Review: Chuck Berry: An American Life, by RJ Smith

Just to get this out of the way first, I had some trepidations when I started this biography. As a native St. Louisan, I feel reflexively defensive about Chuck Berry and his complicated legacy, which in many ways mirrors the city that spawned him (us). As with most native St. Louisans, there aren’t too many degrees of separation between us. Decades before I got to interview Chuck Berry in person, I heard story after story from people who met him or knew him or had minor dealings with him. My own mom, a public schoolteacher who moonlighted as a waitress for extra money, served him and one of his very young blond dates on a couple of occasions. She said he was polite and friendly and a good tipper. A perfect gentleman–who was fucking an apparent teenager.

Berry is definitely the most charismatic person I have ever met and probably the most significant person I have ever interviewed, and I didn’t get much time with him–maybe 20 minutes or a half-hour, and I wasn’t allowed to use a tape recorder, which both amused and irritated me, since I’m a stickler for quoting people precisely, and, to put it mildly, Chuck Berry resists paraphrase. He had the most peculiar and poetic way of phrasing things, a sort of ur-Country Grammar lexicon that is impossible to replicate. Some of his gnomic locutions reminded me of my late grandmother’s sayings; others seemed unique to him. After our interview, I literally ran to my office and transcribed my notes right away, so I would be able to capture as much of that sui generis voice as possible. I could still hear his voice ringing like a bell in my brain, and I could still feel the grasp of his enormous hand, the force of his singular star power. Most celebrities (especially septuagenarian celebrities, as he was at the time) seem smaller and more ordinary in real life. Not Chuck Berry, though: even eating chicken wings in a goofy captain’s cap, he was majestic, mysterious, suffused with dark energy disguised as mere genius.

I knew before I started Smith’s comprehensive and unstintingly honest but enormously sympathetic biography that his would need to be an unauthorized biography. Berry was protective of his privacy and his legacy, and his family no doubt feels that Berry’s own biography is definitive. But as fantastic as Berry’s autobiography is (for one thing, it replicates his voice exactly, which makes sense since he actually wrote it), it conceals as much or more than it reveals. This is going to sound like a strange comparison, but in many ways Smith’s great challenge is similar to the one faced by Jan Swafford in writing about Johannes Brahms, another genius perv who wore mask over mask over mask and drenched every meaningful extramusical statement in irony. With a subject as complex and contradictory as Berry or Brahms, how can the biographer tell if you have found his “true” self and not another mask? More likely the “true” self is this multitudinous assemblage of lies, myths, delusions, and unconscious compulsions, but it takes a biographer as talented as Swafford or Smith to present the subject in all its irreducible complexity. It helps that they’re both very good at writing about music qua music, which is, after all, the language Berry and Brahms spoke best.

Despite my pledge to use the library rather than buy more books, I ended up ordering a copy of Chuck Berry: An American Life after I finished the library book. I don’t write about pop music anymore, so I won’t use this as a research source the way I refer to my Swafford bios or my music encyclopedias, but I want to have this in my collection, and I want to be able to press it into the hands of the next blowhard fool who says something ignorant and dismissive about the man who gave my city, nation, and world so many priceless gifts. 

In the event that anyone wants to read my short interview with Berry, I cut-and-pasted it below, since it’s old enough to be getting unsearchable, at least in the existing RFT archives:

Riverfront Times, October 17, 2001
Somewhere around the middle of the long, long list of things that make Radar Station sad, somewhere between kitten torture and the demise of the bustle in ladies’ skirt fashions, is the fact that St. Louis rock icon Chuck Berry doesn’t get the respect he deserves in his own hometown. Sure, he’s got a bronze star on Delmar, his monthly gigs at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room always sell out, and Gov. Bob Holden and Mayor Francis Slay are scheduled to present him with “proclamations of his greatness” at his big birthday bash at the Pageant on Oct. 18. These honors notwithstanding, when your garden-variety St. Louis hipster utters Berry’s name, it’s likely to lead to a crack about coprophilia and underage girls, not a serious discussion about his astonishing musical legacy.

It’s partly his own fault. Anyone who’s seen Berry in concert recently is painfully aware that he phones in his performances more often than not, seldom bothering to rehearse with his pickup bands or even tune his guitar. No one held a gun to his head when he outfitted his employee bathrooms with hidden video cameras. No one forced him to record the staggeringly stupid novelty jingle “My Ding-a-Ling.” But what does it say about the kitten-torturing, bustle-slighting world we live in that this infantile paean to Berry’s illustrious pee-pee remains his all-time biggest hit, bigger than “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Little Queenie,” “Maybellene,” “Nadine (Is It You?)” and “No Particular Place to Go”? What does it say about us that we’d rather make poop jokes than talk about the poetic brilliance of lyrics such as “with hurry-home drops on her cheeks” or “as I was motorvatin’ over the hill” or “campaign-shouting like a Southern diplomat”? Indeed, we’re mindless sheep, too busy playing with our own ding-a-lings to appreciate the legend who duck-walks among us.

In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter whether we make dumb gibes or issue proclamations. Berry’s legacy is right there on his records: those slithery, wild, scabrous guitar licks; those groin-grinding jump rhythms, that heady elixir of honky-tonk and R&B — the very essence of rock & roll, in all of its primitive, spastic, id-centered glory. Without Berry’s quicksilver genius, rock music as we know it would not, could not exist.

Radar Station had the singular pleasure of interviewing the brown-eyed handsome man in person last week, when he met with us at Blueberry Hill. At nearly three-quarters of a century, Berry looks dapper and alert. Wearing a black windbreaker and his signature captain’s hat, he sits at the head of the table, in front of an uneaten basket of hot wings and a glass of what looks like orange juice. He urges us to move closer — not because he’s trying to get fresh with us but because he’s a little hard of hearing. Radar Station (who suddenly feels too cute to be 9,460,800 minutes over 17) finds his gallantry irresistible, if absurd. He fixes his cloudy black eyes on our face and, when asked how he’d like to be remembered, politely informs us that he doesn’t care. “People’s opinions can’t be altered,” he observes cheerfully. “Realizing this, I’ve found much pleasure and peace.” Asked to name his favorite song, he says, “It’s just like kids — how can you say you love your boy more than your girl, your angel more than your brat?”

Berry doesn’t seem to mind being interviewed, but he doesn’t like to indulge in freeform reminiscence: “A guy came in, some college student. He set down a hand tape-recorder, and he said, ‘Chuck, I’ve been waiting for this moment for six years. Go ahead and talk.’ I said, ‘Well, then, we’re done now. You ask the questions — I’ll answer anything you ask, but I’m not just going to talk. You can even ask me what kind of underclothes I’m wearing, and I’ll tell you.'” Radar Station, a helpless literalist, takes the bait and asks him. “Good ones,” he responds with a wide, sly grin. “Briefs today, but I own a variety.”

Having established this important information, we ask whether he has any comment on the lawsuit his longtime pianist Johnnie Johnson filed recently, wherein Johnson claims that he deserves co-writing credit on most of Berry’s classic songs. “It’s not Johnnie that’s doing this,” Berry says sadly. “I’ve known him 40 years. Someone inspired him to go along with him and seek their desire to try for an easy dollar. At the Pageant’s grand opening, I talked to him for 20 minutes in the dressing room. At that time, I didn’t know [about the lawsuit]. If I would have known, I would have popped the question: ‘Hey, baby! What’s up with that?’ But he never said a mumbling word.”

Berry, who intends to keep rocking for the next 20 years, isn’t holding grudges. Besides playing out regularly, he’s recording a new album, which has been on the back burner since 1978. He claims he’s written nine new songs, but he doesn’t want to estimate a release date. “I thought last March, but I might as well not predict anymore. It will take the application of time, will and effort,” he says. Berry’s daughter and son, among others, will probably back him up. “I have to let them do something, or else I’ll pay family dues,” he cackles. “Even Keith Richards or Johnnie Johnson — I’d welcome them if they wanted to play. A lot of people would be surprised. All I want is a good song.”

Chuck Berry celebrates his 75th birthday on Thursday, Oct. 18, at the Pageant, with special guest Little Richard.

Review: The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan

Did I think this was a transcendent work of indescribable genius? No, I did not. Did I think this was as good as Chronicles I? Nope, not that either. But it’s worth five stars because it is worth five stars to me, a lifelong Dylan fan, to know what Bob Dylan thinks about popular music and sundry other topics, ranging from the natural advantages of polygamy and the bland evil of divorce lawyers to the radical complicity of average citizens in war crimes, from the evolution of the “witchy woman” archetype to the disgrace of HUAC, from Tin Pan Alley to Laurel Canyon. It’s an enormous mess, a rambling assortment of insights and semi-fictionalized factoids. In other words, it’s classic Bob Dylan.

So what if some of the more fact-based passages (e.g., the list of classical compositions whose motifs were incorporated in famous pop songs) could have been (and quite possibly were) lifted more or less verbatim from Wikipedia pages and other public sources? Bob Dylan has the soul of a magpie. He understands that to be distinctively American is to be a gypsy, a tramp, and a thief (one of several songs he surprised me by writing about). 

I’m glad my generous friend Phoebe gave me the audiobook; I loaded the CDs into iTunes and, over a few weeks, listened to Bob Dylan read his own words, along with a weird but effective collection of guest readers, including Helen Mirren, Renée Zellweger, Jeffrey Wright, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Alfre Woodward, and Sissy Goddamn Spacek, of all people. I know there will be listeners who will want more of Bob’s voice than they get, but to me it made perfect sense to have such a diverse array of readers interpreting his sentences for him. That’s more or less the theme of the book: the philosophy of modern song, you might say. 

A great song inhabits a different space, or it creates a new world. It both exists within time and beyond it, in our minds, after it has transformed us. Dylan loves to quote Whitman’s iconic “I contain multitudes” line (which I understand, having fallen back on it many times myself when writing record reviews). He even wrote the song “I Contain Multitudes” a few years ago. He clearly dgaf if you think his intertextual approach is a form of cultural or artistic appropriation, and I guess when it comes right down to it, neither do I (sorry, anonymous Civil War poets et al.). If he’s a plagiarist, he’s the generous kind who returns on the intellectual-property investment tenfold. 

Love and theft indeed.

Goodreads review, January 23, 2023

Adams, Sibelius, Berlioz


On February 19 and 20, 2016, the St. Louis Symphony performs Hector Berlioz’s overture to Béatrice et Bénédict, selections from Jean Sibelius’s The Tempest (with passages from the Shakespeare play performed by members of St. Louis Shakespeare Festival), and John Adams’s dramatic symphony Scheherazade.2, with soloist Leila Josefowicz.

My program notes begin on p. 26.

Surviving Wagner

Gabriel Fauré, Ladykiller

Gabriel Fauré, Ladykiller

This weekend (March 6 and 7) the St. Louis Symphony performs Fauré’s Elegy for Cello and Orchestra, Wagner’s “Brünnhilde’s Immolation” from Götterdämmerung (Christine Brewer, soprano); and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3.

My program notes are here:

First SLSO Youth Orchestra concert of the season: 11/24/13

My program notes for the first SLSO Youth Orchestra concert of the season, on Buxtehude/Chávez, Pärt, Britten, and Dvorák. The Youth Orchestra concerts are free (well, except for a $1 service charge for tickets). You should go.

Click to access 4303.pdf

Get tickets for the concert here:

And yes, I realize that I am missing an important diacritical mark above, in a certain Czech composer’s name. I really ought to learn how to make that weird mark over the “r,” and I really ought to learn the name for it and stop calling it weird.

Some updates

Today I added several links to the Links to Published Writing page, gussied up various pages with some new uploaded photos, and created a new catch-all page for unpublished writing. It’s called Odd Unpublished Things and contains, of all things, odd unpublished things: from a spate of fever-fueled DVD reviews to the last poem I ever finished, when I was an undergraduate in college.

This blogging bidness is a laborious task for a compulsive person with terrible completist tendencies tempered with paralyzing self-doubt, but I guess I can’t make a decent blog in one day, even if I do keep teenage vampire hours.

I will strive to be more interesting in the future. Thank you for reading, all three of you.

I’m not an early riser. I just haven’t fallen asleep yet.

For at least 10 years, well-meaning people have been telling me that I need a blog. For professional reasons. Seeing as how I call myself a freelance writer. Sometimes these well-meaning people even put me on the spot and ask me where they can read my so-called writing. I  just wave airily and say, “Oh, you could always google René Spencer Saller, and see what comes up.”

In truth, I mostly hate blogs, and it seemed very likely that I would hate my own, if I had one. But early this morning, plagued by insomnia, I thought, well, why not? It’s free, after all, and it’s easier if everything is organized in one place.

So far all I’ve done is upload a bunch of links. They’re all on the Links to Published Writing page above, haphazardly organized. Click at your peril.

I am also a freelance editor, but that’s far too boring to write about. I’m fairly good at it, and I’ve been doing it professionally for more than 20 years now.