The songs in the Great American Standards songbook all have lives of their own by now – and why not, most of them are older than your grandmother. Even fairly obscure songs that your grandmother probably doesn’t remember listening to as a child have entire biographies. Grandma may not remember the 1937 Fred Astaire film Shall We Dance, or the sequence therein where Fred cuts a rug in a gleaming futuristic ‘factory’ with a bunch of black factory workers. But the song has gone on, in the hands of Ella Fitzgerald 20-some years later, and then in the next millennium as a remix.
Chuck Berry, besides all of his other notable achievements, wrote the unifying mission statement of rock’n’roll. Or as close to one as anyone’s ever gotten. He announced the arrival of a new culture, a new generational movement. I hate it when writers resort to those awful words, but, really, he “Changed The World Forever.” (Duh-duh-duh-DUHM!) Popular music and culture have mutated into unrecognizable shapes since Chuck Berry’s day, but the purpose of youth culture is still to shake off the old status quo. The spirit of making the old guard roll over in their graves doesn’t change with the generations. Chuck Berry himself is in his grave now, and he may well be tossing and turning over what the A$AP crew’s up to. But I’d like to think he’s at least getting a little chuckle, looking back at his legacy and the culture he helped create.
Lana Del Rey has a lot of nerve taking up a Nina Simone song – some would say – but I think she made a relevant choice. If nothing else, it’s deeply thought provoking how differently the same words sound, when separated by several decades of social progress. When Simone sang about the other woman, it was as an honest-to-god blues song. Coming in 1959, a time when women genuinely had little to no recourse about the situations they found themselves in in life, the figure of the other woman was a tragic one. Once a mistress, never a wife. Today, of course, the idea that getting involved with a married man is enough to tar one’s reputation for life, or that one even has such a thing as a ‘reputation’ to be tarred upon, is hopelessly retrograde. So when young Lana sings about it, it must be as a pastiche of social roles that some women may still inhabit but which can easily be cast aside for better ones. Is she really making a social point here? Or does she just enjoy the tone of self pity it allows her to take? Well, I’m not sure how self aware Lana Del Rey really is, but she has to grasp that what in Nina Simone’s time was a broken life is in ours just a mildly poor lifestyle choice, and that there is no way to really interpret it without some degree of irony.
Play this song at my funeral, please. Would this was everybody’s anthem. Or is that terribly cheesy? Edith Piaf sang like her spirit was on fire, but did she really sweep away all her regrets or did she even want to? Who knows. If, like most Americans, your main source of all things Piaf is the Hollywood movie of her life, you have a glancing familiarity with her various high- and low- lights. You know that she lived one of the most outstandingly dysfunctional lives of a revered cultural figure. The movie, being a movie, is overly simplistic and overly dramatic, but the story it’s based on is at least as strange as fiction. Edith Piaf’s life was marred continuously by tragedies and disasters both of her own making and beyond her control. What regrets she may have been haunted by we’ll never know. It is both ironic and completely appropriate that a woman who lived through so much would produce such fiercely uplifting music.
French chanson music may seem very alien to ears weaned on pop music, and it may not seem to bear much relation to what we think of as rock and roll, but if rock stardom can be seen as a state of being; if self-destruction, dysfunction, and bad luck are among the defining characteristics of what it means to be a rock star; if tragic, larger than life glamour is what we look for in a rock star; then Edith Piaf was on of the first and greatest rock stars. Piaf had an outstandingly shitty life, marked by tragic loss and physical suffering. She was the daughter of a street acrobat, abandoned by both parents, raised in a brothel by her madam grandmother, discovered busking in the streets of Paris, lost her only child and the love of her life, went through a series of lousy relationships, descended into morphine addiction after a near fatal car accident – if her life was a movie (which it has been made into) you’d think it was farfetched. Like Billie Holiday, she was one of those people who, despite all their success, couldn’t seem to catch a break. And like Holiday, she poured the pain from all of her bad breaks into her music. Her music remains alive and compelling and her legend still holds, and if she’d enjoyed a happier life, that probably would not be the case.
One of the great, great, greats for you today.
John Lennon once said “If you tried togive rock’n’roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry,” which pretty much sums up his influence. In terms of impact, Berry is bigger than Elvis (and less dead too).
This video of the 1959 hit ‘Almost Grown’ is from the “Hail, Hail Rock’N’Roll” concert movie. The concert was in honor of Berry’s sixtieth birthday, and a tribute from his most devoted acolytes, including Keith Richards.
Berry is now 82 and he’s still touring regularly, still being an inspiration to the younger generation. It’s funny how people like the Stones were ridiculed for having the nerve to keep touring in their thirties, their forties, their fifties and now their sixties. Chuck Berry, B.B. King and other grand old men have never stopped playing.
And here’s a cover version by David Bowie, from the 1971 John Peel sessions. Because if it exists, Bowie will use it.