Saturday, March 25, 2017

Chuck Berry introduced me to poetry

Ben Vaughn, our sometimes Wonder Valley neighbor, penned the following on the death of Chuck Berry.

Ben Vaughn, March 22 at 3:54pm

THE DERELICKS, 1971. (L to R: Killer Ben, Honcho, Fitz and Little Danny)
In 1971 I was a 16 year old South Jersey punk who had never read a book from cover to cover. My grades were in shambles and my social life wasn’t any better. I was in a garage band called Tomato that habitually placed last in every battle of the bands staged in our area. I loved early rock ’n roll but by my teens I was enamored of Grand Funk Railroad and Blue Cheer and our band reflected that. The problem was we weren't very good at playing that type of music. We never seemed to go over well and I was fed up. We either needed to break up or do something different.

Luckily, our drummer felt the same way and was even more of a fan of fifties rock ’n roll than I was. In fact, he still dressed and wore his hair like a greaser. “Why don’t we play REAL rock ’n roll for a change?”, he asked. “Audiences will love it.” And so we did. We changed our name to the Derelicks (misspelled on purpose as an homage to the Beatles), slicked our hair back and started practicing like mad. In The Still Of The Night, Heartbreak Hotel, Long Tall Sally, we learned them all. But the real crown jewel would have to be Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry and the band chose me to sing it. I was intimidated at first but memorizing those lyrics was a real revelation. It literally stopped my mind. I felt like I was abducted by aliens. Every line was amazing but I was mostly stunned by Chuck’s ability to fit a complete story into a song that was barely two and half minutes long. How did he do it? I came out of my reverie long enough to work out the stage moves necessary to perform the song but something deep had happened. I had experienced an internal change, possibly an intellectual change. If a 16 year old can experience such a thing.

The Derelicks first gig was a huge success. We played at a coffeehouse called Pete’s Leg and everybody went nuts when we did Johnny B. Goode. We were even approached by girls at the end of the night. This Chuck Berry business was really working out! We booked more gigs and set out to learn more of his songs which meant more memorizing for me. Nadine led to No Money Down which led to Brown Eyed Handsome Man which led to Too Much Monkey Business, etc. etc. Each song was a lyrical masterpiece. I couldn’t believe what I was encountering. But this epiphany wasn’t only happening in the brain. One night we played Roll Over Beethoven at a battle of the bands and the mere rhythm of the song caused a riot to break out. There were no winners that night as the chaperones chose to cancel the rest of the evening. To say we were thrilled would be an understatement.

Much has been written in the last week about the brilliance of Chuck Berry's lyrics and his invention of words ("coolerator" and "motorvatin’" most notably) but a lot of people felt a deep personal connection to his music and that is definitely the case with me. Thanks to him I became curious about poetry and literature and believed that I could someday be a songwriter. I was the student and Chuck was the teacher. To this day I see no difference between a Shakespeare sonnet and the verses to Nadine. A masterpiece is a masterpiece.

I will forever be grateful to the father of rock ’n roll. Thanks for the inspiration!