One of the rock & roll pioneers Chuck Berry, has died last Saturday. Though it may sound sarcastic or even insensitive, now that we are mourning the passing of one of the first and true rock & roll innovators, something occurred to me suddenly: today it’s easy for the pop-music veterans, those who survived at least. The contemporary scene is devoid of meaning, the music ruled by endless recycling and everyone quickly fed up with everything (they´ve see it all before). Every of those legendary old guys, provided they still can walk, are picking up their guitars quickly and hitting the road – the hunger for the “authentic” so strong, there’s plenty of work around. Nobody’s selling records any longer being, yet there are many stages, even across the borders practically closed until recently. This has been going on for quite some time, so we tend to forget how different things used to be. This “difference” was last seen during the ‘80s , and not since. That decade will never be fully explained anyway, nor the extent of, as the late art critic Robert Hughes put it, the “shock of the new” it brought along – a decade, paradoxically, that prided itself with its postmodern status, i.e. its ability of recycling, its capacity for the ironic reference play, as well as with the impossibility of the new. Now that was a different time for the older generation, survival-wise! Some names, highly modern just shortly before, have vanished in the blink of an eye, blown away by a new scene that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, but even more so by technological expansion, by computers and digital sound. Music studios brought production standards to a perfect, crystal clear levels, which packed the Bauhaus-style songs (both architecture and band), songs sharp as a razor, stylishly carved and sculpted with a chilly elegance. All of this happened, by the way, within the music genre by its nature “messy” and emotionally “hot”.
Ok, wait – what does any of this have to do with the old rocker Chuck Berry, the electric (analog) guitar player and tunesmith? Here it comes: critics, retrospectives, and reviews, now after everything, are depicting the ‘80s selectively, as a decade when teenagers grew up listening strictly to the Smiths and New Order, and watching Frears’s My beautiful launderette or Wenders’s Paris-Texas, with Afrika Bambaataa (via Kraftwerk) and Soul Sonic Force, Nick Cave and the Sonic Youth, and with magazines such as FACE, NME and Spin. All this is mere beautification and hindsight. The middle of the ‘80s, for the boys and girls growing up in the western hemisphere (which means us) have been dominated by Rambo, asexuality (no shit, with AIDS an’ all…) in the era of Madonna, by Michael Jackson in his white socks and greasy hairdo, by Zemeckis’s – Back to the Future and short memory-span. The said movie’s most impressive scene is playing brilliantly with anachronisms: Michael J. Fox, having arrived in the ‘50s by way of his time machine, at some point is showing the teenagers what real rock & roll is by playing a spectacular version of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, one of the quintessential songs of the genre, of course. At the finale of the furious scene, one of the musicians is seen speaking on the telephone to someone: “Chuck! Chuck, it’s Marvin. Your cousin, Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you’re looking for? Well, listen to this!”
In the era oblivious to the old, as a consequence of the avalanche of the new, Chuck Berry – not the fictional character, the real one – was brought to life as a cultural fact, in an instant. How great one must be to be reinvented in such a way, without having to leave your own living room? Yet, the moment, as well as that wondrous era, have passed quickly, only to be replaced by another, darker, more dispersed and confusing. By the ‘90s of course. It was the time when giants were turning into dwarfs so fast, and when it seemed that everything is over anyway. The reason ‘90s were that horrible, among others, was that they constantly gave the impression that no one matters anymore, nor anyone will ever again. However, it did give us the crucial movie of the decade – Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction of course. One of the probably most magical sequences (one of many) was the one with the twist contest, the John Travolta (another icon of the bygone era) and Uma Thurman dance scene, the two of them swinging to the endlessly joyful, Caribbean-tinted You never can tell, a song double, purposeful as well as accidental irony. Again, another one of Chuck’s oldies will leave a mark on the latest cultural era.
The Pulp Fiction soundtrack later became one of the best-selling albums, so the old miser, who played gigs for cash only, made a fortune in royalties. For two decades in a row, he, who was done over for money so many times back in the day, has tricked them back, tricked time and circumstances both – while yet again not leaving his house with a guitar-shaped pool in a St. Louis suburb. With a final farewell, we should hand it to him: so long, and don’t worry ol’ man – you’ve fucked ‘em over at the end, all of them! And that was the whole point of R&R anyway – everything else mattered less.
Published in ‘Vreme’ 23.03.2017.
Translation by Vasilije Ljubinković