Don’t go by me. Because by me, Chuck Berry is the alpha and omega of rock & roll. Rock’s first great singer-songwriter, inspiration for the Beatles and the Stones — hell, taught Keith Richards every trick he knows that doesn’t involve a needle and a spoon. Elvis — he’s Prometheus: stole fire from the gods, was damned to eternal suffering. Little Richard — I dunno, Job? His riches taken for no reason except god wants to prove he’s God. And Bo Diddley? Sisyphus! Rolls the rock up the hill all the time, never gets his due. But Chuck Berry — all that wrapped up in one guy with the biggest hands you’ve ever seen. Big as two houses. And you know what they say: Big hands . . . inventor of rock & roll!
Anyway: Friday night, B.B. King’s in Times Square, maybe the greatest show I’ve ever seen. Chuck Berry, four months shy of his 80th birthday, plays guitar for an hour. Now that may not seem like much, unless you know Chuck is famous for taking the money and running — plays for the $ and not much else, a story you can hear told in Taylor Hackford’s Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll, maybe the greatest rock doc ever made (disagree? Netflix awaits, rube, because it’s now on DVD).
But tonight, plays guitar — amazing guitar, bizarre guitar, because (watch Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll and hear Keith Richards bitch about it) Chuck plays in any key he wants to, any time he wants to. So he sounds positively harmolodic, could be gigging with Ornette Coleman, who’s doing a show at Carnegie Hall 15 blocks uptown the same night. I mean, seriously rock & roll, seriously blues, and seriously out. In the stratosphere. Inventing new language as he speaks it. When he did the “Carol”/”Little Queenie” medley, his chorded soloing could have been James Blood Ulmer, so out of his head was he. Amped up past the rest of the band, his tone was utterly his own — lithe and heavy at the same moment, his guitar bleeding rust at all times, making you think that Jimi Hendrix must have caught a live show somewhere along the way. Thousands of other people have played these same riffs. No one else sounds like this.
End of the show: Thirteen, 14 15 girls onstage, along with two little kids, dancing to a filthy version of “Reeling and Rocking,” or a filthy version of some other song Chuck cleaned up for white teenagers. I don’t know what song it was. I had long since gone out of my head, following single note runs, out-of-key chords and dirty jokes way past the ceiling of this basement club skyward towards the heavens. Four months shy of 80, more alive than Elvis, in better voice than Jerry Lee, and headed for the airport and home while the applause still rang out. Is there any better revenge?