After I graduated from college and returned to my childhood home for the we-love you-but-please-get-your-ass-out-of-the-house-dear-daughter ritual, my dad, feeling sentimental as he watched me rip my Iggy Pop poster from the bedroom wall, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He told me I could help myself to any five LP’s from his vast vinyl collection.
“Only five?” I cried.
“I’ll leave the rest to you in my will,” he said, shaking his head at what a greedy little bitch of a daughter he had raised.
I dropped what I was doing and headed for the living room, where he kept his treasure on every available piece of shelf space. He had over a thousand LP’s and I’d heard each and every one during my formative years, with varying degrees of attention. Sighing at the sheer difficulty at the task ahead but somewhat inclined to take a trip down memory lane, I started with the A’s (The Allman Brothers) and worked my way to the Z’s (Frank Zappa).
I literally spent all day and night fingering through the collection, pulling out possibilities and playing emotional tug of war with myriad possibilities. Should I go for Super Session or East-West? Do I dare break up his Beatles’ collection? (I didn’t, but I am looking forward to the day he croaks so I can become a proud owner of the original Yesterday and Today cover.) Ogden’s Nut-Gone Flake? Face to Face? Wheels of Fire? Pleasures of the Harbor? Stand Back!? Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music? Sketches of Spain? The experience turned out to be harrowing, but finally, drenched with sweat, sentimentality and angst, I called him into the living room to announce my selections.
“The good news is I’m letting you keep Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge and The Grand Funk Railroad,” I smirked.
“No surprise there,” he laughed. “Show me what you got so I can get started on the grieving process.”
I pulled them out one by one. Having a Rave-Up with The Yardbirds elicited a groan. Surrealistic Pillow yielded a tender smile. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band earned a comment, “Thank God it’s not East-West.” The fourth, Judy Collins’ In My Life, caused him to tear up a bit. However, my fifth selection sparked a change in his visage from nostalgic to stern and led to an irresolvable dispute.
“Nope, not that one.”
“What? You said any five!”
“Not that one. It’s out of print. Pick something else.”
“You prick!” I replied.
“I can live with that. Now pick something else.”
I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of winning this argument, so I grabbed Live at Leeds and was gratified to elicit another groan. “Serves you right, you welcher,” I taunted.
The album in dispute was, of course, The Great Twenty-Eight by Chuck Berry. I knew that Chuck Berry: The Anthology had been released a few years before, but the attraction of good old-fashioned vinyl with that nice big album sleeve was too hard to resist. There were other compilations, but I didn’t want anything that had that fucking “My Ding-a-Ling” song on it. I wanted The Great Twenty-Eight in blessed analog format because I wanted to experience what John Lennon had heard as a kid while listening to a crackly radio in his room on Menlove Avenue. I wanted to feel the same kind of inspiration that you won’t find in the sound quality, but in the rhythm, in the singing style, in the now-classic guitar licks and in the devil-may-care energy of early rock.
It took me a couple of years to find a relatively pristine copy (in part because I had devoted a large part of that period of my life to sharpening my bisexual fucking skills), but my patience was rewarded. I’ve also forgiven my father for being an asshole about the whole thing, because if I had been in his place, I would have done the same thing.
I have empathy, people!
Much has been written about Chuck Berry’s contributions, and the general consensus is that he’s pretty much the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” His guitar stylings alone would have qualified him for legend status, and the list of guitarists he influenced is a mile long. More importantly, no other early composer made the ironic synergy between black blues and white hillbilly music work so seamlessly, giving early rock a crossover power that few genres have ever had. The Beatles and The Stones covered several of his compositions, and before the critics started labeling Brian Wilson a musical genius, he borrowed “Sweet Little Sixteen” as the musical base for “Surfin’ U. S. A.” (and was forced to turn over the copyright to the ARC Music Group, owners of Berry’s catalog). Of the early rockers who actually wrote most of their own songs (sorry, Elvis), only Little Richard and Buddy Holly can approach Chuck Berry’s lasting influence.
While his guitar work and his classic rock patterns were deeply influential, one of his strengths that is often ignored is his ability to write exceptionally compelling lyrics. Most early rock music consists pretty much of variations of “I love you, baby,” “You made a fool out of me, you bitch” or songs about dancing. Many of Chuck Berry’s songs contained vivid descriptions of life in concrete language in the context of great stories full of humor and narrative tension. While he frequently wrote songs designed to appeal to the white teenage market (that’s where the money was), he also wrote about the traditional subjects of love and sexual attraction from perspectives other than the malt shop, often adding discreet social commentary in the process.
Chuck also put out a few stinkers, and when he’d found a gimmick that tickled teenage fancy enough to pull them out of the back seats of their oversized automobiles and spend their allowances at the record shop, Chuck would milk it until the cow ran dry. He frequently re-purposed his own compositions, changing the lyrics and throwing in a musical variation or two. Hence “School Days” was refurbished with a new story line and became “No Particular Place to Go.”
The Great Twenty-Eight takes us through Chuck’s entire period with Chess, from 1955 to 1965, generally in chronological order. The only inexplicable absence is “You Never Can Tell,” which happens to be one of my favorite Chuck Berry songs, dammit! Astute researchers will note a significant time gap between the release of “Come On” in October 1961 and “Nadine” in February 1964. Chuck spent a good part of that time doing a stretch in prison on seriously trumped-up charges involving a 14-year old Native American girl. When he left prison, he found himself riding a new wave of popularity due to the dozens of covers by British Invasion bands . . . but we’re getting ahead of our story.
We begin our journey in July of 1955, the year when the Brooklyn Dodgers would finally win their first and only championship (they would not become the Fucking Dodgers until they moved to Los Angeles and were christened thus by fired-up San Franciscans). July was a big month that year, featuring the opening of Disneyland and no less than three significant events in popular music history that exposed the socio-cultural tensions in the United States during the post-McCarthy years of the Eisenhower administration: the national debut of The Lawrence Welk Show, the rise of Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” to the top of the Billboard charts, and the first single released by Chuck Berry, a clever little ditty by the name of . . .
“Maybellene”: Based on an old Bob Wills fiddle tune and named after a tube of mascara, Berry’s first hit single (heavily influenced by Chess bossman Leonard Chess) was specifically designed to appeal to young, horny hot rodders. When Chess ordered Berry to update the lyrics to achieve that end, Berry exceeded all expectations by coming back with an attention-grabbing narrative filled with you-are-there imagery:
As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville
A Cadillac a-rollin’ on the open road
Nothin’ will outrun my V8 Ford
The Cadillac doin’ about ninety-five
She’s bumper to bumper, rollin’ side by side
When I hear the opening guitar lick, my 1990’s-programmed ear says shouts to the rest of my brain, “Is he using a distortion pedal?” The part attached to my vocal cords says, “No, silly, they wouldn’t be invented for years.” If you’ve ever seen today’s guitarists in live performances, you’ll see that they all have a huge rack of foot pedals to help them achieve various and sundry effects—few of which are as exciting as the tone Chuck Berry achieved with a relatively cheap amp using primitive recording technology.
“Maybellene” is hot and sassy, and must have seemed like the harbinger of the anti-Christ to all those Lawrence Welk fans who tuned in to hear the sweetly inoffensive Lennon Sisters and go gaga at the sight of a band surrounded by soap bubbles. The comparison to Bill Haley’s number is even more telling, as Bill Haley’s approach to rock was more “Let’s have some fun, kids” and Chuck Berry’s approach was more “Let’s do the deed, kids!” “Rock Around the Clock” is corny. “Maybellene” is hot. You could say that Bill Haley’s sound was the sound of “white people rock” and Chuck Berry’s was “black people rock,” and had you made that comment back in 1955, you would have been 100% correct. As rock continued to develop over the years, more white artists would begin to approach their work with the joy and abandon of Little Richard and Chuck Berry, effectively blurring the color line (Elvis and Buddy Holly being the original blurrers). Those who chose to remain forthright and uptight could look forward to twenty-seven-and-one-half fucking years of The Lawrence Welk Show.
“Thirty Days”: The musical twin of “Maybellene” with a similar guitar intro and the exact same rhythm, so the distinguishing features of this song are found in the lyrics. The thirty-day limit in the first verse is a warning to his woman that she’d better get her ass back home in thirty days. In the next two verses, however, the narrator resorts to the criminal justice system to attempt to get his woman back—an ironic step for a black man to take in the pre-civil rights era. Interestingly, Berry threatens to take his problem to the United Nations, beating Eddie Cochran to the punch by about three years.
“You Can’t Catch Me”: Another car song (again, when Chuck found a winning formula, he had a hard time letting it go), this one is noted primarily as the song that caused Berry’s music publisher to sue John Lennon for ripping off the “here come a flattop” line for “Come Together.” Despite the thematic repetition, Chuck’s vocal is strong and confident, the piano backing is pretty cool and the song moves exceptionally well.
“Too Much Monkey Business”: Chuck’s fifth single came out in 1956, the year that millions of boring Americans went to the polls to re-elect a boring president who was lucky enough to run against an even greater bore. While the masses proclaimed “We like Ike,” marveled at the wonders of American progress in the field of consumerism and delighted in their white shirt conformity, Chuck Berry argued that conformity was more of a threat to liberty than communism.
“Too Much Monkey Business” is the anti-Happy Days theme. Each verse is devoted to a link in the conformity chain (wage slavery, consumerism, marriage, education, bureaucracy, militarism and the job), and at the end of all but the first verse Chuck symbolically shakes his head in disgust with a growled “aah”:
Runnin’ to-and-fro, hard workin’ at the mill
Never fail in the mail, yeah, come a rotten bill
Too much monkey business, too much monkey business
Too much monkey business for me to be involved in
Salesman talkin’ to me, tryin’ to run me up a creek
Says you can buy now, go on and try, you can pay me next week, ahh!
In addition to an exceptionally fluid vocal performance, Chuck is seriously hot on the guitar, with a ripping opener, a frenetic, extended solo and some fabulous fills.
“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”: This was the flip side of “Too Much Monkey Business,” a pairing that has to make anyone’s top ten lists for the greatest singles in rock history. Inspired by a scene he personally witnessed in California where a Mexican man was hauled away by the cops while his woman shouted at them to let him go, Chuck subtly raises the terrifying specter of the non-white man’s attractiveness to white women while throwing in subtle digs at fundamentally oppressive and corrupt criminal justice system:
Arrested on charges of unemployment,
He was sitting in the witness stand
The judge’s wife called up the district attorney
She said, “Free that brown-eyed man.
If you want your job you better free that brown-eyed man.”
In the USA, you’re certainly treated like a criminal when you’re out of a job, and as a guy who had already done a stretch in reform school for armed robbery, Chuck Berry had some experience with the inherent corruption in the American legal system.
“Roll Over Beethoven”: The revolution is now! Compared to the million or so covers of this song, the original shines with its testosterone-dripping vocal serving both as the conveyor of the anti-square lyrics and a vital component of the song’s driving rhythm. When the band starts driving the sucker home in the final chorus, Chuck sounds like he’s shaking with erotic delight. While concert music appeals to emotions and intellect, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten off listening to Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, and this celebration of the erotic foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, solidly grounded in the blues, is the perfect cure for any Puritan hang-ups or Catholic guilt hanging around the psyche.
“Havana Moon”: Chuck tries to go Latin on us and the result is massive disappointment. Look, if I wanted 1950’s Latin, I’d turn on I Love Lucy and hope that Ricky Ricardo does “Babalú” in his set at the Tropicana.
“School Days”: While it’s apparent that this song was aimed squarely at white teenagers of the time, “School Days” has turned out to be one of Chuck Berry’s most timeless compositions. When I reflect on my brief existence, I can think of no greater waste of time than the years I spent in an American high school, an environment characterized by lazy, tenured teachers, whitewashed textbooks, ludicrously rigid schedules and seriously confused adolescents. Chuck captures the ennui of the school day in tone and lyric, and though we didn’t have malt shops and jukeboxes in the 90’s, getting the fuck out of there at the end of the day definitely qualified as a “lay your burden down” experience after hours of repressing everything from sexual urges to native intelligence. It’s comforting to know that the teenagers of the 50’s had the same things on their minds that I always have on mine—sex and music:
Drop the coin right into the slot
You’re gotta hear somethin’ that’s really hot
With the one you love, you’re makin’ romance
All day long you been wantin’ to dance,
Feeling the music from head to toe
Round and round and round we go
“Rock and Roll Music”: Great song, but we’d have to wait another seven years for John Lennon to do this song justice. Chuck Berry’s vocal is surprisingly tame, especially when compared to Lennon’s let-it-the-fuck-out performance and Chuck’s own performance on “Roll Over Beethoven.”
“Baby Doll”: Another song for the high school crowd that falls far short of “School Days.” Apparently this was recorded during Chuck’s “Letter Sweater” phase.
“Reelin’ and Rockin’”: Chuck gets back in the groove with a driving, swing-your-partner-round-and-round number with a curious opening guitar bit that is reminiscent of the tones I hear in the Jeff Beck era of the Yardbirds. Great piano runs from either Johnny Johnson or Lafayette Leake—both are credited on the album One Dozen Berrys.
“Sweet Little Sixteen”: One of the classic singles of the era, “Sweet Little Sixteen” is loaded with socio-cultural ironies. Let’s just take the second variation of the chorus as an example:
‘Cause they’ll be rockin’ on Bandstand
In Philadelphia P. A.
Though Chuck Berry appeared on American Bandstand, he sure as hell didn’t see any people of color in the teenage dance crowd. That’s because station WFIL banned black teenagers from the studio audience, a prohibition that led to brawls between black and white teenagers on the streets outside. The station was located in a West Philadelphia neighborhood that had already been a focal point of the struggle against racial discrimination in housing, as more African-Americans flocked to West Philly, developed vibrant neighborhoods and pissed off the white demographic. You can find an excellent socio-historical analysis of American Bandstand on Matthew F. Delmont’s website, The Nicest Kids in Town.
The last verse highlights the hypocrisy regarding the double standard and the strict gender expectations of the time:
Sweet little sixteen
She’s got the grown up blues
Tight dresses and lipstick
She’s sportin’ high heel shoes
Oh, but tomorrow morning
She’ll have to change her trend
And be sweet sixteen
And back in class again
The real girl is the one in tight dresses, lipstick and high-heel shoes; the repressed phony is the girl in high school. While most early feminists would run like hell from any honest discussion of female sexuality, here we have a vivid image of a girl wants to feel hot and look hot—and that doesn’t have anything to do with oppression or “learned behavior.” It’s fun to feel sexy, be sexy and look sexy! While this verse may very well reflect male fantasies, what the fuck is wrong with that? People think about sex! Early, late and often! Get over it!
It’s important to note that our little girl was very likely to be labeled a slut by the insecure males of the era, but we’ll cover that aspect of the male psyche when we explore Dion’s contributions to the topic. Cultural complexities aside, “Sweet Little Sixteen” is one hot song with an irresistible chorus and a superb use of stop-time techniques.
“Johnny B. Goode”: It’s just one classic after another with Chuck Berry, isn’t it? From the time Elvis first appeared on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show, young boys have seen the guitar as a powerful and complex symbol. Some saw it as a way to grab attention, others as a way to get girls, and a few others were fascinated by its musical and rhythmic potential. “The guitar is a miniature orchestra in itself,” said Beethoven, a very early recognition of the instrument’s unlimited potential. While the guitar had been used in jazz and classical music, and was a staple in country, folk and blues music, it was rock ‘n’ roll—with a huge assist from television—that turned the guitar into something more than accompaniment.
Although some of the early rockers pounded pianos (Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino), the piano could have never become the center of rock ‘n’ roll for several reasons. One, it was associated with the piano lessons many kids were forced to endure when they would have rather been outside playing baseball or throwing rocks in the pond. Two, in the 50’s, the piano was associated with squares like Liberace, and glam rock was years away. Three, you can’t hold a piano like you can hold a guitar—you can cradle a guitar in your hands like you’d cradle a lover. Last but not least, guitars were a lot cheaper and a lot more portable than a piano—you can’t take a piano to a beach party and you can’t pull it out of your trunk and serenade your honey when your more pedestrian attempts to get past second base have failed.
Think about it: can you imagine a video game called “Piano Hero?”
If it comes out, I want in on the royalties.
“Johnny B. Goode” established the archetype of the guitar hero, and appropriately, Chuck lets it rip in an energetic variation of the opening riff to “Roll Over Beethoven.” It’s a more than suitable introduction, because this is a song that starts with pedal to the floor and never lets up. The story of the poor boy (and his mama) discovering that his guitar playing could forge a path out of poverty and into stardom is a fairy tale that has come true for many successful rockers and still has power today, even with rock in decline. “Johnny B. Goode” is really an updated version of the Horatio Alger myth—and a helluva lot sexier.
“Around and Around”: Chuck varies the rhythm and dynamics in this number, similar in theme to “Rock and Roll Music.” While I appreciate the slight variation, I wish the instrumental passage had been more than a simple repetition of the background rhythm. The Stones and The Dead both got a lot more out of this sucker.
“Carol”: Not my favorite. The lyrics are unusually awkward, the story line confusing and the music is “meh.” Apparently neither Carol nor the narrator can dance, which makes for a less-than-compelling dance song.
“Beautiful Delilah”: A spunky little ripper with a fab opening riff and serious blue note bends on both chords and single notes, I rarely bother listening to the words when this song comes on. This song is about Chuck Berry, guitarist, and he steps up big time here.
As for the story, the girl in the center of the story is a more mature version of Sweet Little Sixteen, seriously focused on using her sexual power to bring the boys to their knees. She’s a precursor of Runaround Sue, and though Chuck doesn’t get as apoplectic as Dion does about a woman having multiple partners, he does comment that “Maybe she will settle down marry after a while.”
Fat chance, dickhead.
“Memphis, Tennessee”: A song that’s been covered by more people than you can count, this one doesn’t move my needle a bit. The discovery that Marie is a 6-year old kid is one of those corny, sentimental twists that often end Spielberg movies, and I hate Spielberg movies. Yeah, I know it’s sad when marriages break up and kids get hurt in the process, but this crosses the line into gross sentimentality without providing much in the way of insight.
“Sweet Little Rock and Roller”: Ditto for this one. The lyrics never come together into an interesting narrative and these stories of rock chicks dressed to the nines and ready for action are starting to get irritating. Move on, Chuck!
“Little Queenie”: Ah, that’s better. It’s still the hot girl theme, but here Chuck allows her to play a part in the classic seduction ritual that begins with the innocuous words, “Wanna dance?” Chuck slips into spoken word for the inner dialogue of the lusting male and nails the tone of delightfully evil intent as he plots his way into her pants:
Meanwhile, I was still thinkin’
If it’s a slow song, we’ll omit it
If it’s a rocker, then we’ll get it
And if it’s good, she’ll admit it
C’mon Queenie, let’s get with it
“Almost Grown”: Chuck Berry rarely used background singers, but when he did, he sure knew how to pick ‘em! Etta James with Harvey & the New Moonglows (who had just hired a young kid named Marvin Gaye) knock it out of the park with a soulful combination of call-and-response and scat vocals. Chuck also varied the formula by holding off on the guitar solo until the second instrumental passage, allowing the piano to provide the fills.
Chuck Berry’s radar was always focused on shifts in his audience demographic, so here he gives us the story about a guy who’s “done married and settled down.” Only a few years before, rockers were ripping up movie theaters, but the combination of Elvis going into the army and the multiple tragedies on The Day the Music Died sucked the life out of the party. The 50’s teen revolution was an adolescent revolution without purpose; the teens of the time didn’t give a shit about politics and never questioned consumerism, segregation or American foreign policy the way their younger sisters and brothers would in the mid-60’s. “Almost Grown” is a dismissal of “the silly things we did as teenagers,” opening the path that would allow this mini-generation to eventually color the entire era with the pastels of nostalgia and turn the Fonz into an inoffensive folk hero:
You know I’m still livin’ in town
But I done married and settled down
Now I really have a ball
So I don’t browse around at all
Don’t bother just leave us alone
Anyway we’re almost grown
“Back in the U. S. A.”: If it seems odd that a black man living most of his life under varying degrees of Jim Crow would write a song celebrating the virtues of the home of the brave, it must be pointed out that Chuck wrote this song after doing a tour in Australia, and this song compares his lifestyle to the primitive existence of the Australian Aborigines. In that context, the song mirrors the tone of the argument Martin Luther King adopted in the “I Have a Dream” speech, basically, “We believe in the same things you do.” While Dr. King was referring to the rights embedded in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Chuck Berry focused on less lofty benefits of the American experience:
Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner café
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
Yeah, and a jukebox jumping with records like in the U.S.A.
On that score, consider me as patriotic as Chuck. The French make lousy burgers and pay very little attention to rock ‘n’ roll.
“Let It Rock”: Chuck rips off his own “Johnny B. Goode” in a song about working on the railroad. Hey! Whatever happened to that ditty? “I’ve been working on the railroad, all the live-long day . . .” And who was Dinah and why did she blow a horn? Was the horn some kind of sexual euphemism? What was going on in those Pullman cars anyway?
You can see that “Let It Rock” is one of those songs that encourages the mind to wander.
“Bye Bye Johnny”: Yecch. I hate sequels as much as I hate Spielberg movies. Chuck should have let us just imagine the poor kid making it big and moved on.
“I’m Talking About You”: Covered by The Stones, The Hollies and even Hot Tuna, the song lends itself to multiple variations because of its exceptionally strong groove. But what really knocks me out on this cut is Reggie Boyd’s bass. Jesus shit, could that fucker play! He proved to be a challenging person to research, but apparently he was a renowned Chicago jazz guitarist and teacher with exceptional knowledge of music theory and history and gave lessons to guys like Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Rush. This is a bass part light years ahead of anything going on in rock during the 50’s.
“Come On”: Chuck’s last single before entering the slammer is one of my favorite Chuck Berry records. I love Martha Berry’s (Chuck’s sister) harmonies, the sax support and the lyrical depiction of the all-too common experience that one piece of bad news deserves another:
Everything is wrong since me and my baby parted
All day long I’m walkin’ ’cause I couldn’t get my car started
Laid off from job and I can’t afford to check it
I wish somebody’d come along and run into it and wreck it
“Come On” was the Rolling Stones’ first single, a version Mick Jagger correctly described as “shit.”
“Nadine (Is That You?)”: A free man once again, Chuck Berry took “Maybellene,” slowed it down a tad, parked the car and pursued his woman on foot and by taxi. Supported by smooth saxophone and a good steady groove, what makes this song one of Chuck Berry’s greatest are the remarkable lyrics and Chuck’s exceptional phrasing. The lyrics are full of fascinating similes (“She move around like a wave of summer breeze” and “I was movin’ through the traffic like a mounted cavalier”) and memorable imagery:
I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back
And started walkin’ toward a coffee-colored Cadillac
I was pushin’ through the crowd to get to where she’s at
And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat
Chuck also knows how to move a story forward without wasting words:
Downtown searching for ‘er, looking all around
Saw her getting in a yellow cab heading up town
I caught a loaded taxi, paid up everybody’s tab
Flipped a twenty dollar bill, told him ‘catch that yellow cab
Testifying to the strength of Chuck Berry’s lyrics, both Dylan and Springsteen adored the words to “Nadine.”
“No Particular Place to Go”: Obviously impatient to get back in the groove after wasting away in jail—and never a guy interested in reinventing the wheel—Chuck takes “School Days” and turns it into “No Particular Place to Go,” a song about sexual frustration triggered by a jammed seat belt. While I would look at such a challenge as an opportunity to test out a new form of bondage, Chuck instead drives home for a date with a cold shower. As on “Nadine,” Chuck’s vocal is strong, confident and nuanced. I love the way he dampens his vocal on the line “So I told her softly and sincere” and his tension-loaded staccato delivery on “Can you imagine the way I felt/I couldn’t unfasten her safety belt.” While the tune is beyond familiar, Chuck manages to make it work with his palpable energy and sense of humor.
“I Want to Be Your Driver”: This song closed out the album Chuck Berry in London, but really, they should have gone with “You Never Can Tell,” which truly qualifies as one of the great twenty-eight.
Chuck Berry’s music will never dazzle you with unexpected chord changes and thematic texture: it’s classic twelve-bar, three-chord blues with few variations. The music serves primarily as the foundation for the vocal and lead guitar performances. It sounds exceptionally tight and energetic because Chuck was an exceptional musician lucky enough to work at Chess Records in Chicago, where he could work with of the best musicians of the day: Willie Dixon, Johnnie Johnson, Lafayette Leake. Chuck is an energetic guitar player, but what he lacks in precision he more than compensates for with his sense of rhythm.
Though his music might be (and should be) relatively simple, Chuck Berry managed to accomplish something very few musical artists manage to achieve: he changed lives. When you sit down with The Great Twenty-Eight, the first sounds you hear are the lo-fi guitar coming out of a tube amp shoved back against the wall of the studio, all warm, fuzzy and sexy as Berry glides into “Maybellene,” delivering a spirited vocal with exquisite enunciation at just the right points. As the song proceeds to that primitive but exciting lead solo, imagine yourself a scruffy kid in far off England in the late 1950’s, stuck at the lower layers of the social strata with nothing to look forward to in the future but a dreary sameness, as your life path was determined for you long before you were born. If you were that kid, what you heard in Chuck Berry’s music was so much more than fantastic, kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll.
You heard the way out.
I put The Doors on the back burner because I knew I couldn’t do them justice without my dad.
Since moving to France five months ago, my parents had remained in far-off San Francisco readying for their retirement move to Nice. They could have sold the house in about 30 minutes, but my father is one of those people who has a hard time letting go of anything he built or nurtured back to health, be it houses or wounded birds. He did finally manage to pry his psychological fingers from his life’s work with the help of my mother, who told him he wouldn’t get any until he got off his ass and made it happen.
They’re both in their sixties and still fuck like rabbits, the dears.
Anyway, they finally arrived in late August and began setting up house in Nice a few blocks from my grandmother’s house. Thanks to this fucking big important piece of shit job I have, I was stuck on a business trip for what seemed like years and only managed to pop down to Nice late last week, where my partner and I spent a long and lovely weekend with them. I knew two things going in: that the house would be in a general state of disarray with unopened boxes everywhere, and that the first thing my dad would have unpacked would have been his massive music collection.
Sure enough, with the help of more voltage transformers than I knew existed, he was up and running and his entire collection of vinyl and compact discs was neatly lined up in alphabetical order on shelves crafted by his own two hands, covering a good part of three walls from floor to ceiling. Of course, he was still living out of a suitcase and about to run out of clean undies, but this is a man who knows his priorities! Large pillows covered the floor, so the four of us stretched out one lazy Saturday with several bottles of wine while my dad took us through the entire output of The Doors, bootlegs included.
It was a fascinating experience, because even if you don’t care for their music, you have to admit that no one sounds like The Doors. Even when they’re doing old blues numbers they have a singular sound and an undeniable presence. I haven’t decided how many of their albums I’m going to cover, but since they are so intriguing, I’m sure I’ll do more than one. We’ll start with the first and see where we go from there.
The Doors first album almost shouts, “WE HAVE ARRIVED, PEOPLE!” First impressions do count for something, and they couldn’t have picked a better opener than “Break on Through (To the Other Side).” Its disarming bossa nova opening is countered almost immediately by Jim Morrison’s commanding voice; 30 seconds later the band gives you four deep thrusts before ramping up to bash mode in the chorus. With a superb sense of erotic dynamics, they turn down the heat to deliver a few more teasing caresses, then thrust-thrust (breathe) thrust-thrust and they’re slamming it home again.
There’s a reason why they say The Doors invented “orgasmic rock.”
The historically fascinating aspect to the song has to do with censorship. My dad played the original vinyl first where the line after “Everybody loves my baby” is “She get.” He then played a post-90’s CD where the line is magically transformed into “She gets high.”
I looked at my father with a combination of wonder and disgust. “You have to be kidding. They censored that?”
“Oh yeah. The straights were stoked up and paranoid about the drug culture. Druggies were the communists under the bed in the 60’s. Dangerous subversives out to destroy the American way of life.”
That made me laugh, since nearly everyone I know in America today is addicted to one prescription drug or another. I had him play the original again and though I thought the censorship was absurd, I liked the song better with the truncated line. It leaves things ambiguous, allowing the listener to fill in the blank. She get . . . hot. She get . . . fucked. She get . . .
The song also allows the band to strut their musical stuff. John Densmore is fabulous with the shifts from Brazilian to thrash and Robby Krieger executes a Paul Butterfield-influenced riff with surprising precision. Ray Manzarek is one of the few organists I actually enjoy, for he played with a clipped, rhythmic style that’s so much cleaner than the big organ sound you hear in people like Lee Michaels.
I’m going to resist the temptation to analyze the differences in organist styles from a penile insecurity angle and move on to Morrison.
“Command” is the first descriptive word I used for Jim Morrison, which may seem like an odd word for a person who was unable to control either alcohol or drug addiction. Somehow he generally managed to put all that aside when delivering a performance (at least on record—my dad said he was a wild card when it came to live performances). His melodic range may have been limited, but his dynamic range is unparalleled, as we will see throughout this album. Mastery of dynamics is a tricky thing; often when singers attempt to lower the volume and ramp it back up it can sound contrived. Jim Morrison had the skills of a trained stage actor when it came to dynamics; each line he delivers is often a product of discipline and patience. Given his fairly fucked-up personality as manifested in his private life, I wouldn’t have wanted to fuck the real Morrison, but I don’t mind fantasizing about fucking the guy I hear singing.
It’s also fairly obvious that his singing style influenced Kurt Cobain’s. I wouldn’t have wanted to fuck him either.
“Soul Kitchen” is an ode to one of Morrison’s favorite restaurants, and here the lyrics come to the fore. The Doors’ lyrics are often full of surprising words and phrases you don’t expect to hear in popular music, and their expressionistic world-view led to some very memorable imagery:
The cars crawl past all stuffed with eyes
Street lights share their hollow glow
Your brain seems bruised with numb surprise
Still one place to go, still one place to go . . .
Well, your fingers weave quick minarets
Speak in secret alphabets
I light another cigarette
Learn to forget, learn to forget . . .
“Soul Kitchen” is one of five tracks that feature a real bass player. The Doors were very unusual in not having a regular bass player; Ray Manzarek handled most of the bottom on the keyboard. I tend to like bass presence, but I noticed very few patches that felt thin to me.
“The Crystal Ship” is probably the most sixties-ish song on the album in terms of its trippy-spacey feel and vague symbolism, but somehow Morrison makes it work with a sensual, deeply romantic delivery. In the quiet verses his voice is that of the enthralled lover, lost in the magic of intimacy as he and his amour drift to a comforting sleep:
Before you slip into unconsciousness
I’d like to have another kiss
Another flashing chance at bliss
Another kiss, another kiss
This was the only song on the record that my dad tried to sing along to and my mother and I demanded that he cease and desist after one verse.
There’s no other word to describe “Twentieth Century Fox” except hot. What makes it hot for me is that in the hands of almost any other band, the lyrics would probably have been throwaways. The Doors make the song so much more enticing by displaying playful wit and clever turns of a phrase—“Well, she’s fashionably lean/And she’s fashionably late” and “No tears, no fears, no ruined years, no clocks.” I love men who play with language . . . I’ve found a direct correlation between language play and sexual play. Men in possession of wit don’t just stick it in and try to show me what big dumb studs they are through repetitive hammering. They vary the dynamics; they play.
This is turning into a very erotic post. Blame The Doors, not me. I’m simply an innocent victim of orgasmic rock.
We will temporarily leave the erotic as The Doors turn the composition duties over to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill for “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar).” My research led me to discover that the unusual instrument in this song is something called a Marxophone, a zither without frets that looks like an alien autoharp. It’s not an instrument for general use, but it’s absolutely perfect here, giving the song a Central European feel that’s very Brechtian indeed. From a therapeutic perspective, this is not the song I would have recommended for a singer with a drinking problem, and listening to it with that knowledge makes it rather sad instead of pleasantly boozy.
Next comes “Light My Fire,” certainly one of the most iconic songs in rock history, and one of the few that deserves that status. From a structural perspective, the piece is brilliant, with a perfect mix of unity and variation. All of the performances by the band are balls-on perfect. Lyrically, it breaks the mold of pop-song limitations . . . which leads me to the subject of mondegreens.
Wikipedia has a decent article on this linguistic phenomenon, quoting from Sylvia Wright, who invented the term to describe the mishearing of a line in a song that results in new meaning:
When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:
- Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
- Oh, where hae ye been?
- They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,
- And Lady Mondegreen.
The actual fourth line is And laid him on the green. Wright explained the need for a new term:The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.
When we lived in San Francisco, a Chronicle columnist by the name of Jon Carroll wrote frequently about mondegreens, citing various examples from pop music. “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” is a classic Hendrix mondegreen with intriguing meaning indeed. How it all came up with The Doors is that my dad confessed to a mondegreen he’d been cherishing for years in “Light My Fire.” First, my dad’s mondegreen:
The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
And I’d love to come with you up higher.
And now the real lyrics:
The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
And our love become a funeral pyre.
I howled with laughter when he told me this. “But dad, that doesn’t make any fucking sense! Come with you up higher? What the fuck is that?” With a sheepish grin he said, “I don’t know—I thought it was some tricky sex position I didn’t know about.” Here my mother interrupted us. “Is that why you tried to do me while I was doing the bridge pose?” she said, referring to a common yoga position. His face reddened and he muttered, “Probably.”
I let him off the hook by observing that many mondegreens occur when the songwriter uses unexpected phrases—in this case, “funeral pyre.” We discussed a few more examples before my dad snapped his fingers and said, “You know what—I’ll bet you never heard the single version.” I racked my brain but couldn’t recall. “No, I’ll bet you haven’t because I only played the 45’s when I had a reason to, and I don’t remember playing it for you.” He popped a 45 adapter on the spindle, pulled out the ancient technology from a well-weathered sleeve and popped it on the turntable.
I screamed at the part where they cut the long instrumental passage, the kind of scream that a mother would make when she discovered that someone had stolen her baby. That long passage featuring leads from Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger is a musical passage in which I love to lose myself, and I adore how they weave the themes up to the build that returns us to the main riff. Even better, it leads to Jim Morrison’s performance on the final verse and chorus, which is one of my favorite vocal performances ever. He starts by sticking close to the melody, then begins to vary from the line with increasing frequency, moving from slight note changes on the word “fire” to raising the melody to the next higher harmonic, all while gradually building up the tone in his voice from semi-detached to one that is full of passion and desire. Total command, total discipline, totally fucking hot.
At this point I was ready for a “Back Door Man,” in either the literal meaning (the guy sneaking in at the back door to give the lady of the house some relief from a dull husband) or the oil-it-up inference. Morrison sounds like he’s getting undressed in this one, oiled with liquor and lube and ready to take the first hot bitch that walks into the studio. While I do love Willie Dixon’s more charming original, Morrison’s presence makes for a body-grinding delight.
Now I was ready to say to hell with my parents and start doing my partner on the living room floor, but The Doors rescued me from excessive taboo-breaking with three filler songs in a row: “I Looked at You,” “End of the Night” and “Take It As It Comes.” All are rather dull and derivative, like they’d run out of gas and started recycling passages from the first seven tracks. They might have been advised to do a 20-minute version of “The End” instead.
“The End” is one of the two very long album-closing epics they used to wrap up their first two albums. My personal preference is for the second, “When the Music’s Over” from Strange Days. This led to a lengthy argument with my father, who violently prefers “The End.” In an attempt to sway me, he played the original vinyl version and two bootleg copies in which Morrison clears up any ambiguity in the line, “Mother . . . I want to (unintelligible).” “Mother . . . I want to rape/fuck you” is what I heard on the two different bootleg versions.
Unimpressed, I argued that “The End” is an over-extended version of a breakup song with an Oedipal overlay, exaggerating a bit just to piss him off. My dad became rather schoolmasterish and attempted to connect the significance of the song to both the generational divide of the 1960’s and the Jungian process of individuation.
“So, you’re saying that for me to have become who I am, I had to kill you and maman in a symbolic sense,” I remarked with an irritating smirk on my face and in my tone.
“Yes, you did. You would have had to, one way or another,” he argued.
“Well, I didn’t. I grew from the oaks without having to chop them down. So whaddya say to that, buster?”
He narrowed his eyes and said, “Then you must have killed us in a dream sometime—it had to happen. We must kill our parents to move forward.”
My mother stepped in and suggested that there are many paths to growth and that he was being too dogmatic.
“Thank you, maman—and just to clarify—if you weren’t my mother, I would want to fuck you.”
She laughed and said, “I’m so relieved to know that ma chère fille is psychologically normal.”
I don’t mean to diminish the song at all. From a dramatic perspective, it’s a killer performance. Out of all the analyses I’ve read regarding “The End,” the most perceptive came down to a simple comment from Ray Manzarek: “He was re-enacting a bit of Greek drama. It was theatre!” It’s obvious that Morrison’s poetic intentions were successful, since the four of us had a lively debate about the meaning of the song that was very engaging and informative. The point isn’t whether or not you “like” something—it’s more important that art moves you, makes you feel, makes you think. In that sense, “The End” certainly qualifies as a work of art.
My dad and I did agree on one thing: that the Indian feel of Robby Krieger’s guitar intro on “The End” was a direct descendant of Mike Bloomfield’s work in “East-West.” I thought it was rather respectful of the master and of Indian influence in general; my dad was more teed off about it because East-West is sacred to him. My beautiful partner, who had been watching us play intellectual tennis all day with intense fascination, saved us from another lengthy debate by saying, “I love how the two of you are such wonderful friends!” We both looked at her in surprise, then laughed, then my dad and I had a good long hug. “I love you, asshole,” I told him. “I love you too, you little bitch,” he replied.
We spent the rest of the day and early evening listening to the rest of the catalog, all of which I found endlessly fascinating even when I didn’t care for what I was hearing. It’s always educational to go back and forth between the beginnings of a band and their later works to see the developmental path, whether it’s moving from Please Please Me to Sgt. Pepper or from This Was to Songs from the Wood. The Doors’ progression was more zig-zaggy than straight ahead, for in many ways, what they accomplished on this first album could never be recaptured: the freedom of creation without expectations. Jim Morrison didn’t have to live up to being Jim Morrison. For that reason, The Doors is their most playful and exuberant album, and certainly one of the best début albums in rock history.