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COMMENTARY

Chuck Berry Never Stopped Running

Notes on the later years of a troubled legend

By the middle of the 1970s, Chuck Berry had burned out on albums. It wasn’t particularly uncommon to see his albums not charting, his biggest commercial success being 1972's The London Chuck Berry Sessions, driven by the hit novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling.” But his self-titled effort in 1975 sounded like a record made by a weary legend who was tired of making records. 1979’s Rockit was more interesting, and perhaps his most listenable full-length of the ’70s, but that was it — the last album he would release as a living artist. But by then, albums were beside the point. By then, Chuck Berry had already taken to the road.

Surely, he should have had a secure and profitable Las Vegas residency at his disposal. Even if he chose not to take it, he'd earned it, as Elvis had before him. Even Little Richard, who struggled to adapt to making records again after returning to secular music in the 1960s, focused on live shows and eventually got traction at Vegas resorts and casinos. Berry wasn’t as flamboyant as Richard, but he had the same level of stage presence. So, with nothing else at his disposal, and a legendary catalog in his back pocket, Berry did the only thing that made sense: He took his Gibson guitar, went on tour, and never left.

The oldies circuit, as it was known at the time, is truly “the road” in the way musicians of that generation knew it: a place where gunslingers rolled into town in cars to play the hits, get paid in cash, and get out. Chuck Berry, even in the twilight of his most creative era, was the biggest thing on the oldies circuit. In the early to mid-1980s he was playing around 100 one-night shows per year. He would travel solo, and require a local backing band to play with him at every stop. Sometimes the band would be picked out of whoever told him they could play an instrument when he got to the venue. His logic was that everyone would know his songs well enough to back him on them, and even if they didn’t, he could surely cover for them with his own ability.

The stories and videos from Chuck Berry on the circuit in the '80s are equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring. On one stop, the story goes that he fired his backing band in the middle of the show, and then rehired them when he couldn’t get anyone else to replace them. In a video from a 1980 show at a Chevy dealership in British Columbia, the bass player is all over the place, the drummer can’t find the beat, and the rest of the band is scrambling through the set, looking to Berry for cues at first and then just trying to follow him as he plays through his hits with ease.

I have always found that his time on the circuit is the most fascinating part of Berry’s career. Here was one of the architects of a genre, leaving the massive home he’d built and retreating back into the comfort of a taped-together shack. He would arrive too late to rehearse with his backup bands, speed through sets, get paid under the table, and leave. There is a version of this story where Berry got some enjoyment out of the sloppy nature of his shows, and would go out of his way to sabotage the bands he was playing with. It works best, though, if you imagine it as a small act of rock and roll defiance — giving the audience exactly what they expected, and nothing else: Berry onstage with his guitar, singing a song that anyone with a few bucks for a ticket could echo back to him without any fanfare. Berry had done everything else by then, playing on stages with legends, with tight backing bands, putting on showstopping performances. Yet he returned to travel the circuit, in a way that wasn't all that different to how he'd started in the '50s, just with more hit songs at his disposal.

There is a part of Chuck Berry that seemed to thrive most when he was his own master. With no label demanding an album, and with so much of the rock world in the '80s turning its eye to younger and fresher artists, Berry was able to run into the night from town to town, knowing a small but enthusiastic audience would always be at his next stop. These years were filled with both generosity and manipulative behavior. Berry’s rumored mistreatment of his backing bands also came with the truth that a lot of local musicians in a lot of towns got a little bit of money to share a stage with one of the men who first sent them running to pick up an instrument. A crowd might have to endure a messy and erratic show, but someone who was maybe too young or too poor to have seen Chuck Berry when he was a much hotter draw decades earlier now had an accessible audience with the man himself.

Black artists who were there at the start of any genre of music, as many black artists were, are often the ones who have to bring their careers full-circle in this way. The oldies circuit still exists, though perhaps not by the same name or in quite the same spirit. Today, you can find rappers like Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane touring in groups together, dragging out half-inspired versions of their '80s hits to half-full clubs. R&B novelty tours can pack a theater and cash in on the dreaming masses and their craving for nostalgia. We haven’t figured out what to do with our legends when they begin to fade, or when they don’t have the albums in them anymore, or when the era shifts and leaves them behind. So many of them deserve bigger stages than what they ended up with, but there are lifestyles that have to be sustained, and there are always songs to be sung along to.

Chuck Berry finally hired a consistent backing band when he was 80 years old, still trudging through the circuit. I imagine he simply stopped having the patience for the show of hiring and firing bands on the spot. Sometimes it’s nice to hear your music played in the manner you intended when you wrote it. By that time, he had served four months in prison for criminal tax evasion, having been paid in only cash for over a decade. Also by that time, Berry had been sued by a group of women who said he installed a video camera in the women’s restroom of a restaurant he ran in Wentzville, Missouri. A police raid on his home reportedly dug up marijuana and, more importantly, videotapes of women using the restroom, one of them a minor. Berry pled guilty to a misdemeanor drug charge and settled the lawsuit.

It bears saying that it is familiar to be here again, at the mourning party for another dead legend, asking if it is a worthy practice to separate art from an artist. I don’t often understand these arguments — or, at least, they often seem like a way for people to mute something too loud to be ignored for the sake of their own comfort. I have no interest in separating the hands and mind and body behind an artist’s creations from all of the other things the hands, mind, and body were capable of. Rather, I see it as a question of “and,” rather than “or.” That is the hard thing, for me: to say that Chuck Berry was both predator and progenitor of a genre, and looking at my own personal moral scale to see how much I can give praise to one while not ignoring the other. There are bad men at the heart of rock and roll — Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner. There are men at the genre’s opening, men who pushed the genre to its earliest heights, who also preyed on women in the process. Gifted men who also destroyed or damaged families.

The dance between honor and acknowledgement is a tricky one, and I don’t begrudge anyone who doesn’t have the time for it. Praise, when it becomes worship, is a tool that enables and then becomes a weapon. With that in mind, I don’t begrudge the people who wash their hands of artistic heroes because of what they’ve done outside of making their art. I, too, have washed my hands and then returned to the altar for a brief spell when the body is no longer living and I no longer have to feel like I'm supporting a chance for a living person to do any harm.

I don’t know if this is the right answer, or if there is a right answer at all, but here I am again. In his last living decade, I found myself, at times, disgusted by the thought of his behavior and disappointed in facing down his legacy. Now Chuck Berry is dead, and I am thinking often about all of the things that pushed him to take his legendary guitar on the road, never leaving the road for decades. There is a small legacy in that which fascinates me. Those stories drive me to consider how many attempts to outrun demons can look like good hustle to the naked eye. It was hustle, too, which drove Berry to make his own way when no one else was offering a way for him — when all of the legends whom he helped make a lot of money were still making a lot of money, and he was making less.

It's nice to be an architect of something. But once everyone else learns to build newer versions of what you once built, you can either die trying to keep up, or live with what your hands already know. We can choose to know ourselves and our heroes, if one still has heroes, only by what the best of our instincts can offer; or we can complicate the idea of ourselves, and do away with the idea of heroes. I am most invested in the stories of Chuck Berry on the road because it seemed like the place where he was most complicated, the most complete part of his narrative: generous, warm, manipulative, angry, brilliant, legendary, harmful.

When talking about Chuck Berry, I don’t want to pick and choose which of those things to take, and which to leave. So, in memory of an icon, I choose to take them all.