By Steve Butts
As Chuck Berry turned 89 on Sunday I reflected upon when I was first exposed to his music and how it had made an impact on who I eventually became. Like many, I am sure that I probably first heard Berry’s Johnny B. Goode (without necessarily knowing who the artist actually was) on TV shows like “Happy Days” or in a movie like “American Graffiti”, each shining a softer, tamer light upon the revolutionary impact Berry’s music had made on 50′s rock ‘n’ roll culture.
Much like the nostalgic small screen portrayals of life in middle America that were commonly featured in movies and television during the 70′s and 80′s, I had grown up in a similar environment in a small town in Michigan. Heavily protestant, the farming community that I grew up in was not a place where someone could expect to receive much exposure to current rock ‘n’ roll music, let alone anything that could be construed as “hip” music or “acid rock” or anything else.
My parents were much more permissive than the average family in my hometown. They attended Marshall Tucker Band concerts and we often visited their friends who had a stereo room (I will never forget it. The room would be completely dark, except a few lit dials on the stereo and the ceramic statue of an embracing naked couple that had pinholes in it where changing colored lights shined through them).
This same family friend knew that I had enjoyed the Woodstock soundtrack during a visit, so he gave me a dubbed copy of it when I got my first Walkman (which I later shared with my hippie Boy Scout leader who must have utilized it as the inspiration necessary to smoke a surreptitious doob out of the view of our impressionable eyes).
Even though I had been exposed to quite a bit of my parent’s music and had exhibited a desire to be exposed to even more, many of my best friends grew up in far more restrictive and less liberated households. The kind of households that very closely mirrored the idealized nuclear households that were exhibited on shows like “Happy Days” or movies like “American Graffiti”.
For a better idea of the musical climate of the community where I lived, I remember going to a church roller skating party with some friends of mine where the DJ was asked not to play any current hits but was instead given generic vinyl instrumental versions of hits from the 50′s and early 60′s to play (think Pat Boone–this was during the 80′s).
During one summer, I spent a great deal of time with my friend Troy. This was during the early 80′s emergence of professional wrestling in popular culture and the popularization of action films like “Rambo”, each being things that we were able to share enjoyment of and bond over. We also loved listening to a local oldies radio station’s airing of a syndicated weekend top 100 countdown program.
One afternoon, we were listening to a cassette dub of some songs that Troy had recorded from the previous weekend. With the permeation of “Rambo” in pop culture and the overarching cultural environment during the Reagan presidency, we listened excitedly to Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets” (Troy would eventually become an Army Ranger) over and over. Having heard the anti-war songs featured on Woodstock, I was quite likely already conflicted about this patriotic one hit wonder who glamorized the gallantry of war to great success. Later, we would hear a fun, silly novelty song that made us laugh. Laugh hard at that!
I will never forget hearing “My Ding-A-Ling” for the first time. The voice sounded familiar and it was evident that the song had been recorded live in concert. Amid the stolid surroundings of my friend’s house, something anarchic and forbidden had forced its way into our lives. As pre-teen boys, the double entendre juvenile humor of Chuck Berry’s corniest song was absolutely delicious.
As we began listening to “Ding-A-Ling” over and over, I started to feel the rush of doing something a little dangerous and contradictory to the repressive environment that surrounded us. I realized that not only was going against these constrictive societal norms appealing, it felt great.
This might have been the first moment where I questioned the bland lives that many people around me had chosen to live and was rapidly determining that I probably was not going to ever live a life quite like those that my friend’s and their families were.
I can only imagine that this moment of enlightenment, spurred on by one of Chuck Berry’s silliest songs was just a mere fraction of what people during the mid-50′s must have felt as Berry deftly combined the blues with a countryish twang, bringing an aspect of young black popular culture to a still segregated white America.
As time passes, “My Ding-A-Ling” has lost some of its former allure for me. It is not as bad of a song as many might indicate, but is far from the best and most representative of Berry’s songs. That said, whenever I hear it, I am immediately transported back to a more formative time in my own life where 30 plus years later I can still measure the impact that Berry’s music has so obviously had on my life.