GLENN HALL/MISSOURI HISTORY MUSEUM
Pokey LaFarge, left, contemplates the complicated legacy of Chuck Berry.
I was driving I-55 south from Chicago, the home of Chess Records, listening to Esther Phillips’ "Oh, Papa." I swear when my co-pilot told me the news that Chuck Berry had passed
, the skyline of St. Louis, the city we call home, came into view — the sun setting, the Arch glistening. The clear blue sky was giving way to a myriad of colors and would soon be black. The day would be extinguished, snuffed out, and some things would come to pass. All that Chuck Berry experienced would come to an end today.
As a man, his legend will be flawed, and those stains on his reputation are permanent, I’m afraid. However, this man was a great artist, despite the blemishes on his playing: the often-missed guitar notes, the out-of-time rhythm. But I wouldn’t say he was great in spite of these weaknesses in his playing; instead he was great because of those weaknesses. I would say he was probably conflicted, tormented even, by himself and by demons. There are some things a lot of us will never know. We may never want to know.
Torture of the artist creates a tension. It’s a push and pull, like the groove in his tunes, always on the brink of tearing apart. This is the fire we hear in that guitar of his. This is the energy I feel in between the lines of the rock n’ roll poetry he wrote and sang in his songs.
I called a friend to ask if he had heard about Chuck. He said he had. He said, “Despite the things Chuck did in his personal life, it would never tarnish the influence his music had.” He continued, “It’s important to remember that Chuck Berry, sometimes along with Johnnie Johnson, wrote pretty much all of his songs. You can talk about Elvis as the King of Rock n’ Roll all you want but Elvis didn’t write squat, and that’s not to denigrate the King. It just means that when you hear Chuck Berry sing, when you hear ‘You Never Can Tell’ and ‘Havana Moon,' you are hearing the complete Chuck Berry, and no one else but him and his influences. He is speaking his own words, great words, and in some of the greatest songs ever written.”
Hell, we hadn’t even begun to speak about his guitar playing yet. But as the conversation came to a close he went on to say, "Even though there was some really sketchy shit he did in his life, it’s important to honor the music he made.” I believe as a St. Louisan, as a rock n’ roller, or just purely as a music lover, you should still mourn his passing. He asked me, “Shouldn’t the man and the artist be judged differently…?”
Pokey LaFarge is a musician and songwriter.