Not So Much a Poet as a Storyteller
by Thomas Collins
The honorific "poet" has been lavished on Chuck Berry. Music critic and opera composer Gregory Sandow calls him "a poet of the practical life." John Lennon reports that Berry's metrics influenced his own and calls him "the greatest rock and roll poet." Keith Richards invokes the tradition of the troubadour to emphasize the poetic qualities of Berry's lyrics. Berry himself asserts: "poetry is my blood flow." But though it would be nitpicking to argue that Berry's lyrics aren't poetry, they're distinguished first and foremost by techniques more commonly found in fiction.
My reading will focus on Berry's careful use of narrative techniques, including shifts in point of view, expositional structure, sensory detail, dialogue, serialization, indeterminate endings, and what Maupassant scholar Richard Fusco calls "surprise-inversion" endings. The form Berry's lyrics most closely resemble is that of the short story, but classificatory fallacy is a risk. Just as Berry's not exactly A.E. Housman, he's not quite Maupassant either—although his surprise endings are certainly Maupassantian. Many have praised Berry's lyricism, but it's my aim to illustrate how his songs function as compelling stories, distinct in the rock and roll idiom.
Berry builds credible worlds in his lyrics. He sets scenes to evoke physical space, and, like other masters of the telling detail, to develop plot and character. Berry's knack for exposition is on display even in what—given the subtitle: "[Poem]"—he must deem his most poetic lyrics. "My Dream" is written in an abcb rhyme scheme with 20 verses of four lines each. The first 10 verses depict the narrator's imagined dream home, the landscape and weather outside, the architecture of the house itself, the comfort of its fireplace, his pets, and his musical instruments. The narrator's actions include strumming his guitar and plunking on his piano, but it is while he is caring for his pets that he's "unconsciously yearning, and wondering where you're at." Amid the profusion of sensory detail, the apostrophe may go by almost unnoticed, but it establishes the emotive subject of the poem explored more fully in the second half, which begins with "a portrait of [his] angel." In the next four verses he reflects on how his lover asked him to leave, but he doesn't yet reveal how this affected him. Instead, he announces, "Then finally my house," and sits at the windowsill smoking. The abrupt move back to scene and the ruminative pose he assumes encourage a Freudian reading, in which the narrator displaces his amorous devotion into a building project: the perfect "bachelor's nest." So, when he imagines himself reading his "many books," the feeling evoked is not one of intellectual satiation, but of aloneness. Because this detail comes late in the song, after the narrator's longing is evident, it might seem extraneous—if not for the markedly expository opening. The early introduction of specific details, like the "shadowy eaves" and "little raindrops," allow Berry to follow a jarring summary of a relationship's end with a line about the narrator's personal library, which is both illustrative and laden with subtext. Berry does similar scene-setting work in the beginning of "Johnny B. Goode," alluding to Louisiana's evergreens as a way of locating the protagonist's future point of departure with further geographical specificity. In "Tulane," Berry positions the characters not only in a novelty shop, but on the floor behind the counter, adding urgency to already-urgent instructions.
Beyond merely establishing a setting, Berry's generosity with sensory detail lends verisimilitude to his fictive worlds. Particularly adept at conveying visual, auditory and tactile phenomena, he imparts all three at once in "Let It Rock." Pulsations issue from the workers' steel driving hammers, and "when the sun [sinks] low," it suggests both exhaustion and cooling relief. But as the workers scramble to break up the dice game in their tepee, a whistle sounds repeatedly, warning them of danger. In "Nadine," the narrator approaches the oft-remarked "coffee-colored Cadillac" (Bruce Springsteen: "I've never seen a coffee-colored Cadillac, but I know exactly what one looks like"), and as he shoves his way through a crowd, he expresses his fervor with a signal example of his idiosyncratic diction: "I was campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat." He compares Nadine to a "summer breeze," but rather than refreshing, she is fleeting, and as he "[leans] out the taxi window," the wind rushing past must sting.
Berry doesn't stop at the level of the sketch. He creates plausible characters, puts them in conversation, and charts their interactions. In "No Money Down," a man enters a Cadillac showroom, and the dealer says, "Trade in your Ford" before extending an offer for a super-fast, American luxury coupe. The man bursts into rapturous song before regaining his composure and requesting "a yellow convertible four-door De Ville." In "Reelin' and Rockin'," both the bandleader and the narrator, an unflagging dancer, are granted spoken lines. After checking his watch for the fourth time and finding it nearly 10 PM, the narrator encourages his partner: "Dance ballerina girl, go go go!" When he checks his watch for the ninth time, about half an hour later, he realizes that far from a ballerina, the woman he has been dancing with is twice his size, but he keeps on reelin' and rockin'—till the break of dawn. In "Jo Jo Gunne," Berry introduces a whole gaggle of anthropomorphized jungle creatures, rendering an altercation between a lion and an elephant as the other animals bet on the fight.
Rather than establishing a fixed persona, Berry's lyrics inhabit various perspectives. To most efficiently tell his stories, he switches between narrative points of view. In "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," he begins in the third person before introducing a first-person narrator in the second verse. The stylistic similarities—each stanza is five lines, and the final two repeat the song's title—make clear that this is no aberration. The first-person narrator, then, delivers each of the verses that follow. They offer a broad view of history, a mother-daughter conference, the origin story of a classic work of art, and an impossible baseball game. The relationship among these themes is elusive, but a pattern does emerge. They get progressively more enigmatic, and the narrator's emergent identity is a brain-teaser. The questions at his core: who is he, and why does he know this information? In "Sweet Little Sixteen," his discographer Fred Rothwell observes Berry's "consummate ease" in "[slipping] from third-person to first-person to highlight the young girl's desire." In "Havana Moon," Berry takes on the perspective of a Cuban man on a dock, waiting for an American woman to return to him. His first-person account is colored by the supposedly cubano-inflected replacement of "me" for "I" and "my." This may seem a cheap device on which to base a song about drinking rum the tropical heat, but as always, Berry is in fact quite attentive to differences in language. From the recesses of the inebriated man's brain, Berry brings forth his recognition: "till then" is an American nicety delivered in lieu of "goodbye," and he'll never see the woman again.
While always intended for the listener's gratification, Berry's lyrics sometimes address a third party. In the epistolary "Dear Dad," a son relays his frustration with a sluggardly automobile, revealing his disloyalty to the family business when he signs off "Henry Junior Ford." In "Memphis," the narrator pleads into the telephone to be connected to his six-year-old daughter. Berry says the song is inspired by "a very old and quiet bluesy selection by Muddy Waters," but the relationship seems pretty distant—while both songs do refer to long-distance telephone calls, Waters addresses first a lover and then no one in particular where Berry takes the leap of addressing the operator. As his narrator tries to get connected to a party we ultimately learn is his daughter, he fills in details of plot, such as his estrangement from the girl's mother. The telephone line's additional level of mediation may seem an impediment to the revealing of character and emotion, but as in Amy Hempel's story "Reference #388475848-5," which begins "To: Parking Violations Bureau, New York City" and then careens unstably between memories, the anonymity and spatial separation actually serve as incubators of intimacy.
Berry is thorough in his provision of the particulars—objects, characters and speech—that allow stories to function, but he's not always inclined to provide a neatly wrapped ending. While many may approach his songs seeking resolution, by ending them ambiguously, Berry encourages what Robert Christgau has called an "active relationship," in which individual listeners write their own endings. The narrator of "Maybellene" pulls his V-8 Ford steady alongside a Coupe De Ville at 95 miles per hour. The Cadillac later pulls ahead, and the Ford overheats. Then, when rain cools the motor off, the narrator once again runs up on his fellow motorist. It is certain that Maybellene is atop a hill half a mile ahead, but is she sitting like a ton of lead or moving at 110? And when the narrator catches her, is it a moment's visual apprehension before she disappears down the other side of the hill, or does he actually catch up with her, and then what happens? "Jaguar and Thunderbird" picks up again at the crest of a hill, with a sheriff closing in on the titular, speeding automobiles. He counts on a tailwind and the downward grade, but the T-Bird and Jaguar maintain a yard's lead when they cross the county line. A voice implores them to "slow down" and "keep cool," but is this an assurance of safety, or is it the sheriff behind them, hanging out his window and yelling into a bullhorn?
It is not for lack of control that Berry leaves many of his songs open-ended. In other instances, he skillfully manipulates form, waiting until the ends of stories to divulge information that echoes back through the text and forces a reappraisal. Fusco describes this "surprise-inversion," a signature Maupassant technique, as "a twist . . . often in the last paragraph and sometimes in the last sentence . . . that forces [the] audience to invert its perspective of a character or of a circumstance." A striking use of this device, the signature at the end of "Dear Dad," asks one to reimagine the history of the Ford Motor Company— was the company ever producing such inadequate automobiles and in such dire straits financially that its founder would be unable to procure a proper vehicle for his son? In "Havana Moon," the narrator's pipe dream of a New York high-rise apartment reveals his na´vetÚ, so it's unsurprising when he finally figures on the American girl's deceit and goes to sleep with his rum. It is shocking when the fixated woman seems to step ashore to search for him. But does she really wander the harbor, and does one of the narrator's friends happen to apprise him of this unfamiliar woman? Or are the boat, the searching woman, and her cry only part a dream from which the narrator is awoken? If everything is a dream, what is to be made of the boat he sees heading for the horizon? Is it a hallucination or a coincidence? Is this poor drunk a gullible fool, or is he just exceedingly unlucky?
Like many fiction writers, Berry revisits the characters that most compel him. As Tulane is given her encore in "Have Mercy Judge," Johnny B. Goode and Marie are too brought back for more. In "Bye Bye Johnny," the rocker's mother is further developed, and she sends him off to Hollywood. In "Little Marie," the narrator accepts a long-distance collect call from his young daughter's mother, and before he hangs up, he's again offered a place in their home. Since he's a Chuck Berry character at the end of a song, the decision is left unmade.
Berry is a storyteller of the highest caliber. He writes nuanced characters and scenes. He is playful, witty, and uncompromising. When he conjures a cliffhanger, the listener, far from frustrated by the lack of closure, is awed by the mystery Berry has created. Even when he confounds, he delights. A revision of Lennon's pronouncement, so that Berry becomes "the greatest rock and roll storyteller," is in order. But who would worry one way or another about a silly nickname like that if he were the Father of Rock and Roll?
Berry, Chuck. Chuck Berry: The Autobiography. New York: Harmony, 1987. Print. Christgau, Robert. "Chuck Berry." The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. New York: Rolling Stone, 1976. 1-8. Print.
Fusco, Richard. "The Surprise-Inversion Story." Maupassant and the American Short Story: The Influence of Form at the Turn of the Century. University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 2004. 21-33. Print.
Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. Dir. Taylor Hackford. Prod. Keith Richards, Chuck Berry, and Stephanie Bennett. Perf. Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Johnnie Johnson, Roy Orbison, Joey Spampinato, Chuck Leavell, Bobby Keys, Steve Jordan, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Linda Ronstadt, Etta James, Julian Lennon, Joe Walsh, Ingrid Berry. Universal, 1987. Online.
Hempel, Amy. "Reference #388475848-5." The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. New York: Scribner, 2006. 337-45. Print.
Jacobson, Mark. "The Father of Rock 'n' Roll Turns Seventy-Five, Irascibly." Teenage Hipster in the Modern World: From the Birth of Punk to the Land of Bush: Thirty Years of Apocalyptic Journalism. New York: Grove, 2005. 46-52. Print.
Rothwell, Fred. Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry's Recorded Legacy. York: Music Mentor, 2001. Print.
Sandow, Gregory. "Chuck Berry: Beyond Beethoven." Editorial. Village Voice [New York] 24 Nov. 1987: 1-6. Print.
A list of the Chuck Berry songs discussed. The year the songs were recorded is included. This information is in Fred Rothwell's Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry's Recorded Legacy.
Year Title 1955 Maybellene 1955 No Money Down 1956 Brown Eyed Handsome Man 1956 Havana Moon 1956 Too Much Monkey Business 1957 Reelin' and Rockin' 1957 Sweet Little Sixteen 1958 Jo Jo Gunne 1958 Johnny B. Goode 1958 Memphis 1959 Let It Rock 1960 Bye Bye Johnny 1960 Jaguar and Thunderbird 1963 Nadine 1964 Dear Dad 1964 Little Marie 1969 Have Mercy Judge 1969 Tulane 1971 My Dream
Also see our other articles about and tribute to Chuck Berry
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