Location: Indianapolis, Indiana, United States

I'm just trying to develop an online body of work (even if the work is throwaway nonsense) to advance my writing career.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Chuck and Dave Without Vera

Two men born in 1926 about five months and five thousand miles apart have made deep impressions on me. One is Charles Edward Anderson Berry, known to most of the general public as "Chuck" and the other is Sir David Frederick Attenborough.

Of all the people in the world, David Attenborough is the person I might most like to trade lives with. No one has witnessed more fascinating natural events than Attenborough and I challenge anyone to fashion a reasonable argument for somebody else. For those who do not know of Mr. Attenborough, he has for over fifty years researched and presented scores of television programs for the British Broadcasting Corporation, the vast majority of which involve filming flora and fauna throughout the globe. He has traveled to every continent, through dozens of countries, and seen creatures many of us would never have heard of if it weren't for him. A national hero in the United Kingdom, anyone on the west side of the Atlantic who is unfamiliar with his work and even remotely interested in biology is advised to seek out "Life on Earth", "The Living Planet", "Blue Planet", "Planet Earth", "The Life of Birds", "The Life of Mammals", or any of the rest of his absolutely astonishing television series.

And now, Chuck. From the man of science to one of sheer musical genius. Chuck Berry made music so definitively rock & roll and so American, it seemed like it must have always been there, the kind of of songs nobody in particular wrote but were always around. But somebody in particular did write "Maybelline", "Johnny B. Goode", "Let It Rock", "Sweet Little Sixteen", "Almost Grown", "Brown Eyed Handsome Man", "You Can't Catch Me", and "Around and Around."

His songs could be harmless fun or they could be stirring and profound and some of them--lots of them--could be either or both depending on the mood of the listener! "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" is a whimsical number in which the Venus DeMilo, identified in the song as "Marlo Venus", loses "both her arms in a wrestling match to meet a brown eyed handsome man". It's a fun song that gives silly names to classical sculptures. But what about the guy "rounding third and headed for home"? Does that refer to Willie Mays or perhaps another black baseball player, a "brown eyed handsome man" tearing up the big leagues following the relatively recent collapse of the color barrier?

The best word to describe Berry's music is glorious. It's not quite as lyrical as the best work of Bob Dylan, nor quite as melodic as the best Beatles, nor quite as angry and edgy as the best Rolling Stones, nor quite as driving and danceable as the best James Brown, nor quite as earthy and arresting as the best Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, but it combines all those elements into something more liberating than any of them. If Freedom itself had a radio station, the first song played would be one of Chuck Berry's.

David Attenborough celebrated his 83rd birthday on May 8th while Chuck Berry turns the same age today, October 18th. Attenborough remains active in television and Berry still performs once a month at a night club near his native St. Louis, Missouri. I hope for many more birthdays from these two and that anyone previously unacquainted with their genius gets a taste of it soon.


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