Running Kind by David Cantwell, published in 2013. It’s not a biography of Haggard, although it does tell the story of his life in a roundabout way; it’s a series of essays mostly about Haggard’s songs, albums, and influences, focusing largely on his most fertile period, from the middle of the 1960s through the middle of the 1980s. On Monday, I spent the day listening to the Haggard compilation Down Every Road: 1962-1994.
I have said many times that I became a radio listener partly because my parents were listeners. Before I had favorite stations of my own, I was exposed to whatever they were listening to—polkas and WGN and a lot of country music. And as I listened to Haggard’s early hits this week, I can’t claim to have recognized them, exactly, but the sound was unmistakable. During the middle-to-late 60s, Haggard’s songs (and country music in general) had a particular style—so much so that when Cantwell was quoting the lyrics of songs I didn’t know, I could hear them, and when I played them on Monday, the words came out mostly as I had imagined. Also, country music of that period conformed to a particular sonic template, not always twangy and “down home” (whatever that means, exactly), but often quite smooth, graceful, even gentle, as Nashville’s “countrypolitan” sound pushed for crossover success. Haggard’s songs about hard times, failed love, drinking to excess, and/or the urge to roam are never undignified, even at their most raw and honest, and that includes his most famous crossover hits during this period, “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
Despite the time I spent in the 1970s absorbing my parents’ country music by accident and my years as a country radio DJ shortly thereafter (1979 to 1984, approximately), not all of Haggard’s biggest hits were familiar to me. True, I knew a lot of them: “Mama Tried,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” “If We Make It Through December,” “The Running Kind,” “If We’re Not Back in Love By Monday,” and others. But a couple of them were revelations to me, none greater than his 1972 #1 single, “Carolyn,” a dark, literary twist on the old-fashioned cheating song. (The title of this post is a line from “Carolyn.”)
By the time Down Every Road reached its fourth quarter, it included songs I could remember playing on the radio while they were popular, and a few I hadn’t heard since then. I’d forgotten how great “Misery and Gin” is. On “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” Haggard takes an extended guitar solo of the sort that was (and is) rare on country records. I was enthralled again by “Pancho and Lefty,” technically a duet with Willie Nelson on which Haggard sings only the last verse. (I have dug that song for nearly 35 years now; Cantwell doesn’t care for it, and spends a couple of pages explaining why.) And I remember thinking in 1983, as I do now, that if you want to play one song to showcase Haggard’s voice, “That’s the Way Love Goes” is the one to pick.
You don’t have to be a Haggard fan to appreciate The Running Kind, although it certainly helps if you are. To get a taste of it, read about Haggard’s 1969 Music Scene performance here, in which he had to follow Sly and the Family Stone, and in which he subverted a snotty introduction by program host Tom Smothers.
Not every prolific artist’s life, influences, and worldview can be seen clearly through the prism of their work. The souls of some artists remain hidden even after we’ve listened to them for years. But you can read Merle Haggard’s soul through the music he made, and especially in the book David Cantwell wrote about that music. Both of them—the songs and the book—are very much worth your time.