Despite scandals, art remains

June 28, 2017

Flawed: Chuck Berry—the jubilant duck-walking, string-bending genius of guitar and lyrics—had a dark side, too.

As another music legend leaves us for the great turntable in the sky, now is a chance to look behind the golden mirror of fame and expose the cobwebs.

Chuck Berry had a better innings than most — 90 years is a pretty good span in an industry not known for the longevity of its heroes.

Berry was an original. His guitar licks and choppy rhythms have formed the protean blocks of every three-chord pop and rock song ever since.

His opening bars to 1956’s Roll Over Beethoven and to 1958’s Johnny B.

Goode became the clarion call for wannabe guitarists everywhere, and introduced a new rude, raw rebel yell from an undiscovered generation called ‘‘teenagers’’.

The 12-bar intro played on the sixth fret of his Gibson ES-335 still sends a joyous shiver up my spine and turns me into an instant air guitarist.

It could also be the first rock and roll lick played by aliens. Johnny B.

Goode was etched onto a 12-inch goldplated copper record disk and launched into space on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.

It is now 20 billion kilometres away still travelling at 60 000 km/h with other ditties from Mozart, Beethoven and Azerbaijani folk music as examples of the fantastic diversity of human culture.

If he was only remembered for his guitar skills, Berry would still have a big place in rock history.

But his witty, rhythmic lyrics welded to the locomotive beat of drums and guitar are the stuff of genius.

They told stories about growing up black in America like nobody else had done before, or probably since.

How about this from Roll Over Beethoven: I caught the rollin’ arth-a-ritis sittin’ down at a rhythm revue.

Or this fromNadine: I was pushin’ through the crowd tryin’ to get to where she’s at, And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat.

Rap artists owe a big debt to Berry, along with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

Of course with every great golden story of rock and roll fame comes the dark side.

My earliest memories of Berry’s genius were tainted by the news of his mistreatment of women.

He was jailed in the early 1960s after being convicted of transporting a 14-yearold girl across state lines for the purpose of prostitution.

In 1987 he was fined $250 after pleading guilty to harassment at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, where a woman said he had beaten her up.

In the 1990s he was accused of installing a hidden camera in the women’s toilet of his restaurant in Missouri and was forced to pay more than $1 million in compensation to 59 women.

Sadly there is nothing unique about Berry when it comes to rock gods and shameful episodes with women.

I was reminded of this by an excellent article which appeared on this week written by RMIT music industry lecturer Catherine Strong and Charles Sturt University ethics lecturer Emma Rush.

In the article they remind us of the degradation of groupies and underage girls in rock bands during the 1970s —episodes which are often still referred to as ‘‘the stuff of legends’’.

Thankfully there is now a different and growing climate of gender respect in the arts.

But the question remains: Is it okay to listen to the music, or read the books or watch the films of people who have done bad things?

Can we separate the art from the artist? I think we can.

The art will remain long after the artist has gone.

But it is our moral responsibility to include the darker side of the artist’s life in any retelling.

Otherwise the disrespect continues into the next generation, sanctioned by the blinding lights of fame.

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