“If you had tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’” – John Lennon
“If you want to know about American greatness, go back and read all the work that Jimmy [Breslin] wrote” – Michael Daly
“I would have the knees of a twelve-year-old now if I hadn’t danced to all those Chuck Berry tunes!” – Michael Moran
Chuck Berry and Jimmy Breslin died last weekend.
Breslin, a reporter and columnist, spent his 60-year career looking for stories in neglected places, turning ordinary lives into literature without ever missing a deadline. Called “the people’s voice,” he “consistently championed ordinary citizens,” in the words of the Pulitzer Prize committee, among them cops and criminals and the down-and-out in New York’s five boroughs.
Berry’s rock and roll sprang from the roots of every indigenous American musical idiom – from white country to black rhythm and blues, known as “race music.” In the 1950s they existed in segregated worlds. Berry brought those worlds together, and neither music nor America has been quite the same since.
Whatever their impact on politics, Breslin and Berry were artists above all else, testaments to art’s power to effect social change. Breslin wrote; Berry played. That is what they did – and often with a ferocious single mindedness: “Of course I would betray a friend for the biggest story of the year,” Breslin said; while Berry once found Keith Richards backstage fingering his guitar and punched him in the face.
Breslin’s columns and Berry’s music challenged the stereotypes we have long constructed to keep us apart. In any effort to define an American culture that can bridge our divided nation, they’re not a bad place to start.