So, a chance to breathe. And to rewind to two weeks ago today, when I headed over to my recently discovered barber shop, Barbers on Germain, where Russ has been clear-cutting my scalp since sometime early this year.
On the way over – not far; just across the Mississippi and west about a mile – I slid into the CD player a Time-Life anthology of hits from 1964, and as I drove, up popped Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” I knew the record, but only a little, not nearly as well as I know his 1950s work that was a major part of the foundation of rock ’n’ roll, the records like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and the rest.
And I realized – not for the first time – that I’d not offered anything here to note Chuck Berry’s passing on March 18. Over the years here, I’ve noted the passing of many artists, but I imagine that if I were to take the time to track out the subjects of those pieces, my choices of which artists’ passings to note might seem idiosyncratic. That’s likely no surprise. But to ignore Chuck Berry?
So I thought, as I headed up the sidewalk to Barbers on Germain with the strains of “You Never Can Tell” running through my head – “C’est la vie,” say the old folks. “It goes to show you never can tell.” – that I should probably do something here about the man and his music. Well, c’est la vie, indeed. The following Monday was the start of two weeks of dealing with changes in my mom’s life, as I noted here yesterday.
I’m not going to say that Chuck Berry’s music, life and passing are now old news: The edition of Rolling Stone that came into my mailbox yesterday has Berry on the cover. But I’ve read too many tributes to the man at too many blogs and online publications in the past month to have any assurances that whatever I offer here would be anything other than echoes of those pieces.
So I think back to that drive to the barber shop. As “You Never Can Tell” came out of the speaker, I thought about Dave Marsh’s comments in his 1989 ranking of the top 1,001 singles, The Heart of Rock & Soul. He ranked “You Never Can Tell” at No. 341, writing:
Chuck returned from doing time on his trumped-up Mann Act charge in 1964 as if his flow of hits had never been interrupted. The new batch included two of his finest, “Promised Land” and “You Never Can Tell.”
“You Never Can Tell” makes an obvious break with Berry’s earlier format, not so much by prominently featuring Johnny Johnson’s piano as by using it with a New Orleans-style beat.
Had prison altered Chuck’s gifts in any way? Nah, he was bitter and hostile before he went in. And still a poet when he came out. How else explain: “They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale / The coolerator was crammed with teevee dinners and ginger ale.” It may not read as great as it sings, but then, neither does the rhythm of everyday life.
So here, to catch up and to offer my respect and thanks to Chuck Berry, is “You Never Can Tell.” It went to No. 14 in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.
(Quotation corrected after first posting.)