American Beauties: Chuck Berry’s Memoir Grabs You Like a Song



This same instinctive feel for language flows into the autobiography. You’re not far into it before he describes a friend who is “as ugly as death eating a dirty doughnut.” A few pages before that, a girl is so pretty that the author “would have daily taken out her garbage just to be near her can.”

His sentences pop, as if he had a Coolerator crammed with them. He writes about the world like a man noticing everything for the first time.

Mr. Berry’s lyrics did not often confront race directly. He wanted his songs to have mass appeal, and that meant getting white listeners as well as black ones to put dimes in the jukebox. But in his autobiography, race is nearly always front and center, and there are powerful and awful scenes.

When he was a young man, word got around that Mr. Berry had slept with a white woman. Cops hauled him in, he writes, and a sergeant “positioned himself beside me with a baseball bat cocked on his shoulder as though my head was to be the baseball. I was told that if I lied just once, the sergeant would try for a home run.”

He gets out of this scrape by playing the fool, aware how close he’d come to death — a death no one would have investigated.

Mr. Berry’s book details the indignities of touring in the South as a black musician during the 1950s and ’60s. There are the restaurants that would not seat him, the hotels where he could not book a room. He is ruefully funny about the lengths to which strip club bouncers would go, in New Orleans, to keep a black man out while maintaining a veneer of politeness.

He also writes about how, in St. Louis, where he was born, a mixed-race couple spotted by police would be hauled in for mandatory venereal disease shots.

Chuck Berry being Chuck Berry, he comes up with his own portmanteau for the South’s racial attitudes during this era. That word is “hospitaboo,” a combination of “hospitality” and “taboo.” It means, he writes, “how do you do but don’t-you-dare.”

Mr. Berry had an outsize libido, and it got him into trouble. He had more than his share of what he calls “mal-publicity.” He was arrested in 1959 for transporting a teenager across state lines for immoral purposes. (He says he did not know she was underage.) He had fetishes. In 1990, after this book was published, he was found to have videotapes of women using the toilet in his restaurant.

I’m not here to defend this behavior. I’m here to say that in “Chuck Berry: The Autobiography,” he writes about sex with a wide-awake candor that’s unusual and refreshing. An erotic banquet spread itself before him, and he partook. He then went back for seconds.

He doesn’t pretend otherwise. But he doesn’t stint on the complicated and complicating details. Mr. Berry’s recall is amazing. Reading about his best-remembered kisses, cuddles, crushes and hotel room exploits is like reading the gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin on his favorite meals. Women adored Mr. Berry as much as he them.

“I was slow with shyness when it was in the vein of trying to suck face,” Mr. Berry writes about his teenage years, in a line that feels as if it could have been plucked from one of his songs. He got less shy.

He married when young, and he bears down, in his book, on the meanings of intimacy. You sense that he is working out his grateful feelings in front of your eyes.

“Night after night we were discovering different new desires and ways of satisfying each other,” he writes. “Fantasies that I had long dreamed of were realized, along with pleasures unfamiliar to her but enjoyed harmoniously. Fetishes, latent in my anticipation, were whispered softly in the warmth of close embraces and fulfilled in the fevered moments of devotion for each other.”

Sex for Mr. Berry was the only thing that rivaled being onstage. “The greatest highs I’ve ever had in my life have come from a mob of as many as 62,000 voices,” he writes, “and also from the moan of one.”

The first third of Mr. Berry’s memoir is better than its second third. The final third crumbles, as did his career, into recriminations over bad business deals and legal woes. But this powerful and original book has sticking power. It doesn’t contain a false note.

“I don’t advocate sorrow,” Mr. Berry writes. “I pursue happiness in all avenues of life, and so I shall avoid funerals, even my own.” Mr. Berry’s book, reread now, is a kind of jazz funeral, a woozy second-line parade through the streets. It’s an earful.

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