Friday, June 16, 2023

Parallel Forces of Culture: Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan

Hachette Books, 2022;  Hachette/Back Bay Books, 2021.

“I never wanted to be a 60’s artist, but to be an artist for all time. If it’s not for all time it’s not worth doing. My mind works in a timeless way. 1966 might as well be 2090—it’s all the same to me.” – Robert Zimmerman

“There’s two things that a man must know in order to get closer to himself, to be a man. One is mathematics, since everything is controlled by numbers; the second thing is money.” – Chuck Berry

These two titanic musical artists were two parallel storms that first ripped across America’s unsuspecting 50’s and 60’s heartland, and then rapidly tore across the whole planet earth with a ferocity only matched by The Beatles. Ironically, the first artist, Chuck Berry, inspired The Beatles, who then were creatively reborn themselves once inspired dramatically by Bob Dylan, along with every other singer-songwriter on the convulsing planet of pop culture. Both from Hachette Books, these books are also an ideal tag team match for taking the full measure of true innovation and influence within their respective fields. In a very real sense, there was popular music before Chuck Berry and then after Berry, just as both folk and rock can only be fully appreciated if assessed both before Dylan and then after his astonishing ascent. RJ Smith’s biography of Chuck Berry, Chuck Berry: An American Life, can rightfully be called the definitive one in a prior flock of works of varying degrees of serious intent: the most serious, the most revealing (often embarrassingly so) and also easily the most readable for both music devotees as well as the general public with a curiosity as to how rock and roll music was born and how it grew into its adulthood as rock. One of his most ardent fans, the equally accomplished pop musician John Lennon, once quipped that if you wanted to give rock and roll another name, you might just call it Chuck Berry. While this is technically true, and quite touching, I’d point out that you could also call it Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Louis Jordan, both of whom were active for a full decade, making the kind of jump rhythm and blues that white folks (most notably the disc jockey Alan Freed in about 1951) eventually called rock and roll. Add into that heady mix Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner and his Rhythm Kings, whose 1951 hit “Rocket 88” was technically the earliest song we can identify as full-blooded rock.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Saint Infidelity: The Circle and Yours Unfaithfully

Clive Francis and Jane Asher in The Circle. (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

The two most interesting plays I’ve encountered in London over the past two weeks are century-old high comedies by English playwrights that challenge sexual mores. Both are receiving admirable productions. The Circle by W. Somerset Maugham was first produced in 1921 and long ago vanished from the repertory; it has been taken up by the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, with Tom Littler directing. (The last Broadway revival, in 1990, starred Rex Harrison, who died during the run.) Yours Unfaithfully was penned in 1933 by the actor and writer Miles Malleson but remained unproduced until Jonathan Banks, the artistic director of Mint Theater Company, staged it in New York in 2016. He helms the current edition at the Jermyn Street Theatre, with a British cast.