In my review of Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge,” I said that I was conflicted — I enjoyed the movie a lot, but couldn’t completely put his vile anti-Semitic remarks of a decade ago behind me.
I’m even more conflicted about Chuck Berry, who died this weekend at 90. Yes, he was one of the architects of rock and roll who deserves every musical accolade he’s received. His place in the pantheon of great songwriters and performers, a major influence on everyone who followed, is secure.
But there’s that other side of Berry that still sticks in my gut.
This is a guy who did time in prison for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines in 1962 and four more months for tax evasion in 1979. The same guy who, in 1990, had to settle a case brought by dozens of women after they discovered he’d installed a video camera in the ladies room of his restaurant in Wentzville and was recording them on the toilet. Berry also screwed his longtime collaborator Johnnie Johnson out of royalties for all those seminal rock songs that they wrote together (more on that here).
That’s a lot of back story to have hanging over you. Does it diminish Berry’s legacy? I think it has to. It’s one of the reasons I never went to see Berry when he was doing monthly shows at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room. However, it didn’t stop me from enjoying the hell out of “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll,” Taylor Hackford’s documentary about Berry and his 60th birthday concert the The Fox Theatre. Even in that movie, while he shared the stage with Keith Richards, Linda Ronstadt, Robert Cray and, yes Johnnie Johnson, there were also several glimpses of the prickly offstage Berry personality.
In the end, you have to either separate the performances from the performer or decide that they’re inseparable. Do the sins of the man mean you can’t like his music? Do they mean there shouldn’t be a statue of Berry in the Delmar Loop in St. Louis? Do they mean you have to shun all the cover versions of his songs by everyone from The Beatles and Rolling Stones forward?
As I said — conflicted.