Bye Bye Johnny …a philosopher of the joy of life…
(Now you all know about Handsome, right? My human, the guy I live with, and who I love more than anything? And who loves me more than anything?
Well, nothing’s changed about that, thank goodness. But of course, I’ve never been the only thing he loves. He has favorite movies and foods and cars, just like most humans. And of course, he has favorite music.
In fact, as you can probably guess (as he named his puppy after a singing group), music is one of his greatest pleasures. And the songwriters and singers and instrumentalists who create his favorite music… why they’re just earthly gods to him, almost as great as dogs!
And while he has introduced me to all kinds of sounds, from stately classical symphonies to sweet sentimental ballads to noisy gangster rap, whenever anyone has asked him who his favorite musician, favorite performer, favorite entertainer ever was, he’s always had the same answer. A man who didn’t put out all that much material in his long life, but what he put out was so magical it changed popular music forever, rolling Beethoven over and telling Tschaikovsky the news.
Maybe you’ve guessed already? Yes, a few weeks ago, we lost him. One of the most brilliant artists who ever lived. The Amazing Chuck Berry.
Most of what you hear about him is how he was one of the originators of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, how he came up with new ways of playing guitar, or how his songs had such clever poetry about everyday life. And all are true, but these are like saying Picasso gave women three eyes or Michelangelo was good at ceilings – they leave out the pure soul and brilliance that filled his art.
And here’s the craziest thing about this. Handsome says that, beyond Berry’s genius with guitar, songwriting, dancing, and singing, what he loves most about him is the spirit in his songs – a spirit he insists is a lot like MINE!
So I’ll admit that, as a dog, I just can’t write this. I like music and have written about it here before, but for this one, I’m going to turn it over to Handsome and let him write his first Pawprint all on his own. And maybe he can explain to you what he’s talking about.
Love and Licks,
(written by Handsome)
My dog Shirelle says that she can’t really talk about Chuck Berry, that he didn’t affect her life that much. But I disagree. When she was a puppy, she was vicious with biting, and my only way to control it was to play tug-of-war with her, with a huge rope. And if music was playing in our home, it might turn into a kind of dance. Slow, fast, cheerful, sad, whatever.
But no matter what I was doing, if Chuck Berry music came on, her heart rate shot up like a rocket, she’d grab the rope and run to me, and the dance became a tornado. That guitar, those drums, would shoot into both our hearts like lightning bolts, and she and I and Chuck would all become one. One glowing testament to the thrill of life.
Which, of course, Shirelle tends to be all the time anyway. And she shares his music’s mix of joy and sadness and anger – sometimes all at the same time. And the way that two beats can exist at the same time too, creating something magical and far truer to life than a simple unified drum machine (piano laid back and guitar firing forward, like the hilarious way sometimes her back legs and front legs seem to be running different directions, which expresses her crazy heart perfectly). And a moral view that celebrates open desire but never cruelty or rudeness.
And a love of speed, of going as fast as possible. Like in “You Can’t Catch Me” when, in the middle of a race, Chuck barks out,
I put my foot on my tank and I began to roll
Moanin’ siren, ‘twas the state patrol
So I let out my wings and then I blew my horn
Bye-Bye New Jersey, I become airborne…
And while pop singles will dominate his legacy, I also have to talk about the way he moved. As Shirelle is the greatest runner and jumper I’ve ever known (to a degree that can be a royal pain!), no one has ever used his body quite like Berry. Most famously, he had a move he called The Scoot, where he’d sit down very far on one leg, stick the other out in front of him, and kick it up and down as he scooted across the stage. Many people call that the Duck Walk, but Duckwalking was actually a different, and equally glorious, dance he’d do, squatting down on both legs and walking while jutting his chin forward with every step. But reading about these, or seeing others imitate them, isn’t enough. Like Astaire, Chaplin, or Cagney, Berry’s movements were purely his own, and no one else could ever capture them.
But back to the songs, here are five of his most famous recordings. You can easily find them online or on any number of collections. Check them out and see if you can hear that joy of life. Or better yet, if it fills your heart, the way it does to Shirelle and me.
- “Maybelline” – Chuck’s first hit record was an complete breakthrough. From the opening notes, we hear a guitar sounding like none had before, a sort of call-to-arms, notifying us of his arrival, before slipping into this fun upbeat country rhythm. Then this joyous friendly voice jumps in, “Maaaaaaybeline, why cancha be tru-u-ue? Ya done started back doin’ the things you used to do!” Wait, is he happy, like he sounds, or angry or sad, like the lyrics say? Then with the next line, he completes his full mark: “As I was motorvatin’ over the hill, I saw Maybelline in a Coupe DeVille.” “Motorvatin’?!” Sure many songwriters have made up words before, but this is such a cool one, and so casually thrown out, explaining that for him to drive requires both motor and motivation, while his beloved is in a big fancy luxury car… Everything is simple, exciting, fun, and pure. (Then the song becomes a story about him trying to catch up to her – it does have suspense, but the early line “But nothin’ outrun my V8 Ford” does give a hint of how it’s going to work out).
- “Too Much Monkey Business” – No it’s not about monkeys, but rather a series of complaints about daily life, set in a ferocious, almost machine-gun delivery. Much has been said about its effect on greats from Bob Dylan to Grandmaster Flash, but no one has ever quite matched it. Chuck’s wordplay was never better, “Workin’ to and fro, hard workin’ at the mill, never fail in the mail, yeah come a rotten bill! Aagh!” Just listen to it and let your brain spin with all he’s putting out there, and how much you might relate: “Same thing every day, getting’ up, goin’ to school, no need to me complainin’, my objection’s overruled!”
- “Johnny B. Goode” – His most famous song, and deservedly so. While countless bands have incorporated his guitar licks into their music, no one has ever captured the sound of this one – a brag about someone a lot like himself, who “could play a guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell.” One issue to bring up here is his race – Berry was African-American, and worked as hard to bridge racial gaps by incorporating “white” words and sounds into his blues-based music as Elvis Presley did by going the other way. So with some of his songs, he began them with more of a statement about his race, that he later pulled out. With this one, it’s just that instead of it being about “a country boy,” Berry had originally written his hero to be “a colored boy.” Another one of his masterpieces, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” is even more clearly a hidden message, as the lyrics really refer to the glories of being a brown-skinned handsome man!
- “Memphis, Tennessee” – a song so famous, and so frequently covered, that people forget, or never notice, how original it is. First of all, the simple guitar riff he created for it is now so common you don’t even notice it, but guitar textbooks do refer to it as “the Memphis riff.” But just listen to those lyrics – the way they lead you to believe the song is about a lost romance, then that maybe it’s even about an interracial love (as “her mom did not agree”), and then, heartbreakingly, in the last lines we learn the truth of what and who he’s seeking. Also note the quiet singing, far from the jubilation of “Johnny B. Goode,” the sound of a sad and sweetly longing heart.
- “Nadine” – Another all-around masterpiece so simple and elegant, you’d swear it came from a style that had been around for years, but no, this was a melody, a beat, an unbeatable lyric, and a whole sound that he created himself. And don’t kid yourself that something this perfect was created overnight – Berry actually wrote this over a two-year stint in jail! No matter how great a writer is, it’s still got to be pure magic when you come up with an opening like “As I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat, I thought I saw my future bride walkin’ up the street. I shouted to the driver, ‘HEY Conductor you must, SLOW down I think I see her, PLEASE let me off this bus!’”
In “Maybelline,” Chuck caught his girl and the Cadillac. He eventually wrote a sequel song to “Memphis” with a happy ending. But “Nadine” offers no such closure. For fifty years after he wrote it, he kept performing around the world, yelling out “Nadine! Honey is that you?!” And never finding an answer. Maybe he’s found her now?
Chuck Berry died on March 18, at ninety years old. Instantly social media exploded with tributes from nearly every great rocker alive. Though I suppose his most beautiful eulogy was given decades ago on a talk show by John Lennon, who said, “If you had to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
And if you had to give art, or music, or the joy of life, another name, you wouldn’t go astray by calling them by the same name too.
She finally got the letter she was dreaming of
Johnny wrote and told ‘er he had fell in love
As soon as he was married he would bring her back
And build a mansion for ’em by the railroad track
So every time they heard the locomotive roar
They’d be a’ standin’, a’ wavin’ in the kitchen door
Howling, bye, bye, bye, bye
Bye, bye, bye, bye
Bye bye Johnny
Good bye Johnny B. Goode