There is a Chuck Berry song in space. I don't recall which one, but some sage chose it to go up in one of those NASA deep-space probes, along with other recordings and artifacts of the human experience.
Some scientists like to think it was alien bacteria landing on Earth in an asteroid, spacecraft or pink Coupe de Ville untold years ago that began the whole sequence of life here. I'd like to see the life that develops on any planet infected by Berry's space-bound music. Given less than half a century to incubate here, it has had a pervasive effect.
"If you tried to give rock & roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry," John Lennon once said, and why not? Elvis Presley may have made a bigger splash, but it was Berry who set the standard to which rockers from Buddy Holly to Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones—and onward—aspired.
Unlike Elvis, Berry was self-contained, developing a cocky signature guitar style that, while perfectly suiting his lyrics, also became the basic architecture of rock; those lyrics were sly, lean poetry that slipped unfettered sex and social commentary into his idealized candy-apple images of American life.
He sang about refrigerators and soda pop and filling stations and baseball, but there was always something else going on. In "No Particular Place to Go," Berry celebrated the sexual liberation of American youth brought about by the automobile. With his eye for the new, Berry wrote about then-optional seat belts, seeing in them man's ancient nemesis, the chastity belt:
Riding along in my calaboose, still trying to get her belt a-loose, All the way home I held a grudge, for the safety belt that wouldn't budge, Cruisin' and playing the radio, with no particular place to go.
I'd put that alongside Walt Whitman any day when it comes to catching the cadence of the USA.
Berry's seen it all. He's been imprisoned twice, at least one of those times for the crime of being black in America. He's also been feted by a president—at last year's Kennedy Center Honors. After being ripped off in his earlier years, he now has one of the most exacting and demanding contract riders in the music business, making sure that if anybody gets screwed this time, Chuck Berry Esq., will be the party applying the Vaseline.
I haven't seen him play in a few years, but the last time—and most times before that—it has sure been rock & roll. Chuck shows up, unpacks his guitar, says a howdeedo to backing musicians he's probably never seen before, and starts to play. More often than not, his guitar is wildly out of tune, so much so that the band can barely discern what key he's in. No matter: he bludgeons you with a blunt instrument instead of a sharp one, and you're just as ravaged when he's done. He entertains. He reads poetry. Even when he's singing his ancient hits there's a sense of immediacy, like he's walking a tightrope up there. He plays wildly abstract versions of his old licks, the way they might be played by whatever life form develops on Planet X 6 million years hence. He rocks, Chuck does.
Photo by Jack Gould
In the late 1980s, I once worked as a gofer backstage at a music-awards show at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. X co-founder John Doe was sitting there, waiting to go onstage and strumming an acoustic guitar. His wails echoed through the hall, sounding something like this: "YAAAAR, GUUUUHHH, FRAAAAAMP, FOURTH OF JULY, YAAAAR, GUUUUHHH, FRAAAAAMP . . ." Doe then stopped, looked up from his strings and eyeballed me. "How 'bout a beer?" he asked. I went to the cooler. Empty. A promoter handed me some bills and sent me across the street to pick up mass quantities of brewskis. Typical promoter: he'd only given me a few bucks. Forced to ante up with what little cash of my own I had on me, I dejectedly walked back to the Wiltern. Somehow, the two 12-packs of the King of Beers I was lugging would have to satisfy the hundreds of musicians and hangers-on backstage. I'd hardly opened the door when Doe swooped down, reached into a shopping bag, ripped open a 12-pack box, pulled out an ice-cold one and grabbed my shoulder. "Hey, buddy," he whispered, "take the rest up to my dressing room." My advice to Hootenanny promoters: stock beer.
Fronted by swaggering hellion Eddie Spaghetti, the raucous four-piece Supersuckers are an electrifying cocktail of loud guitars, hedonism and bravado. Their most recent bio suggests you "play it so loud that you can't even hear it" because "Supersuckers aren't made for listening; they're made for living inside your nutsack." Yeah! Woo! We don't know exactly what that means, but it's worth thinking about. In fact, when asked if he'd like Supersuckers living in his nutsack, co-worker Chris Ziegler had this to say: "It's ironic that you ask because I'm currently looking for a place for me to live, and I was originally looking for a two- or three-bedroom apartment." When asked to please just answer the question and not use it as an excuse to talk about himself, Ziegler grew pensive. "How many people are in the band?" he asked. "Four," we replied, "two per sack." "Oh," said Ziegler thoughtfully. "That's too bad because I have a three-bedroom nutsack, no smoking, no pets, very quiet, detached washer/dryer. Must see to believe." Sorry, Supersuckers. We tried our best to house you in Ziegler's balls, but it doesn't seem like it's going to work out.
—Alison M. Rosen
Photo by Myles Robinson
Is there anyone on the planet who loves rockabilly more than Lee Rocker? When discussing the music and its pioneers, the former Stray Cats bassist and Laguna Beach resident is given to the type of wild-eyed ebullience most males of the species reserve for discourse on the merits of J.Lo's naughty bits. Therefore, I can't think of a guy worthier of a partnership with guitarist Scotty Moore—who, it could reasonably be argued, served as prime architect of rockabilly while playing with Elvis Presley in the early Sun Records days. (Sadly, Moore is having health problems and won't be appearing this year as originally announced; Dave Edmunds, veteran roots rocker and producer of some of the Stray Cats' best sides, will perform as Rocker's special guest.) But there's more to Rocker than mere enthusiasm. With his aggressive yet melodic upright-bass style, jump blues-inflected vocals and unusual (for rockabilly guys) pop instinct as a songwriter, Rocker is among the few who have moved the method forward and helped it evolve beyond the pieties of 1955. Thank ya, sir.
Big Sandy is among the most popular greaser boys on the scene, a spiritual guide for western swing and boogie with his band, the Fly-Rite Boys. And he has produced several mostly wonderful albums. But when he decides to spread his wings a little, Sandy's fans seem to want to clip them, as if he's some kind of disobedient parrot suddenly speaking a harsh and unpleasant foreign language. Consider: a few years ago, Sandy released a superb R&B/doo-wop album, Dedicated to You, that really let his prodigious vocal talents shine. Yet according to a muckamuck at his label, Hightone Records, it was Sandy's poorest-selling album. On his last effort, Night Tide, Anaheim's favorite son stretched further with darkly poetic lyrics and unconventional-yet-effective song structures. For this, he was roundly dissed. When will people give this man some space? Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys are always among the highlights of any roots-music festival they grace.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Russell Scott is a large, bearish creature renowned for brawling and partying but who croons in an incongruously pretty, tenderhearted voice—you might think you're listening to a former lead alto with the Vienna Boys' Choir gone over to the devil's side. Ostensibly set up as a rockabilly band, Scott and his Red Hots regale hot-rod cretins with covers by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte and even (gasp!) the Beatles, along with a host of splendid (and equally eclectic) originals. Somehow, the band makes it work, putting on a show that weeps, rages, caresses the soul and punches in crazed flurries. If there has been a drawback to Scott's career, it's the lack of recorded product—one out-of-print vinyl EP and a single CD in his many years on the scene. My advice, big fella: get your overalled ass into the studio, whatever it takes, and seal your legacy already.