The Great Lost Rock Memoir: The Autobiography by Chuck Berry

African-American American Being A Writer Biography Classics Comedy History Love Music Southern Transgressive

(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.

This article is part of the series The Great Lost Rock Memoir. The next post in the series is The Great Lost Jazz Memoir: Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday. The previous post in the series is The Great Lost Rock Memoir: Poison Heart by Dee Dee Ramone.
8 Responses to "The Great Lost Rock Memoir: The Autobiography by Chuck Berry"

by Mari K on

Love this!

This is a great review of one of my favorite books- and certainly one of the three best rock and roll autobiographies that I'm aware of (Bob Dylan's Chronicles and Keith Richards wonderful book both qualify! Thanks for doing it. If anyone wants to explore a deep vein of Chuck Berry obsession, check out my blog at http://goheadon.blogspot.com

by Levi Asher on

Nice to meet you, Peter -- your Chuck site looks like an excellent resource.

by Gary Gillman on

Excellent notes Levi. He is surely one of the greatest figures in rock and roll, I guess with Elvis Presley. I think there are two reasons. One is he pioneered, with Elvis, a fusion of country and blues - Maybelline is a high-stepping country tune put to a backbeat and loud bluesy guitar. Two, and you put your finger on it, he had as you said a breezy way with detail. Many of his songs are tableaux, with great colourful detail and pinpoint situational images. E.g. the "coffee-coloured Cadillac", as Bruce Springsteen marvelled in the Berry bio film made by Keith Richards in the 1980's: a typical striking image. "Hamburgers sizzling on the open grills night and day". Etc. It's a wide-screen capturing of slices of Americana, chronicled by a 30 year old black r&b artist for whom white suburbia could not have been a familiar experience when growing up. Essentially he was a bright guy, perceptive if not self-analytical (I agree), and he saw things no one else did or at least not in the way he presented it with its rich musical framing.

I liked in that film when he explained his influences, he showed considerable modesty, saying there is nothing new under the sun and he mentioned a number of progenitors including I believe Louis Jordan and certainly Charlie Christian. He had a good commercial sense, putting together a style that not just "caught on" as he said there, but became an established genre of American and indeed world (popular) music.

Only many years later, the excellent Who outtake, Long Live Rock, struck me as attribute to Berry, this from a band whose influences tended elsewhere. Apart from the Berry-like title (think of Let It Rock), the song has an unusual rolling rhythm for a Who song, and the detail of the lyrics clinches it I think, Townshend's observational, "we put on our make-up and work out all the lead-ins", "selling tickets made in Hong Kong", "in the blackout they danced far into the aisles", reflect a narrative style similar to the mini-stories Berry told so well in his best songs.

Thanks again for mentioning this book.

Gary

...once i was climbing a garden wall...
...slipped and had a terrible fall...
...fell so hard, i heard bells ring...
...thought i hurt my ding-a-ling-a-ling...

and the reminder to see him when i can is heeded...he may go to a hunnard...like dylan and merle and willie and neil and many others, chuck's unique life is a road and music life----with wine, women, and drugs everywhere all the time. it's a gift when they settle down enough to write a memoir. or live long enough. usually, the ones that quit drinking live longer. just like the public. retirement is out of the question. too bad chuck got hassled by the feds, but it sounds like his book is good. i'll check the local library. if not read already, blair jackson's garcia is good. never fully understood or appreciated the grateful dead space ride until i picked it up for $3 at half price books......oh, and, uh, chuck berry don't open for nobody.

by Levi Asher on

Gary -- yes, in fact, I think virtually every Chuck Berry song has an example like the legendary "coffee-colored Cadillac". The guy sure could write.

Hypcollector, there is a lot in the book about Chuck's "My Ding-A-Ling" song -- the fact that this novelty became a #1 hit surprised him more than anyone else. A lot of people think the song is beneath him, but I think it's classic Chuck. And, I know what you mean by "chuck berry don't open for nobody" -- in theory this is true, but in fact the reality is slightly different. I think it's more like "if you pay Chuck the money, he'll open for anybody". One funny scene in the book illustrates this -- he was scheduled to do a show with Jerry Lee Lewis, and got angry at Jerry Lee for getting drunk before going on and then staying onstage too long, delaying Chuck's time on stage as the show's big closer. Eventually Chuck got so frustrated that he just walked onstage with his guitar in the middle of a Jerry Lee Lewis song and jammed with him for eight minutes -- long enough, he said, that the promoter would have to pay him and he could go home. He says Jerry Lee Lewis looked surprised but couldn't do anything about it. That's Chuck!

by TKG on

Send More Chuck Berry

by Tim Young on

When this book came out I ran over to the book store I think was on 5th avenue because Chuck was there signing books. I got one signed by the man and shook that rock n roll hand. Awesome.

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