By Jere Hester
Voyager 1, currently plying the outermost layer of the heliosphere some 34 years after its launch, carries a gold-plated copper record with sounds of Earth that include snatches of music from the likes of Beethoven and the man who suggested he roll over: Chuck Berry.
The space perch of “Johnny B. Goode” inspired a classic late 1970s “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which Steve Martin played a psychic who declared grateful extraterrestrials relayed a message of their own to Earth: “Send more Chuck Berry.”
We all could use more Chuck Berry – especially on Tuesday, when the still reelin’ and rockin’ elder statesman of rock turns 85. It’s a prime opportunity to celebrate by blasting “Johnny B. Goode” loud enough so the denizens of outer space don’t need to track down a turntable to hear about the man who could play guitar “just like a ringing a bell.”
Berry’s music spans both space and time, feeling fresh to ears new and old. Like Elvis Presley, he effectively melded blues and country into what would become a classic rock sound. But Berry also bridged big band rhythms with the new age in music. With a bend of his strings six decades ago, he helped invent modern rock guitar. His innovative virtuosity and duck walk-fueled showmanship presaged the guitar god-era, in which solos by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page became as much a focal point as the singing.
But it’s the songs Berry wrote that struck that deepest chord in the eternal teenager in all of us. To a pounding beat, he launched humorous, poetic odes to rock, girls and cars, filled with clever, only slightly naughty double entendres (“All the way home I held a grudge/For the safety belt that wouldn’t budge,” he sung in “No Particular Place to Go,” his take on male teenage male longing).
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