19 March 2017, Chuck Berry Is Duck-Walking in Space

In high school I played stand-up drums à la Slim Jim Phantom in a rockabilly band called Trailer Hog, and we covered Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” which also happens to be one of the few songs I can strum somewhat recognizably on the guitar. Just the rhythm parts. Not that flashy intro stuff that was Berry’s signature, at least in the minds of a generation who saw ’80s Michael J. Fox shred it in 1955, thereby inspiring Berry cover his own song before he’d actually written it and creating a causal loop that the film then totally ignores, which is fine; the fading photograph covers time travel paradoxes well enough.

These days when a Chuck Berry song come to my mind, it’s “Maybellene,” maybe because its hook is the most fun to sing. Berry’s discography contains the seeds of so much pop music to come, this essay should be longer, but it’s all been covered elsewhere as well. “Sweet Little Sixteen” is the explicit basis for “Surfin’ USA” by The Beach Boys, and Brian Wilson’s dad handed over all the rights to Berry’s publisher, Arc Music Group—even the rights to Wilson’s lyrics listing iconic surf spots. Berry’s publisher also sued John Lennon over the line “Here come old Flattop” and the melody generally in “Come Together,” as they are gaffled from Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.” I won’t even mention the countless covers, except to say go look at the number and quality of artists who have done versions of “Rock and Roll Music.”

Chuck Berry died yesterday at age 90, but as journalist Chuck Klosterman has pointed out, “Johnny B. Goode” will still be out there duck-walking the grooves of Carl Sagan’s Golden Voyager Record long after—well, Klosterman envisions an Earth-swallowing Sun, but clearly we’ll boil our own oceans with a cold frame of carbonic acid gas before that other solar cataclysm comes. But never mind that. I’ve got a copy of The Great Twenty-Eight, and today I intend to play it loud.