Right now, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is 10 billion miles from Earth, somewhere in the infinite dark, waiting to be found by anyone who may be out there. It’s on the Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched by NASA in 1977 to help explain to the universe what people are and what we do. If an alien civilization wanted to understand the art we made, “Johnny B. Goode” would be the Rosetta stone of rock and roll.
Chuck Berry may not have invented rock, but he’s always been the fastest way to tell its story. So he became a historical figure long ago, decades before his death this past March. Because of this, it’s easy to envision him trapped in amber in 1955, sitting in a Cadillac with a guitar in the back seat. It’s harder to envision him existing in 2017.
And it’s harder still to imagine Chuck Berry releasing a new album. Not just because his last one came out in 1979, but because even before that, he was largely immune to the changing trends of the music business. In 1955 he created a product — two-minute songs about speed and girls and the American dream — and he went out and sold that product, refusing to change it or repackage it in the process. If he had, he’d probably be more famous today. Maybe not as famous as the people who owed him so much — The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and anybody else who said they wanted to play rock and roll guitar — but he’d certainly be less of a mystery.
So Chuck, his final work, arrives to us almost as a disruption in the space-time continuum. The first time I heard it, I felt like I’d fallen through my floorboards into 1970. I wanted to call people and tell them Chuck Berry invented time travel. “Listen to this,” I told my brother when I pressed play, “and tell me what fucking year it is.”
That’s the immediate, visceral appeal of this album: Chuck Berry leaping out of your speakers, with a voice that is unmistakably vital and unmistakably his, telling you the impossible can happen, that the past can barrel into the present and be new again. And telling you with the thing he never lost: joy. The very first line of this album, on the song “Wonderful Woman,” is straight-up hollered, and it’s transcendent: “Oh well, look here now, this just makes my day.” It takes him about six seconds to sing it, and those six seconds are among the most thrilling I’ve ever experienced in music.
The more lasting appeal of the album comes later. It starts to materialize after about seven minutes, when you realize you’ve been tapping your feet to two consecutive Chuck Berry songs that are good and fine Chuck Berry songs. They aren’t special Chuck Berry songs — they aren’t rocket-propelled masterpieces like “Promised Land” or “No Particular Place to Go,” and they’re not making a grand statement about the world. They don’t belong to any year or any trend. They only belong to him.
Chuck is a Chuck Berry album through and through, and that’s the remarkable thing. It’s got a couple strong singles, a couple ballads, a couple novelty songs, a couple digressions into poetry. It’s certainly not His Great Final Album. It’s just a perfectly normal one, so normal that it’s 35 minutes long, so normal that it has an answer song to “Johnny B. Goode” called “Lady B. Goode,” which you’d almost think he’d written already.
Ultimately, all this is to his credit as one of the most individualistic performers in American history. If Chuck Berry had called in a big 2017 producer to help make his last statement to the world, it’d be ruined. There’s a script to “a legend’s last album.” You do a couple gimmick covers of overwrought crowd-pleasers, you talk about death like you’re the first person who’s ever died, you get morose, you get religious, you sing songs about all the people in your photo album who are gone. You do embarrassing duets. Kid Rock and Bono come knocking at your door and refuse to leave. Then you get great reviews and maybe do a couple more.
For all I know, Chuck Berry, the most important man in rock and roll and its best songwriter, might not even make the cover of a magazine for this album. You listen to Chuck and you get the sense that he didn’t want that bullshit. That he didn’t care. In the end, Chuck learned Pro Tools and produced the album himself. He did things his way, and the result is as messy and occasionally corny as you’d expect. It’s honest and unpretentious, an album you could play at a barbecue.
That’s not to say he wasn’t thinking of death. It’s hard to ignore when you’re about to turn 90. It comes up most notably on the closing track, “Eyes of Man,” which he must have conceived as his last song. It has a biblical heft, and contains some pretty stirring lines. Like:
Those who know
And do not know that they know
So be the temples men have cherished
Crumbled in ruins to rot and rust
Low lies each pillar and arch to perish
Doomed to decay and rot to dust
It’s as heavy as Chuck Berry ever got, and it’s still not a downer. He concludes his two-minute sermon by reminding us that life goes on, that after you die, there are still children. In spite of this flirtation with melancholia, Chuck doesn’t cease to be a pleasant summer afternoon album, unburdened by a need to mean something.
But if there’s one truth in Chuck Berry’s last ride, a truth besides “rock and roll makes you feel good,” it is contained in the song “Darlin’.”
The good times come, but do not stay
You’ll find time will take them fast away
Darlin’, hear these words, and true are they
My dear, life can pass so fast away.
That’s the lesson of this album. It’s pretty simple, but it can be easy to forget. Life goes fast. Enjoy it while you have it.