As the Poet Laureate of Rock and Roll and the Inventor of it’s most prescient and enduring guitar style, Chuck Berry is not a lily that needs gilding. So I’ll just pass along this anecdote:
Back in my early thirties (say, 1992 or so), the head of my department at the publishing company where I still toil was a 40ish woman with a taste for a certain literary style of rock and roll. Pete Townshend was her particular demigod and one day while we were discussing this and that, she opined (out of nowhere? germane to some conversation we were having? the memory hazes) that some lyric from a song on one of Townshend’s solo LPs was “the greatest rock and roll lyric ever written.”
“Well what do you think it is?” she said. Her tone spoke volumes. When a certain personality type asks you a certain kind of question, it is best to answer very carefully.
Just offering up something better than whatever she was quoting (which, honest to God, I don’t remember either the song, the lyric or the album it was on) wasn’t going to cut it.
Not if I wanted to actually win the argument. And, since “rock and roll” was something I was known for having a bit of knowledge about (enough to amaze my small circle of friends and family anyway), I recognized right off that it would be an embarrassment if I didn’t score that win. The usual standoff–well, I suppose everyone’s entitled to their opinion–would be a defeat.
Yes, I had been put in the very weird position of having to defend the honor of rock and roll from a Pete Townshend fan. I knew it wasn’t impossible. It wasn’t like she had put a claim in for “Hope I die before I get old.” But neither was it easy.
I liked a lot of rock and roll lyrics better than I liked the one she had quoted. I liked a lot of Pete Townshend lyrics better than the one she quoted. But that wasn’t enough to make her back down. Quoting the Byrds (“Do you think it’s really the truth that you see?/I’ve got my doubts, it’s happened to me,” certainly crossed my mind) or even Dylan (a lot to go with there) wasn’t going to cut it.
I really had to think on this one.
So I said: “Give me a day.”
I mean, we were looking for the GREATEST rock and roll lyric EVER. That seemed a reasonable request. Anyway it was reasonable enough that she granted it, though her air was that of someone who was already two-thirds of the way around the track before the opposition got out of the starting blocks.
I had one of those noon-to-nine shifts then–half day, half night. She left at 5:00.
I spent the hours in between racking my brain. She left for the day.
Then I spend another hour or so, working of course, but pondering the while.
When it came to me around my 7:00 supper break, I smiled and thought upon it no more.
I went home and got a good night’s sleep. I showed up for the work on time the next day.
When I passed her in the hallway, around 2:00 p.m., she was walking with her head down in some paperwork, studying some supervisor problem or other. I thought she might go by without looking up, but, at the last moment, she sensed a presence looming. There was no particular sense of anticipation. I don’t think our little conversation was anywhere near being uppermost in her mind. So she was in the process of politely nodding and preparing to pass me by, when I said:
“Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news.”
And she stopped.
And she looked a little puzzled.
And then she smiled and nodded.
“You’re right,” she said.
I still wonder if that little exchange was the reason she fired a dear friend of mine shortly thereafter. There certainly was no rational reason. (The absence of a rational reason was sufficiently obvious that another department head hired my friend for his department literally on the spot.)
I guess you can never know about these English major types who glom onto Pete Townshend’s solo records whilst learning to smile as they kill.
They’re a slippery lot.
But there’s one sure defense, even against them….