(Since literature and music are two of my biggest passions, I am naturally fascinated by rock memoirs. I find much significance within these books, and in the shadows that surround them. The Great Lost Rock Memoir is a new Literary Kicks series devoted to the art and psychology of the rock memoir, with a special emphasis on older books that may now be out of print. Today, we’re examining the memoir of one of the most brilliant, innovative and courageous singer-songwriters of all time: Mr. Chuck Berry of St. Louis, Missouri.)
It’s fitting that the guy who singlehandedly invented rock and roll when he recorded a song called “Mabellene” at Chess studios in Chicago on May 21, 1955 would later become an early innovator in the rock memoir field. Chuck Berry: The Autobiography was published in 1987, when the author was sixty years old. He wrote the book without a ghostwriter, and says so in the opening sentence:
This book is entirely written, phrase by phrase, by yours truly, Chuck Berry.
The prickly pride revealed in this declaration is familiar to anybody who follows Chuck Berry, an artist known for being irascible, contrary and unpredictable. His genius for spontaneous creativity mixed with interpersonal dysfunctionality is best shown by his typical refusal to rehearse with the backup bands hired to play behind him in concert. I’ve enjoyed a couple of Chuck Berry concerts, and I’ve seen how the edgy uncertainty of an unrehearsed band playing a headline show with a legend always adds some electricity to the room. The unpredictable liveliness of his shows is one reason that 86-year-old Chuck Berry still packs houses today (see him while you can).
He also writes an electrifying memoir, and not the superficial memoir one might expect. As a songwriter, Chuck Berry is rarely introspective or analytical. He’s more of a humorist with a guitar, specializing in clever, naughty rhymes. His lyrics also reveal a warm emotional sensitivity, a breezy way with descriptive detail, and a big taste for delicious words in harmonious meters.
He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack
or sit beneath the tree by the railroad track
Old engineer could see him sitting in the shade
strummin’ to the rhythm that the drivers made
People passing by they’d stop and say
Oh my, but that little country boy can play
It was the gunny sack that did it. Berry knows how to grab and hold a listener’s attention, but The Autobiography delves into the gritty reality behind the colorful lyrical washes of his songs. For this reason, the book deserves to be taken seriously — it’s Chuck Berry’s last great published work in any medium, and certainly stands as a key to understanding the twisted tale of his great American career.
This is a bitter tale, punctuated by three separate jail terms. As a teenager, Berry joined a couple of friends in an impulsive car theft using a gun, and quickly got caught. Berry served his years, practicing with his guitar in the cell, and then began performing in nightclubs in St. Louis and East St. Louis before wandering up to Chicago to audition for Chess Records.
Fame and money hit him fast, and he recollects in The Autobiography that he was so dazzled by the money in these early years that he barely paused to think about the fame, or about the deeper potential of his craft. Part of the reason was the anxiety that the money carried with it.
Brought up in the waning years of Jim Crow, Chuck Berry was painfully aware that being a suddenly wealthy “black man” in America would not be an easy position to manage. He took small risks, planting sly sideways references to race in many of his songs (the “little country boy” in the quote above could easily be heard as “little colored boy”). Eventually, he started taking bigger risks by carrying on in public with white women. It all came crashing down when he was caught transporting a woman across state lines “for illicit purposes”. At the height of his fame, Chuck Berry was sent back to jail.
Decades later, he would go to jail a third time for tax evasion. It’s during this third prison stay, he tells us, that he wrote the first draft of this memoir.
Jailtime was the least of his problems with racial provocation, and general bitterness over racial injustice in America is a major note in The Autobiography. Sexual priapism provides another, different major note in this book. Whether discussing his lust for women (his apparently long-suffering wife Toddy gets several approving mentions from Chuck, along with many other women) or recounting his tough run-ins with corrupt record company executives or policemen, Chuck Berry’s voice in this book is the same winking, shrugging voice we remember from his songs. Here he’s talking about the different kinds of music he’s written, and why he’s never been very good at writing love songs.
What about slow songs, love songs, or blues? I like! In fact, I love love songs when loving my love, just as I dig blues when I’m blue. The thing about a love song is that one is not likely to be able to compose a real good one if one is not endowed with that magnificent feeling during the process of writing it. So far in my career, I have felt or lived what I’ve written and have yet to mix dollars with desire — or better still, commerce with passion. I’ve been in love much more than twice, but in no period did I have the least desire to expose these beautiful intimacies in a song.
Often in this book he is reflective and pensive:
I’m just me, not always doing my duck walk or picking guitar. I sit and think, cry, freak out, or just plain do nothing. Sometimes while doing the first, I’ve been asked, “What’s wrong, Chuck?” I want to say, “You’ve just invaded my thoughts!” But to a person merely concerned, that would appear rude. They’re serious and I suppose without thinking they don’t realize that what they have always and only seen me do is but an hour of the days that make the months that compile the years of things I’ve done.
Perhaps the most stirring pages in this memoir are in the opening chapter, when Chuck Berry relates the history of his distant slave ancestors, from whom he has been able to track direct descent:
The Wolfolk Plantation was adjacent to another called the Johnson House Plantation, whose population had just been increased with an infant slave boy of slave parentage named John Johnson. As word had been passed down, John Johnson and Cellie Wolfolk first met on the Johnson House Plantation when they were in their late teens, during a harvest when Johnson House would borrow help from neighboring plantations.
This book does what a memoir should: it reveals a whole person. We see that Chuck Berry is a deeply complex and often conflicted artist who maintains a strong balance of power with anybody he perceives as an opponent, and who carries himself with a high degree of composure (he’s a reclusive family man, he steers clear of alcohol and drugs, he watches his money very closely). Berry’s obsession with control can be seen in his live performances. I was at the show seen in this unauthorized 2008 recording from the B. B. King club in Times Square, New York. This video captures the live Chuck Berry Experience pretty well, since Berry appears to be doing his best to butcher his most legendary song, “Johnny B. Goode”:
Is he mangling keys and fluffing entrances because he’s too old to play the song correctly? Well, he is 81 years old here, but I don’t think we’re watching a senile performance at all. I was at the show, and I’m convinced he’s screwing with the song on purpose. He does this because he’s Chuck Berry, because he’s contrary as hell, and because he’s in charge, not you. Here’s a sharper rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” from 1972:
Like many rock memoirs of the past, Chuck Berry: The Autobiography does not appear to currently be in print from any publisher, and is definitely not in wide circulation. It deserves a greater regard, as the personal testimony of a creative genius, as the history of an African-American musician during a transitional era … and as a clever, winking narrative by a master storyteller who knows what chords to play.