Today’s the birthday of one of the rock’n’roll originals: Chuck Berry is 88 today. Would the Rolling Stones as we know them exist without Chuck Berry? Most likely not. And much else follows from that.
Today’s song struck me—when I first heard it at whatever tender age—as a kind of “Ur-tale” of rock myth. Here we have the quintessential story of the kid who comes from nothing and nowhere and, just because he can “play guitar like ringing a bell,” ascends into legend. Or, at least that’s what I assumed. But if you listen, everything is still prospective at the end. His mama, no doubt wowed by her boy’s abilities says “Maybe someday your name will be in lights / Saying ‘Johnny B. Goode tonight.’” And maybe not, maybe he’s just a kid who strums his guitar to the rhythm of the rails and that’s the end of it.
In other words, one of the best aspects of Berry’s idea of how to proclaim his hero is not to make his stardom a done deal. It’s more about that “log cabin made of earth and wood”—like the origins of Abe Lincoln or some other folk hero—and that “guitar in a gunny sack.” It’s about not having anything but talent and the fact that talent will out. “People passing by would stop and say / Oh my, that little country boy can play.” It’s just so obvious and so good, people have to remark on it.
So Johnny can’t help but “B. Goode,” which is pretty clever in itself. What’s more it’s about musical talent as a gift, as a birthright, as something that just “comes natural.” And that’s as it should be. It’s set against learned lessons—“he never learned to read or write so well”—to indicate that what comes naturally, without guide or prod, is what’s best. So when his mother is thinking about his glorious future of stardom, as the leader “of a big old band,” she’s not thinking about it in the sense of making a killing or living in the fast lane, she’s thinking about the fact that people won’t just “stop and say,” but come from miles around and pay. Because playing that good will find its audience. It’s a given.
This song—with those urging, urgent “Go go, Johnny, go / Go go, Johnny, go”—is an epitome of rock lore and what’s more it’s a song that incarnates what it sings about. Having written and recorded it, Chuck Berry writes himself into the annals of rock’n’roll for all time. There are quite a few other Berry songs as indelible, but this is the one that, when I reach back to my earliest idea of what a rock’n’roll song, pre-Beatles and Stones, sounded like, comes to mind immediately and has the strongest association to Berry himself because, though it’s been covered plenty, it’s his trademark song. To have written this song and not perform it for folks is tantamount to misanthropy. Because it feels so good to “go, go” with Johnny, and with Berry. Electric guitar music here comes into its own, and rockabilly goes the next step to rock’n’roll.