Book excerpt: “Chuck Berry: An American Life”

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“Chuck Berry: An American Life” (Hachette Books), a big, new biography of the father of rock ‘n’ roll, explores what author R.J. Smith calls “the often triumphant, sometimes anguished details” of Berry’s career and personal life.

Read an excerpt below.


Hachette Books


A magazine writer once asked Chuck Berry: If you had the power to accomplish some new thing, what would it be? “I’d invent,” he responded. “Creating is the next thing to inventing. So I’d want to invent something.”

Creating—well, that was an abstraction, it was play, you couldn’t hold art in your hands. But inventing involved hard physical work, problem-solving, and these were the highest pursuits Chuck Berry could desire.

He was a lifelong tinkerer, one of the great American makers of the twentieth century. And even in his later years, he longed to build something big.

Which is kind of shocking, not to mention downright nuts, because Chuck Berry was one of the great makers of the twentieth century—literally, he was one of the key inventors of the era, because he didn’t just help make a thing that changed our lives; his conception, rock & roll, created a time. He helped create a hybrid music that had only existed in beta form before, and he made it connect across every conceivable border of American culture. And then it spread. A dominant expression of mobility, the idea that anybody could go anywhere they wanted if their words lined up right, if they saw the staggering openness around them half as clearly as he drew it. Before he came along, rock and roll was a verb, a suggestion of sex and body, the blues-based words paired as opposites, gasping and sighing, committing and giving way. Chuck Berry helped turn that verb into a thing unto itself. Within months of the release of his first single, “Maybellene,” people were using rock & roll in their daily conversation. The words explained what music they liked, then it expressed what in life they liked, and then it was them.

But it’s true, you can’t put it in your hands or break it apart on your dad’s worktable, and to a handyman like Chuck Berry that rendered the accomplishment vaguely suspect. He was not impressed. And for that matter he definitely was not impressed with most of us, either. Conditions emerged that tainted his sense of self and made the weight of his accomplishment difficult to bear, and also, even setting those conditions aside, he still had his own, private doubts about how much he should matter. He struggled, and frequently failed, to feel the love crowds around the world offered him. An interview with him was destined to go off the rails when a journalist asked what it felt like to “invent rock & roll.” That hot-wired a feeling which was intolerable, and he took it out on the poor unwitting ones who brought it up. Respect was valuable, but other things, like admiration, love, gratitude, loyalty, they almost never delivered on their promise, and what the giver saw in them was a vast field away from what Berry witnessed. In him they created frustration, resentment, made him withdraw into his skin. And with the love for him falling short, the desire to write new songs ebbed too. What didn’t ever stop was the desire to stand before an audience and play. He made it impossible to know what he got out of the experience. And that experience, the decades of live shows chased long after the hits had ceased, was itself hard to understand.

It was almost as if he did not want to be understood.

“Would you say, Mr. Berry, that you, single-handedly, invented rock ‘n’ roll?”

“Single-handedly? Nope. I wouldn’t say that I single-handedly invented rock ‘n’ roll. You see, there’s all types of rock ‘n’ roll. There is rock. And there is rooooooll. See what I’m saying? And then there’s rock ‘n’ roll which is rock ‘n’ roll, hahahaha. It’s just a matter of whatever I’ve accomplished, which is for others to say, I guess.

Excerpted from “Chuck Berry: An American Life” by R.J. Smith. Copyright © 2022. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

      
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