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Gordon Campbell on Chuck Berry

Gordon Campbell on Chuck Berry

First published on Werewolf

By now, any lingering hopes among the left that Donald Trump might prove to be an anti-Establishment figure likely to lessen US militarism abroad and inequality at home have been well and truly shredded. Some of us never had any illusions on that score. Yet the virulent hatred felt by many on the left for Hillary Clinton fuelled a peculiar bromance with Trump, one that was based on ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ principle. Well, more often, they’re just another enemy.

Plainly, the Trump presidency is far worse than anything imaginable from a President Hillary Clinton. His toxic vision of a massive budgetary increase in Pentagon spending and huge tax cuts for the wealthy has been bad enough, even before you get to the deep cuts to health insurance coverage and social programmes (including cuts to meals on wheels for senior citizens!) by which those priorities will be funded. Domestically, Trump and his Cabinet appointees aim to demolish the social safety net, and roll back the role of government to pre-1930s conditions. On foreign policy, Trump has caved in completely to the likes of Israel and Saudi Arabia, while acting as a proxy for Russia in Europe. Which BTW, brings us to this morning’s testimony by FBI director James Comey to the House intelligence committee and the news that the FBI is now conducting an investigation into the links between the Trump election campaign and Russia.

What a joke. Comey is no position to be a credible figure in such an investigation, given his partisan role during the dying days of the election campaign last year. A fortnight out from election day, Comey chose to announce that the FBI was re-opening its investigation of Clinton’s private emails, even though those emails had already been found back in July to contain nothing that amounted to a security threat. The fresh investigation eventually turned up no new information, but caused considerable political damage to the Clinton campaign during the last few days before voting. We now know that simultaneously, US intelligence agencies were investigating the links between the Trump team and Russia. Yet there was not a public peep from Comey about that investigation.

There are only two conclusions possible: either Comey was incompetent and out of the loop, or he was partisan. And maybe he was being kept out of the loop because he was seen to be partisan by his colleagues in the US security and intelligence apparatus. Significantly, while almost every other holdover from the Obama administration has been fired, Comey was kept on, and will now oversee the investigation into the Trump team links with Russia. Its not hard to guess what its findings will be.

Footnote : Its easy to focus the vitriol on Trump and ignore the role that his enablers – such as House Speaker Paul Ryan – are playing. Ryan’s revelation last week that he had been dreaming of reducing the access to Medicare entitlements by the poor ever since he was a student at university beer keg parties, says it all, really.

The Republican Party seems unlikely to thwart Ryan’s childhood dream of making the poor more miserable, in order to fund tax cuts for the privileged. “More For Us” would be a good motto for the Trump administration.

Bill English, Missing Inaction

These days, the Beehive is looking more and more like a post office drop – where the mailbox of problems facing the country are piling up, but will not be cleared until sometime after the election, if we’re lucky. Labour leader Andrew Little has put his finger on a genuine problem.

Taxing multinationals? Come back after the election on that one. Age of entitlement for national superannuation? Interesting idea, yet no firm commitments until after the election.Water quality? Hmmm, people seem truly pissed off about this one. Let’s kick it to a committee (most of whose members have already resigned at its inaction/impotence) until after the election. Water pricing for farmers and bottled water exporters? Very difficult, very complex issue. Come back well after the election on that one.

Faced with any number of pressing problems, English routinely exhibits the same limited range of responses. Pause. Brow furrows. Throat is cleared. Well, this is difficult. Complex. We’re working on it. As if only the shallow and the wilfully antagonistic would expect a ready response. This is a risky stance to adopt, and one easily interpreted as arrogance. English and Nick Smith and Steven Joyce all appear to think themselves above such petty concerns as accountability. Beforehand, John Key and his regular guy schtick disguised the fact that the kitchen Cabinet in this government do tend to think of themselves as so much smarter than their opponents, let alone the poor, benighted public.

The related cynicism is all-pervasive. Surely no-one is seriously expecting them to take a firm stand on a politically divisive issue six months before an election, are they? End of story. Six months more of this, and voters will be in a ripe mood for rebellion.

Chuck Berry Wrote Our Lives

When Elvis Presley released ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ in late January 1956, he’d just celebrated his 21st birthday three weeks beforehand. Chuck Berry though, was already 29 years old. Older than Elvis, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Jerry Lee Lewis. This underlines the strangeness of how Berry could manage to tune himself into the zeitgeist so completely, and so creatively. Back when many people were still treating rock’n’roll as a passing fad – was calypso going to be the new thing? - Chuck Berry knew that it had changed popular music forever.

What is even more astonishing is that this 30-ish black r&b musician from a middle class family in St Louis could manage to recreate the world of white teenagers, at a time when the very notion of a “teenager” had just been invented. Berry’s classic hits were about four things (a) school (b) cars (c) love and (d) music. That was the Teenage World in 1956 and it still is, to some extent. Yet while everyone else was writing songs about young love and heartache, Berry was writing beautifully detailed third person narratives - not expressively, as a participant in the world he was describing, but as an alien, wryly amused observer on the sidelines. Chuck Berry was not only the real King of rock’n’rol: he was also its first cultural anthropologist.

Plus, he was a great guitarist and direct influence on the Beach Boys (whom he sued for ripping off “Sweet Little Sixteen” for the melody of their first hit “Surfin’ USA”) the Beatles, the Rolling Stones etc etc. He was also a great performer, as this 1958 clip of “Johnny B. Goode” shows. Great scene-setting opening verse, too:

Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play the guitar just like a ringing a bell

Here’s another great clip, of another one of his signature songs. Small detail: as others have noted, his use of “‘sportin’ high heel shoes’” rather than saying simply “wearing” them, illustrates the love of language that set Berry apart from the rest of the pack:

The best song lyrics have an easy, conversational quality that when heard over and over again, sounds like an incantation. Given the right inflection, simplicity can be profound. Years ago, the US film theorist Robert Ray made an obvious, related point about song lyrics – that they should be evaluated as sung, not as poetry: because when musicians try to write lyrics ‘poetically’ (eg Sting) the result sounds awkward when sung, while still reading really badly on the page. Ray likened good song lyrics to children’s books in that respect:

Where this mode of indeterminacy is really prominent, and I never realized it until I had children, is in children’s books. A lot of great children’s books are really open-ended and shaggy, probably to accommodate children’s needs to read these things over and over again.

Ray chose Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock” as his example of that same easeful, open-ended quality. Good choice. “Let It Rock” offers a mysterious snapshot of a moment ripe with drama. Basically, an off -schedule train is comin’ two miles out and it disrupts every plan and diversion. Everyone is sitting slap bang in the path of an unpredictable fate that’s coming for you, ready or not: ‘Engineer blows the whistle loud and long, can’t stop the train, have to let it roll on…” Run for your life. Or not.

Any number of examples would serve just as well. (One of Berry’s hits compilations was called The Great Twenty Eight) “School Days” for instance, captures the humdrum nature of school routine and the liberation from it, come 3pm. The concise lyric writing is perfectly in sync with the spinning wheels of the melody…its all about the tension, and the release. Hail, hail, rock’n’roll. And hail Chuck Berry, who delivered us from days of old.

…..Soon as three o'clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down
Close up your books, get out of your seat
Down the halls and into the street
Up to the corner and 'round the bend
Right to the juke joint, you go in

Drop the coin right into the slot
You're gotta hear somethin' that's really hot
With the one you love, you're makin' romance
All day long you been wantin' to dance,
Feeling the music from head to toe
Round and round and round we go

Hail, hail rock and roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock and roll
The beat of the drums, loud and bold
Rock, rock, rock and roll
The feelin' is there, body and soul.


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