Books

Must-Reads of 2017: The Genius and the Misogynist

It's painful to read Chuck Berry's 1987 autobiography in 2017.

Chuck Berry, 1926-2017.

Photographer: Fin Costello/Redferns via Getty Images

Chuck Berry died this year on March 18. I spent the next few days listening to his old records and swallowing hard. Musically he didn’t do much after 1965, but he didn’t need to. The revolution he started 10 years earlier was already in the hands of others. 

But he remained the hero who broke down the Irving Berlin Wall and invented rock 'n' roll. That achievement is immortal. So, it had seemed for many years, was the man himself, who finally passed, after much wear and tear, at the age of 90.

I read and loved Chuck Berry’s autobiography when it came out in 1987. His introduction promised an intimate self-portrait, “raw in form, rare in feat and but real in fact. No ghost but no gimmicks or guilt, just me.” And that is what he delivered, in the inimitably original language that marks Berry’s lyrics and once inspired Bob Dylan to call him “the Shakespeare of rock 'n' roll.”

Feeling nostalgic, I recently indulged in a post-mortem re-read of the autobiography. The bumptious style and sly anecdotes are the same, but time has not been kind to the author. And it has not done any favors to me, either.

The book itself begins with a series of ancestral begats that led to the establishment of the Berry clan in St. Louis. Chuck was born there in 1927. A few years later he contracted pneumonia, which led to a life-altering encounter with a visiting nurse. Pleased with her patient’s progress, she gave young Chuck a hug and a kiss -- and things were never the same. "The feeling of her lips,” he recalled, “has yet to leave my memory. There are times when just talking to a female Caucasian, the jolt of that memory inhibits me from holding on to my train of thought. [That nurse] had a profound effect on the state of my fantasies and settled into the nature of my libido. I’ll tell you more later.”

And he does. The autobiography of Chuck Berry chronicles many passions -- music, money, family and fame -- but its real theme is the pursuit and domination of women.

Chuck was, by the standards of segregated America, a coddled young man, surrounded by a large and supportive family. His cultured mother instilled a love of words in her children, one of whom she named for Paul Laurence Dunbar, “the family’s favorite poet.” Chuck’s stern Baptist father, a carpenter, preached the doctrine of unrelenting hard work (which Chuck adopted) and a mordant fear of entanglement with women. This one didn’t take.

Chuck was preternaturally bright, a “fair wizard” in math, and a devout gospel singer. But his academic and spiritual future was upended by another unwitting femme fatale. “In the eighth grade I was lured from the leadings of righteous hymns to the lusting of Randall’s hems,” he recalls. “The shapely Miss Randall, my teacher, had my learning leading toward her lusciousness more than her lessons. I was running a close second to being a first-class failure because I couldn’t resist peering at the views she revealed when seated at the head of the class.” Not content with fantasy, young Chuck molested a female classmate. Miss Randall made him stay after class to stack books, giving him an opportunity to cop a feel or two.

He was 17 when he went to prison for armed robbery, which he describes as a more or less innocent lark. He did three years and found ways to amuse himself behind bars. He boxed, sang and attempted to seduce the wife of the assistant superintendent, a public flirtation that nearly started a prison riot.

Back home in 1948, Berry married Toddy Suggs, a local girl. Not long after the wedding, he was idling in a neighborhood “rathskeller” (who but Chuck Berry would find a rathskeller in the middle of inner-city St. Louis). A young woman caught his eye. “Her temptation was awaiting my default and ate at my ethics like an itch.” 

The young groom scratched. Overcome with remorse, he came home and confessed to Toddy, who praised him for his honesty and said that the incident did not seem to be entirely Chuck’s fault. “I was overtaken with intentions to thenceforth live the full life of loyalty that her love deserved,” Berry writes. 

The intentions proved ephemeral. What endured (through 68 years of marriage!) was permission and cooperation. In time, Toddy became Chuck’s enabler, taking in young women he met on the road and sent to St. Louis to work in his various enterprises.

In 1955, Chuck recorded "Maybellene" for Chess Records. It sold two million copies, and he was a sudden star, with all the opportunities that presented. At the height of his success, he went to prison for violating the Mann Act, a federal law against transporting minors across state lines for immoral purposes. Berry called it a racist prosecution. After all, he says, he didn’t have sex with the 14-year-old. He merely intended to. (Years later, he uncomplainingly served a third jail term, this time for tax evasion, an occupational hazard for a public figure who insisted on being paid only in cash. He used the time to work on his book.)

Berry was a half-full kind of guy. He once told a reporter that he failed as a blues singer because he wasn’t sad enough. During his Mann Act incarceration in the early 1960s, he finished his high school degree, studied accounting and wrote some of his best songs.

He also managed to continue “girl watching.” Assigned to the prison hospital, he recalls meeting two nurses who kept him in a high state of alliterative frustration. Their “casual squirming and leg-ly laughter lured my lascivious lacking to longing lust. Believe me, to do some time without seeing anything is far less disturbing than to see sometimes without doing anything.”

Between prison sentences, Berry traveled the world. He reports on affairs in London and Paris, Boston and Dallas and wherever else he happened to be. He groped women with gleeful abandon, took explicit photos of his partners and sometimes secretly recorded them.

Through all this, he saw himself as a helpless victim of feminine wiles. He devotes a proud chapter to his affair with Candace Mossler, a Southern multimillionairess. “I couldn’t believe I was about to receive the gratification, anticipating that I would likely be reversed, as so many times women in power have taken advantage of males, unable to resist yielding to their will.”

Back in 1987, I found these escapades unremarkable. All road-running rock stars had wild sex lives, didn’t they? But Chuck Berry was a genius! I wanted to read about his hits, hear tales from the early days of rock 'n' roll, get his appraisal of contemporary artists and the world he had helped to create.

There wasn’t much there. He disposed of his records in a pro forma chapter. He doesn’t mention fellow path-breakers like Elvis, Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson or James Brown. Motown never happened. He said nothing about Etta James, Tina Turner or Aretha Franklin.

Acolytes like Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are AWOL. His interest in the Beatles and the Stones begins and ends with the fact they made money for him by recording his songs. His greatest thrill in show biz was meeting Bob Hope.

Little Richard, his fellow revolutionary, gets a mention for allegedly propositioning him backstage before a show. Chuck’s reply -- “I’m frank as fake is phony” -- was a Berryism that Richard correctly interpreted as a friendly no.

One of the few performances Berry describes was the time his opening act, Jerry Lee Lewis, got so wasted he couldn’t get through his set. Berry, a teetotaler and famously impatient, invaded the stage and finished the show. “It takes a numerator of soberness in a denominator like Jerry Lee Lewis to find the quotient of his drunkenness,” he writes disapprovingly.

Berry lived in civil-rights times, but the movement bounced off his solipsism. A car buff, his only activism was an unsuccessful attempt to “color bust” the AAA in St. Louis. He takes up no causes, donates to no charities. He was almost wholly engaged in pursuit of his personal pleasure. 

The book ends in 1987, but Berry lived another 30 years, and it can’t be read now without knowing what came next. In 1990, he was busted for placing a camera in the women’s bathroom of his restaurant. Almost 60 indignant victims of his voyeurism filed a class-action suit, which he settled. He was also arrested (but not charged) for possession of pornographic tapes, including, reportedly, at least one featuring children.

Two years later, Bill Clinton invited him to play at the presidential inaugural ball.

In the last chapter of his book, Berry admits to one great authorial regret. “I am sure that my autobiography would have been much more complex had the time and attitude of the public been right for the exposure of truly explicit information about my personal adventure. But it shall come as time goes by.”

God knows what he left out.

It is impossible to read Chuck Berry’s confessional book in today’s climate without experiencing a deep sense of chagrin. The foxy, eccentric and linguistically beguiling Chuck of 1987 is now gone like a cool breeze. In his place stands a nasty, perverse misogynist. It is right there on the page. Somehow I missed it. Or, more honestly, I didn’t think it mattered.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Zev Chafets at zchafets@gmail.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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