If there was one songwriter in rock 'n roll who had an endless gift for memorable (and enjoyable) anthems it was Chuck Berry, who died recently in his home at the age of 90. Whether it was his pledge of allegiance in "Rock and Roll Music," his testament to roots in "Back in the U.S.A.," or the happily defiant "Roll Over Beethoven," Berry was the supreme storyteller, rock's Johnny Appleseed, a smooth talker and a smooth walker. Born in St. Louis, Berry drew his musical influences from a variety of genres. The swagger of "You Can't Catch Me" is unthinkable without Louis Jordan. The bravado of "Little Queenie" would have been right at home in the tough urban blues of Muddy Waters. "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" might have been a country music dream imagined by Bob Willis and the Playboys. His lesser-known "Havana Moon" has the swooning balladry of Nat King Cole (and it inspired Richard Berry's "Louie Louie").
I got to see Chuck Berry live only once at a Toronto International Film Festival party at Casa Loma for Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride in 1987. Taylor Hackford's concert picture tribute to Chuck Berry, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, had also premiered that evening at the Festival. Berry turned up at the party and took command of the stage with a young local band that was noodling along, playing back-up to the noise of people getting food and schmoozing. My friend and colleague, Andrew Dowler, saw Berry head for the stage, got my attention, and we ran right up front and claimed a table. Berry asked the band if they knew any of his numbers and luckily the lead guitarist seemed schooled in Chuck. They kicked off with "Little Queenie," and then followed with "Roll Over Beethoven." When that guitarist hit the solo, which Berry handed him gracefully, the kid looked to the sky and I thought he was dreaming of the day he could tell his children about the night he soloed for Chuck Berry. Maybe he already has.
Greil Marcus described this John Lennon demo recording as "a quiet, nihilistic confrontation with ugliness." It is that - and more. The original version, heard on the 1974 Walls and Bridges, was buried in its arrangements, whereas this intimate session (first appearing on the 1986 Menlove Avenue) has a raw nakedness that goes past the sparse timbre of the performance. While Lennon claimed the song to be about his former manager, the formidable Allen Klein, there's no question the track is actually turning the mirror darkly on its author. Borrowing the melody from "How Do You Sleep?," Lennon's character assassination of Paul McCartney heard on Imagine, he once again projects his anger and misery, only to have it blown back in his face - and he knows it. (At the end, he improvises, "There you stand/With your toilet scent/And your Mickey Duck/And your Donald Fuck," which invokes images of Lennon in Hamburg in the late fifties, standing on stage with a toilet seat over his head, defying the drunken German audiences as if they were the Nazis who only years earlier had strafed his city with bombs.) If you listen to "How Do You Sleep?," you can hear that the words might be meant for Paul, but the fears and rage actually describe John. So does "Steel and Glass."
This traditional blues song has a long history and its full share of interpreters from The Grateful Dead to James Taylor ("Circle Around the Sun"), none better than Judy Roderick in a plaintive reading from her 1965 album, Woman Blue. Dating all the way back to Blind Lemon Jefferson's 1927 single, "Deceitful Brownskin Blues," the song originates (according to John and Alan Lomax in their 1934 book, American Ballads and Folk Songs) with an eighteen-year-old black girl who was in prison for murder. The first few stanzas belong to her while the Lomaxes added a number of verses taken from other sources (including the 1924 blues standard, "Trouble in Mind") and named it "Woman Blue." Most performers - including The Byrds, Hot Tuna and The Dead - do the song at such a clip that the singer comes across as boastful and defiant as if murder was never part of the equation. Even Joan Baez, who recorded it in 1960 but didn't include it on her Vanguard debut, makes the track sound like some totem of female empowerment. Judy Roderick, however, abandons any sense of false pride. She slowly feels her way into the story as if she's considered the crime that incarcerates her and can't shake the ghost of the lover she murdered. "Woman Blue (I Know You Rider)" isn't a swagger; rather her voice lingers on every syllable, tracing a ghost story that's all suggestion, both haunted and haunting. One listener once commented that Roderick puts the song in the grave. You could also say her interpretation is about climbing out of one.
Many times in these Notes & Frames, I draw from music of the past, not out of any need for nostalgia, but instead from a desire to articulate whether certain songs still stand the test of time. A lot of the current music that I enjoy has an immediacy. But it's unlikely that I'll live to see whether those particular songs - and the artists that made them - are indestructible and find a good home in the future. You'd think the power of Jimi Hendrix's 1968 cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" would have been diminished long ago by overkill - either on the radio, or in movies, where it became a familiar signpost in any drama about the end of the sixties. (Only The Rolling Stones's "Gimme Shelter" offers adequate competition.) But perhaps because the meaning of "All Along the Watchtower" seems bottomless and Hendrix treats the track as if it were some elliptical manifesto appropriate to any age, nothing can possibly kill it. "All Along the Watchtower" cleverly plays with the idea of time and chronology, which maybe doesn't hurt the tune's chances. But from the moment Dave Mason's acoustic guitar chimes in along with Brian Jones's vibraslap percussion, sounding like horse's hoofs storming the gates, Hendrix tells this story of troubling days ahead as if it were a prophecy. Dylan's version may come across as a suggestive warning. but Hendrix seems swallowed up by the apocalypse and the electric guitars are like swooping birds gathering up his broken body. What makes "All Along the Watchtower" timeless is that, unlike most topical music, where fingers point at current targets, this tune draws on the past, is aware of the present, and dreads the future.