Sunday, June 6, 2010

1958: “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry’s position in rock and roll is akin to that of Duke Ellington’s in jazz: The finest composer from within the music itself, whose standards provided the rich soil out of which the genre would eventually grow and flourish. And no song was earthier than the one that began, “Way down in Louisiana, down in New Orleans…”

Almost thirty years after its release, Chuck Berry mused on the song’s origin in his autobiography. “The gateway from freedom, I was led to understand, was somewhere ‘close to New Orleans’ where most Africans were sorted through and sold,” he wrote,

I had driven through New Orleans on tour and I’d been told my great grandfather lived ‘way back up in the woods among the evergreens’ in a log cabin. I revived the era with a story about a “colored boy name[d] Johnny B. Goode.” My first thought was to make his life follow as my own had come along, but I thought it would seem biased to white fans to say “colored boy” and changed it to “country boy.”

“Johnny B. Goode” is more than just Chuck Berry’s finest song, but the finest and most famous song in all of rock and roll. Instantly recognizable from its opening bars, “Johnny B. Goode” is rock and roll’s version of the American Dream; as a piece of mythmaking, it’s on par with Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography or Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The title character could be black or white, Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley: born poor into a log cabin, the kid picks up a guitar and makes good, dreaming his way to superstardom. Along the way, he goes from rags to riches, from country to city, and from social oppression to freedom.

As Berry points out, he placed Johnny in the “gateway from freedom,” the place where his own ancestors first brought in the New World to be bought and sold. (Berry also could have pointed out that New Orleans had Congo Square, where the African slave dances are often cited as the origin of jazz – and, one could add, all of the hot music that followed.) The freedom that had taken Berry’s ancestors several centuries and a Civil War to secure, Johnny can get by picking up a guitar and playing. And tellingly, Berry doesn’t have Johnny learn his talent from books, records, or an old master – instead, he plays guitar by the railroad track, strumming to the rhythm that the drivers made. It is here where Johnny first learns to “Go!,” that the only way out of his life and into his dreams is by constantly moving ahead like the train rattling right by him – taking its rhythm for his music, its forward drive for his determination.

And “Go!” Johnny did. Countless answer records track Johnny’s progression through rock and roll, only the first of which was Berry’s own “Bye Bye Johnny,” which frames the original from the perspective of Johnny’s mother. First she continues the story by sending Johnny on a bus to make movies in Hollywood, then flashes back to how she bought his first guitar from gathering crops, and then flashes forward to when Johnny writes her that he had fallen in love. The song ends, appropriately, with Johnny building his wife a mansion by the railroad tracks.

But that was just the beginning. The figure of a restlessly motivated boy-child named Johnny crops up again and again in the best straight-ahead rock and roll music: it’s in John Lennon’s pep-talks to his fellow Beatles at the turn of the 1960s, where he’d say, “Where are we going, fellas?” to which they’d respond, “To the top, Johnny!”; it’s in Bob Dylan’s first Top 40 hit in 1965, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which began, “Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine”; it’s in the Kinks’ “Johnny Thunder” from their 1968 concept album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, in which Johnny is the town’s misunderstood local rebel (complete with a motorcycle); it’s in the Slickers’ early reggae anthem “Johnny Too Bad,” featured in the 1972 film The Harder They Come, which finds Johnny as a Jamaican gangster, walking down the street with a ratchet and a pistol in his waist; it’s in Bruce Springsteen’s “Incident on 57th Street” from 1973, in which Johnny is a Spanish gang member, torn between the woman he loves and the street life he craves; it’s in Patti Smith’s epic title track from 1975’s Horses, where Johnny beats his head against the school locker until horses come running out in every direction; it’s in the sudden emergence of a foul-mouthed punk named Johnny Rotten who explodes with the Sex Pistols a year later and bring things full-circle by trying to cover “Johnny B. Goode,” only he can’t remember the words, and can only come up with: “Ayanlouisianayaya NEW ORLEANS!

This last Johnny doesn’t so much perform the song as he does destroy it; if one cannot imagine a better version than the one sung by Chuck Berry, one cannot imagine a worse version than the one sung by Johnny Rotten. Yet, in his own way, Rotten is using the song to reach for the same fleeting sense of freedom that Berry chased when he wrote it, another poor boy cashing in on his dream of the ultimate escape into stardom.

[This is from the continuing series “100 Years of American Recordings, 1891-1991.”]

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