An excerpt from the book titled “Chuck Berry: An American Life.”

An excerpt from the book titled “Chuck Berry: An American Life.”

The expansive new biography “Chuck Berry: An American Life” (Hachette Books) examines what author R.J. Smith describes the “often victorious, sometimes agonizing minutiae” of Berry’s professional and private life.

Below is an excerpt.

Hachette Books

Once, a magazine journalist asked Chuck Berry, “If you could accomplish anything new, what would it be?” “I would invent,” he replied. “Creating is similar to creating, thus I would like to invent something.”

Creating was an abstraction, it was a game, and it could not be held in one’s hands. Inventing, however, necessitated arduous physical labor and problem-solving, and these were the things Chuck Berry desired most.

He was one of the great American inventors of the twentieth century and a lifelong tinkerer. And even in his senior years, he yearned to construct something monumental.

Which is astonishing, to say the least, because Chuck Berry was one of the great creators of the 20th century—literally, he was one of the era’s primary inventors, because he didn’t simply help create something that changed our lives; his invention, rock & roll, established an era. Before his involvement, hybrid music only existed in beta form, and he connected it over every imaginable American cultural boundary. After then, it spread. A powerful statement of mobility, the notion that anyone could go anyplace they choose if their words were aligned correctly and if they saw the astonishing expanse surrounding them as plainly as he drew it. Before he came along, rock and roll was a verb, implying sex and body, with blues-based terms coupled as opposites, such as gasping and sighing, committing and yielding. Chuck Berry helped transform this verb into its own entity. Within a few months of the release of his debut hit, “Maybellene,” people began to use rock & roll in everyday speech. The words described their musical preferences, then their life preferences, and finally themselves.

But it’s true that you can’t hold it in your hands or disassemble it on your father’s workbench, and to a handyman like Chuck Berry, this rendered the achievement rather dubious. He felt unimpressed. Furthermore, he was not impressed with the majority of us either. Conditions arose that polluted his sense of self and made it difficult for him to carry the weight of his accomplishment, and even putting those circumstances aside, he had his own internal misgivings about how important he should be. He struggled and often failed to feel the affection the world’s crowds afforded him. An interview with him was doomed to fail when a journalist asked him how it felt to “create rock & roll.” This triggered an unbearable feeling, and he lashed out at the poor naive journalists who brought it up. Respect was valuable, but other things, such as admiration, love, appreciation, and loyalty, rarely fulfilled their promise, and what the donor saw in them was a world apart from what Berry observed. They induced dissatisfaction and animosity in him and caused him to withdraw into his skin. And as her affection for him diminished, so did her drive to compose new songs. What didn’t ever stop was the need to appear before an audience and play. He made it tough to discern what he got out of the encounter. And this experience, decades of live performances pursued long after the hits had ended, was itself difficult to comprehend.

It appeared as though he did not wish to be understood.

“Would you claim, Mr. Berry, that you, single-handedly, founded rock ‘n’ roll?”

“Single-handedly? Nope. I wouldn’t say that I single-handedly invented rock ‘n’ roll. You see, there are different types of rock ‘n’ roll. There is rock. And there is rooooooll. See what I’m saying? And then there’s rock ‘n’ roll that is rock ‘n’ roll, hahahaha. It’s just a matter of whatever I’ve accomplished, which is for others to judge, I

Chuck Berry: An American Life, by R.J. Smith. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


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