Culture  /  Book Review

An Anthropologist of Filth

On Chuck Berry.
RJ Smith

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Chuck Berry performing "Maybellene."

Berry is our tour guide of the gap between American fantasy and a sometimes abject daily reality. Consider the “theme park” he opened in 1957, with its bright-blue swimming pool shaped like a guitar. Berry Park looks like a signifier of joyful success, but Berry later said that his motivation to construct it was the fact that there were so many places he couldn’t get into. Again, the split: out front, the happy symbolism; at the back, the simmering discontent. As a black man in a certain time and place, he grew up knowing that any small victory might suddenly be reversed, stolen, denied. A moment of exuberance or extroversion could be used by someone in authority to pick a fight, give you a ticket, or dock your pay; it could also mean a lifetime behind bars, or worse. If it feels like there is something fenced off or compartmentalized about Berry—well, this is not a rare thing among men, Lord knows; it’s especially understandable for a man of color coming of age during Jim Crow. Berry had good reason to be cagey. If you were going to reward him, he preferred money to words. Currency he could trust, whereas handshakes and contracts were to be regarded with suspicion. (Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: How much am I getting paid?) He was a supremely American pragmatist who put his faith in tangible things. His attention to tiny details was both the source of his artistic glory and the cause of his infamy and shame.

Berry’s public image showcased a winning smile and a winking eye, whereas most reports of backstage meetings tended to emphasize a forbidding scowl and basilisk stare. There is a sense, as with James Brown, Smith’s previous subject, that this protective wariness went beyond a learned tactic to become the very texture of his life—so ingrained as to be automatic, and often self-defeating. Like Brown, Berry seemed especially wary of people who offered friendship, help, or praise. (Even his Number One Celebrity Fan, Keith Richards, fell out with Berry during the making of the worshipful documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll.) A complex matter of credit, of who you are in debt to, even for a minute; of who determines the value of your talent and your time and, ultimately, your legacy.