There‚Äės a new book out about Chuck Berry. Hachette Books was so kind to send me a review copy and I spent much time of my holidays to read through it. But with every chapter read I became more and more frustrated and angry. Until I came to RJ Smith‚Äės remarks on the next to last page:
‚ÄúWhat we have is more interesting. A choice of threading through the details of his life or working around them completely ‚Äď your call! - and simply hearing him. To pull the joy and poetry out of the music he created and have it take us where it wants to go ‚Äď not where he went. To live our lives with it, and not live his life. That‚Äôs a lot.‚ÄĚ
As the creators of this website we have made our choice a long time ago. These pages here are about the music of Chuck Berry and only about his music. We do not discuss any other aspects of Berry‚Äės life in this blog or on the main page. For us there were at least two very good reasons for this decision. For one, we are deeply convinced that Berry‚Äės music is much more entertaining than his criminal, sexual and business affairs. And secondly we think that with recordings and records we have at least a small factual base to build our research upon. RJ Smith in his new ‚ÄěChuck Berry: An American Life‚Äú decided to concentrate on all the other stuff instead.
Chuck Berry was a control freak, a sex maniac and business-wise everything but a nice person. His criminal records included armed robbery, tax evasion, and what we would call today child abuse, plus many more. All this is no new news. We have read about these in newspapers and books as well as all over the Internet.
RJ Smith quotes Berry saying he wants the people to tell the truth about him. But there are many truths. There is the truth about a strange man with a weird character and perverse habits. But there also is the truth about the musical artist whose output had a huge impact on what became popular music during the last 70 years.
It might have been interesting to discuss Berry‚Äôs personality from a psychological perspective. Or it might have been interesting to analyze how this pathological mindset affected Berry‚Äės music or lyrics.
None of this you will find in this book, though. Instead RJ Smith has taken a huge effort to document Berry‚Äės failings. Most has been known before and is documented in detail e.g. in Bruce Pegg‚Äės excellent biography. Smith dug even deeper into court documents and he tried to get quotes from witnesses not published before. However, most of the contents is a simple repetition from old sources such as Berry‚Äôs own autobiography ‚Äď even repeating errors included.
Where Smith‚Äôs book enhances the previously published biographies is the coverage of Berry‚Äôs last years. That‚Äôs the advantage of a biographer who waits until his subject has deceased. So here we get a few additional pages about his latest tours, the release of his last record, and we learn how his family declared Berry incompetent.
Smith in many aspects tries to write a different biography and succeeds in doing so. He completely concentrates on Berry‚Äôs personal and business matters, almost ignoring his musical work. Only for one song Smith reserves a complete chapter: My Ding-A-Ling
. And again the author accomplishes something different as this song was left out of any serious discussion about Berry‚Äôs Ňďuvre so far.
One peculiarity of this text is a bit confusing for European readers: All over the book RJ Smith tries to find arguments to justify Berry‚Äôs behavior as a result of black versus white America. As being no part of the American society, we are not qualified to judge on RJ‚Äôs findings. From a musical point-of-view I think it is a bit far fetched to locate racially related hints in the lyrics of e.g. Promised Land
Is this a book you want to read? If you love Chuck Berry, don‚Äôt do it. If you are interested in Chuck Berry‚Äôs music, there‚Äôs nothing to gain from reading it. But if you want to learn about Berry‚Äôs porn collection or any other aspect of his life, there‚Äôs almost too much information in ‚ÄúChuck Berry: An American Life‚ÄĚ. But in the end it definitely is ‚Äúyour call‚ÄĚ: a choice of threading through the details of his life or working around them completely.
‚ÄúChuck Berry: An American Life‚ÄĚ by RJ Smith (Hachette Books, ISBN 978-0-306-92163-6) is available in every better book store near you.