Chuck Berry, Driving Alone

How the late, great rock-and-roll pioneer put the American Dream to music

Hail, hail rock and roll

Deliver me from the days of old

Long live rock and roll

The beat of the drums, loud and bold

Rock, rock, rock and roll

The feelin' is there, body and soul.

I had one chance to see Chuck Berry play, and I blew it. I was a teenager, I didn't really know what music was, and I assumed it would just be a sad exercise in nostalgia. Why would anyone want to see the "king of rock and roll" in his eighties in a dark and smoky casino, amid the chattering of slot machines? Shouldn't we remember someone like that as he was at his greatest?

I realized too late that it wasn't about being entertained — not really. It was about being in the presence of history, about verifying that you breathed the same air as the man who didn't quite invent but certainly defined rock and roll, and, in the process, defined part of what it means to be American.

I tried to see him again over the years, but it never worked out. Life got in the way. Last Thanksgiving, though, on a visit to the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, I got as close as anybody can now. I saw his car, a cherry-red Cadillac convertible like something out of a dream or a Chuck Berry song. The more I think about it, now that he's gone, the more I think that might have been enough.

Chuck Berry was born in St. Louis in the fall of 1926, a world ago, when Calvin Coolidge was president and there were still those living who remembered Emancipation. The Great Depression hadn't started yet. World War II was many years away. The first affordable automobile was 18 years old and still in production. The American dream hadn't quite been invented yet. Berry, the son of a contractor and a public school principal, would be one of its chief architects.

You can't disassemble the parts that made Chuck Berry a once-in-a-lifetime visionary. Yes, he took blues and country and willed them into rock and roll, but he didn't get there first. Yes, he was an exciting guitar player, but his riffs weren't the most technically stunning the genre has seen. What made him a visionary was that he uniquely understood what an American rock-and-roll performer had to be and had to represent. Very early on, Chuck Berry figured out exactly what you had to sell people, and then — and this is where you can't disassemble it anymore — he did it perfectly.

"Maybellene" and "Thirty Days" in 1955. "Roll Over Beethoven" and "You Can't Catch Me" in 1956. "Rock and Roll Music" in 1957. "Johnny B. Goode" in 1958. Every year through 1961, he was pounding out rock-and-roll songs so archetypal that we take them for granted. Of course somebody had to write the rock-and-roll songbook. More than any other individual, Chuck Berry was that somebody.

These were joyful songs, exuberant songs, aspirational songs, songs that could have only been written by an American in the 1950s. They were the soundtrack of American happiness: celebrations of freedom, love, getting up to no good, and — most importantly — cars. He was obsessed with cars, maybe because he had worked in an automobile assembly plant, or maybe because of the speed and power a car can give. His songs, like those of no other performer before him, sound better when you're driving fast.

Just about all of his songs back then were taut and flawless. There was no fat on a Chuck Berry song. The lyrics and the guitar playing and the singing all did exactly what they were supposed to do, and nothing else. He was a precise engineer of his material, which resulted in great art. Unlike many great artists, though, he was never shy about discussing the fact that he made his art in order to get paid.

"I knew the market," he said toward the end of his life. "There had to be a market in order for you to be successful in a business. The market had to need your business, or the product of it. So I tried to sing as though they would be interested, and that would become a market."

Chuck Berry was a cold-blooded capitalist. He saw a market for American rock-and-roll songs, he saw an opportunity, and he took his chance. From one angle, this could come across as cynicism. But it was really something else: a far-reaching faith in his ability to reshape American culture without recourse to sentiment or magic. Selling records was the art. The songs sound effortless because that's how he designed them, with no room for doubt.

He was so ruthlessly calculating about music that the man often seemed to disappear behind the product. Unlike other titans of rock and roll, like Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis — hard-living men with instantly iconic personas — Chuck Berry was elusive. He was too much of a loner to be like them. Not a romantic loner, either, a performer deliberately cultivating a sense of mystique. Chuck Berry was a real loner, an alienated man who rarely let anybody in.

This is seen most plainly in Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, a 1987 documentary about a pair of concerts celebrating his 60th birthday. The camera is following him on his show-day routine. He goes to the airport alone. All he's got is a suit and a briefcase. "One-nighters," he tells the camera, "that's all I ever do. One-nighters." He smiles at this. He drives to the show alone. He slinks through a crowd of fans en route to the venue. He's got his guitar, which is all he needs. Then, as soon as the show's over, he drives home. Alone.

No performer in rock was more alone than Chuck Berry. He drove by himself, he didn't hang out backstage, he didn't rehearse, and for much of his career he didn't have a band. When he had a show in these years, the promoter would have to wrangle some local musicians into a backing band, and when he played with them, he invariably ignored them. He was hard to get to know.

In some ways, that's for the best. Chuck Berry was not a man to hero-worship. He went to jail in the early 1960s after being convicted of violating the Mann Act with an underage employee, and decades later he was accused of installing a video camera in the women's bathroom of his restaurant. While he contested the circumstances of his trial on the first allegation and denied wrongdoing in the second, it seems likely that to know him any better would have revealed more flaws than virtues.

The songs, though, were faultless. When he was in jail from 1962 to 1963, he checked out an atlas and wrote "Promised Land," his masterpiece, a song that almost had to be written in a prison. It's a story about a "poor boy" who takes a road trip from Norfolk, Virginia, to Los Angeles, California, and it's a maturation of all of the themes that drove his work. "Promised Land" is a celebration of America, the America of speed and land and cars, a portrait of manifest destiny in the 20th century. It's a sprawling epic of travel and transience, of being free, and it's over in two and a half minutes. If someone asks what freedom means, just play them that song and say "There! There! That's what it means!"

Elvis Presley might as well be on Mount Rushmore. His ghost is everywhere — his face, his moves, his voice. Chuck Berry's ghost isn't, and it probably won't be. He won't be remembered for his pencil-thin frame or his pencil-thin mustache or his coyness in interviews. He didn't have a big comeback moment in the digital age, like Johnny Cash's "Hurt" video. Historians and students of rock and roll will remember him as one of the very greatest 20th-century American songwriters, and they will be right, but that perspective won't settle into our broader cultural consciousness in the coming decades. Chuck Berry the man will fall deeper and deeper into the past.

This is partly because he was black, and the music industry has historically repackaged black art for white artists to sell on the mass market, from the 1950s to today. Without Chuck Berry, there are no Beatles or Rolling Stones. But it's also because Chuck Berry wasn't charismatic and didn't like publicity. He played his songs and went home.

To many, Chuck Berry will be remembered for the scene in Back to the Future in which a time-traveling Michael J. Fox plays his song and accidentally creates rock and roll. This is, at first glance, a grievous insult to a brilliant writer, but that's not really what the scene is about. When Fox's character "invents" "Johnny B. Goode," he's inventing something that had to exist, the nonexistence of which we cannot consider. It's kind of a compliment. Chuck Berry's work will live on, and the man behind the work will not, and that's how he designed it.

There's a painting by Edward Hopper called Western Motel. It shows a woman alone in a motel room in the desert. She's dressed. Her suitcase is packed. Her car is right outside. She's waiting for something; we don't know what. Edward Hopper captured, like no other visual artist, the essential loneliness of the American dream, of American individualism.

There's something in that image of Chuck Berry, who was recording "Rock and Roll Music" around the time Hopper painted it in 1957. He didn't keep many people close to him. He took his money and sang his songs and hopped into a Cadillac and he drove away into the night, a man alone.

Yet Chuck Berry, like Edward Hopper, was the observer at the darkened corner of the party. He saw the American dream and what people liked about it, and he nakedly pandered to it. He was detached and far away, and that separation is part of how he wrote with the effortlessness people spend their whole lives trying to fake.

He was not the world's greatest guitar player. He was not an exceptionally noteworthy performer, though he had a confidence onstage that was almost shocking. But he was rock and roll's best writer. "Promised Land" tells exactly as much story as it needs to: A guy goes West, to the promised land, and finds it empty. "Tell the folks back home this is the promised land calling," Chuck Berry wrote in his jail cell, "and the poor boy's on the line."

In that conclusion there is the soul of a man, the man who did it all alone, the man who would recite the 19th-century Theodore Tilton poem "Even This Shall Pass Away" and begin to cry.

Towering in the public square,

Twenty cubits in the air,

Rose his statue, carved in stone.

Then the king, disguised, unknown,

Stood before his sculptured name,

Musing meekly: “What is fame?

Fame is but a slow decay;

Even this shall pass away.”