The Complicated Truth About Chuck Berry

How I figured out a way to love his music in spite of his often-unsavory story

“My Ding-A-Ling,” Chuck Berry’s only No. 1 hit, came out in 1972, during my earliest years of becoming a music fan. I walked around with a small black GE transistor radio glued to my ear, and would beg my parents to tune the car radio to the local rock station so I could name the songs and sing along. If you’ve never heard “My Ding-A-Ling” — a cover song that Berry started performing nearly two decades into his career — it’s the most childish of single entendres, and you can guess what’s up by the title alone. The chorus has Berry encouraging (and receiving) an enthusiastic sing-along, which made the whole thing that much more mortifying. I was a kid, but the song made me sink down in the car seat and try to make myself as small as possible. It made me feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, even though I couldn’t articulate exactly why.

There wasn’t a lot of Chuck Berry on the radio in the early '70s besides “My Ding-A-Ling.” His career had largely ground to a halt, although he still made a living on the oldies circuit. I wouldn’t find my gateway drug into Chuck Berry proper until I discovered the Beatles two years later. “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music” were what pulled me in. I hit the library the next weekend, and walked out with Chuck Berry’s Golden Hits. The album featured the songs I knew from the Beatles cover versions, as well as the classics: “Johnny B. Goode” was somehow familiar to a part of my subconscious, “Back in the USA” felt like a roller coaster, “School Days” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” appealed directly to my young rock-and-roll heart. I would listen to “Memphis, Tennessee” at night through headphones and imagine what the city looked like.

I loved the simplicity of the melodies and instrumentation, the flow of the lyrics, the speed and energy. I began to hear the similarities between Chuck Berry songs and everywhere else in rock and roll — the chords, the rhythm of the lyrics, the backbeat. I discovered The Rolling Stones, and then The Who, and then the entire universe of recorded music descended into my brain.

Thanks to my polite insistence, the library acquired a three-album greatest-hits compilation called Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade. This was the ticket to the literal Promised Land, and by the time I had finished with it, I had a whole list of new favorites. I played “Nadine” so many times in a row my mom yelled at me to find another song, she was tired of hearing about the coffee-colored Cadillac. (“But Mom, that’s the best part!"). To this day, “Nadine” remains my favorite, for all the reasons I fell in love with Chuck Berry: the language, the cadence, the pictures he painted, how clear everything was, how the melody made you feel the movement of the bus and the taxi and the people on the street. I could not get over it, and played it over and over to try to decipher it, to catch every detail, to marvel at its very existence.

When I finally made the connection between Chuck Berry and the crass novelty song I'd hated as a kid, I was disappointed but pragmatic: It was just one song! There were so many other great ones! But it was all most people knew. If you even mentioned the words “Chuck Berry” to most people my age, they were going to immediately bring up “My Ding-A-Ling.” No one wanted to hear me wax rhapsodic about how The Beatles mirrored “Back in the USSR” from “Back in the USA,” or how John Lennon directly borrowed a line from “You Can’t Catch Me” for “Come Together.”

I didn't really want to discuss any of this, anyway, with the pushy, overexcited boys who considered rock and roll to be their sole purview, walking through the hallways with copies of Physical Graffiti or Tales From Topographic Oceans or Dark Side of the Moon tucked under their arms. So I learned to keep my love of rock and roll to myself, and instead found a home in the school newspaper, where I could write about music, and the local record stores, where I would become the annoying customer who hung out for hours just so I could talk to people who knew about music.

I got my redemption a few years later. Bruce Springsteen released Nebraska in 1982, and sang about riding on the New Jersey Turnpike in the wee, wee hours in “State Trooper.” The hair stood up on the back of my neck at yet another “You Can’t Catch Me” reference, and I felt wise and knowledgeable, which mattered to someone who was constantly told, “Gosh, you sure know a lot about music for a girl,” even when she was already in her twenties.

It wasn’t until 1989, when Berry was sued for videotaping dozens of women in the bathroom of a restaurant he owned, that I bothered to look up the Mann Act. I’d read that he had been arrested for violating the anti-trafficking law decades earlier, but early accountings of the man’s life — almost always written by other men — for all intents and purposes glossed over what exactly happened, or made him seem like a victim of racist cops and judges.

While it’s definitely true that racism played into how Berry was treated by the law, it’s also definitely true that he brought a 14-year-old girl from Texas to St. Louis under circumstances that can't be explained away. As for the later charge, which he settled with a million-dollar class-action payment, there is simply no reasonable justification for, first, placing a hidden camera in a public bathroom, and, second, keeping the tapes you recorded from the bathroom. Even as late as 2003, a New York Times profile proffered the defense from his attorneys that Berry “had been the victim of a conspiracy to profit from his wealth.” Maybe — but try not videotaping women peeing without their consent, and you'll probably have better luck not getting sued for it.

Caryn Rose

Chuck Berry in 2007

All of this made me take a giant step back and reconsider my view of Chuck Berry. I’d always wanted to see him live, but now I wasn't sure I'd enjoy it. And while there are legitimately few joys greater than driving on the highway on a summer day with Chuck Berry in the tape deck, I found I couldn’t do that anymore without feeling uncomfortable — the same way I felt the first time I heard “My Ding-A-Ling” as a kid. The tapes went to the case at the bottom of the pile.

Later, in the 2000s, research I was doing on Bruce Springsteen made it necessary for me to actively listen to Chuck Berry again. It still felt like betrayal, but I remembered how much I loved those songs. So in 2007, when I saw that Berry was playing a free music festival in New Jersey, I decided to go see him. He was late; his daughter, who is an excellent harmonica player, performed with her purse across her chest as though there was nowhere she trusted to put it down. At the end of the show, for some reason I do not recall, people involved with the festival came out onstage with their children to dance, and I stood there thinking, NO, WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT. I walked away glad I'd seen him play, but also, equally, wishing I hadn’t.

Chuck Berry wrote amazing songs. Chuck Berry’s work was exploited by the music industry. Chuck Berry never made all the money he deserved from the music he created. Chuck Berry was a victim of racism. And Chuck Berry took advantage of women, repeatedly, throughout his life. All of the above is true — but after he died, I still spent Sunday listening to as much of his music as possible, and I'll always remember his role in my music education. May all of Chuck Berry be remembered well, and accurately — and may he rest in peace.

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