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Friday, March 16, 2018

It’s Easier to Love Chuck Berry Now That He’s Dead

Posted By on Fri, Mar 16, 2018 at 7:44 AM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JAIME LEES
  • photo by Jaime Lees

Yes, I know. I'm a terrible person. But hear me out.

I love Chuck Berry. I love Chuck Berry fully and without reservation. But I can only say that since he’s been gone. Berry died a year ago this weekend and I’ve noticed that I’ve spoken differently about him ever since he passed.

Back when he was still alive, my love for him always came with an asterisk attached. I was always careful to say that I liked his music or that I respected his work, but it was difficult to just come out with a simple “I love Chuck Berry” because, well, I didn’t. I didn't really like Chuck Berry the man much at all.

This is a uniquely St. Louis problem, I think. Because around here, if you said those words it could easily mean that you meant the actual individual, not just his music. One of the many interesting things about living in St. Louis is that you were always in close proximity to the Father of Rock and Roll.

Not only did he shape so much of our local culture, but the dude was just around a lot. He played shows once a month in the basement of Blueberry Hill for years. Because he had a huge love for his home town, Berry stayed in the area and always spoke about it lovingly to the international press. Many locals knew him or lived near him or had personal interactions with him. But that meant that we also kept a close eye on his dark side, too.

We all knew that he had a long history of doing bad things. And because we were St. Louis residents, we might’ve even known somebody who went to his restaurant and was filmed in the restroom.

As such, I’ve had deeply ambivalent feelings about Chuck Berry for my entire life. Nobody else on the planet had ever given so much to the two things that I love the most: rock and roll and St. Louis. But at the same time he disappointed me deeply.

In the past I've explored before how a musician’s personal life impacts my listening experience, even if it shouldn’t. And though knowing too much might seem to stain my experience a bit, it still doesn’t really stop me from enjoying their work. Like, Morrissey is a piece of shit but I still dig the Smiths. These are two separate thoughts in my head, but they live right next door to each other.

Plenty of people think that things like this shouldn’t cause me mental conflict at all: that some artists are just jerks and you have to suck it up or not care about these things. I mostly agree with that idea but I still have deep thoughts on these subjects.

It bums me out that Berry will have all of this weight dragging down his reputation forever. Without it he could’ve been known as nothing but a hero. I think that Chuck Berry did more for race relations in the United States than many civil rights leaders. (He didn’t necessarily mean to help to heal our racial wounds, but that was still the result.) Berry brought people together and that was a very important first step. Rock and roll itself was born from the marriage of traditionally black music (blues) and traditionally white music (folk). And this one magical little cocktail sparked all types of communication, understanding and connection.

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