Chuck Berry: The Purest Distillation of Rock 'n' Roll
Let's assume all the individual components of rock shatter and dissolve, leaving behind a hazy residue that categorizes rock 'n' roll as a collection of memorable tropes. If this transpires, historians will reconstitute the genre like a puzzle. They will look at those tropes as a suit and try to decide who fits that suit best. And that theoretical suit was tailored for Chuck Berry's body. Rock music is simple, direct, rhythm-based music. Berry made simple, direct, rhythm-based music. Rock music is black music mainstreamed by white musicians, particularly white musicians from England. Berry is a black man who directly influenced Keith Richards and Jimmy Page. Rock music is preoccupied with sex. Berry was a sex addict whose only American No. 1 single was about playing with his penis ("My Ding-A-Ling"). Rock music is lawless. Berry went to prison twice before he turned 40. Rock music is tied to myth and legend (so much so that the decline of rock's prominence coincides with the rise of the Internet and the destruction of anecdotal storytelling). Berry is the subject of multiple urban legends, several of which might actually be true and which often seem to involve cheapness, violence and sexual defecation.
"If you tried to give rock and roll another name," John Lennon famously said, "you might call it Chuck Berry." Chuck Berry's persona is the purest distillation of what we understand rock music to be. The songs he made are essential, but secondary to who he was and why he made them.
He is the idea itself.
Adapted from But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman; Photo by Barnabas Bosshart/Corbis
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