Welcome to the March issue of ShortRiffs, the monthly column at The Guitar Cave! Winter is almost over and Spring has sprung…sometimes. It’s that weird cusp of a weather time right now and some days it’s impossible to figure out which groovy suit to wear…and I’m a guy with a whole lot of groovy suits! But, there is some guitar-related stuff in the news, including some sad stories for us older folks. But it’s to be expected…Time keeps on slippin’ into the future and all that.
CHUCK BERRY — One of the founding fathers of rock and roll has died at the age of 90. What a life! What a legacy! There will never be another like him you can be sure of that. Anyone who has ever read his autobio or seen Hail Hail Rock and Roll knows what an iconoclastic character Chuck was; a driven, intelligent and very dangerous guy! It’s not hyperbole to say that pretty much every guitar player who came after owes some debt to Chuck’s jazzy, rocking guitar style. This was explored and best explained by none other than Eric Clapton in the Hail Hail movie. The patented Chuck Berry double-stops, slurs and bluesy bends formed the basis for many an early fledgling guitar player and on certain songs or in certain situations they actually sound better than other guitar options. While Chuck didn’t invent any of this technique, he certainly popularized and took it out to the mainstream and sold it well. Who else from the early days of rock and roll casts as long a shadow? Chuck’s style and music continue to be an influence on countless rock and rollers all over the globe. He’s the guy who launched 5 million bands, easily. Interestingly, he has said that “rock and roll paid the bills but his heart was in the big band era”. This is something I have alluded to in a number of posts on this blog: The big band era never gets the credit it deserves for its influence on the rock and rollers who came along in the 1950s, and then everything else that followed.
But Chuck Berry was much more than a singing guitar-slinger. He was a songwriter par excellence and his music was quintessentially 1950s post-war America; hot cars, juke joints, pretty girls, hamburgers, dancing, wide open highways, falling in love, and rock and roll. It was the music of a country that had plenty to offer and was a testament to the belief (especially at the time) that there was no greater place on earth. That’s what I see in all of Chuck’s performances and hear in his music, even the difficult personal relationship music. As long as life gives me the opportunity, I will make something of it! That can-do attitude, immense natural scope, and awesome lifestyle possibilities that made America the envy of the world really helped create the soundtrack we all know as rock and roll and nobody personified, enunciated and delivered it better than Mr. Berry. In time many other entertainers, including Brian Wilson, Jagger/Richards, Lennon/McCartney would expand on the very fertile ground that Chuck had tilled to create their own vision and version of the land of dreams and opportunity, but they all acknowledged the debt they owed to the original rock and roll Shakespeare! I am not unhappy that Chuck has left the building though the world is much poorer without him. Chuck always did what Chuck wanted to do when Chuck wanted to do it. If he is gone now, it’s because that is what he wanted and who am I to question what Chuck wanted? Long Live the King!
Speaking of dreams and opportunities — Back in this post on Jimi Hendrix, I mentioned an old book in my possession, ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky. This book, Rock Dreams, one of the campiest and most far-out books ever done on the subject of rock and roll, has been in my possession for just as long. I recently found it at the bottom of a closet full of stuff. The book was written by Nik Cohn and illustrated lovingly, controversially and very gay-ly (for the time) by Guy Peellaert, an artist and illustrator probably best known for the David Bowie Diamond Dogs and The Rolling Stones’ It’s Only Rock and Roll album covers. The book had been put together the year before (1973) and according to Wikipedia it reportedly sold a million copies after it was published the following year. The book consisted of Peelaert’s visual illustrations which celebrated and exaggerated the rebel heritage of pop music and, particularly, rock and roll, with commentary by Cohn. Many of the original artworks were bought by actor Jack Nicholson. While the exaggeration is full-blown in some slides (as only the 1970s could be) the compositions and settings of some of the artists are really good. They transmit all of the visceral power that rock and roll promised and sometimes, delivered on. There are pics all over the web of this book, and it’s still available if you want to get your inner Rebel Rebel on!
Brian Setzer won Vintage Guitar Magazine Featured Artist of the Year. John Jorgenson came in right behind him in the same category. Both players stay incredibly busy and are at the top of the guitar-playing game so it’s great to see they are recognized! Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot tour is happening in the USA in June of this year.