Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Assisness Denied (2000)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, April 7 - This originally ran in MRR, December 2000.


This being the autumn of national litigation warfare and other assish behavior, I note with interest a parallel legal development brimming with the potential for injustice of cosmic depths. A suit was filed this week against founding father of rock Chuck Berry by his longtime sideman of 30 years, Johnny Johnson. Johnson started the band that Chuck Berry joined and hijacked by talent in 1954, and it was Johnson who played on most of Berry's ancient hits. Depending on who you believe, Johnson was either the inspiration behind, or at least a collaborator on, Berry's magic "Johnny B. Goode", the 1958 hit that earned him a place alongside Betsy Ross, Neil Armstrong and The Whopper in the annals Of American Greatness. Johnson's suit says he's been denied 40 + years of royalties and credits for helping pen these hits. Since this was also the week that Chuck Berry received official recognition at a State Department dinner, alongside Alan Greenspan and Don Rickles, the case made an amusing human interest counterpoint to the glad handing and plates of red snapper this icon was forced to endure.

The lawsuit raises an interesting problem. "Johnny B. Goode" is included on two separate gold plated albums strapped to the Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft, currently hurtling away from our solar system at 39,000 miles an hour. Berry's the only artist credited for the song. If Johnson was denied his rightful cosmic credit, how could the injustice ever be corrected or compensated for? There's certainly not much cash to be split - Chuck Berry was paid one penny in NASA royalties. I've long wondered if this was the world's best or worst distribution rate. The Beatles missed their slot on the Voyager record over this very issue - the band, asked by NASA for "Here Comes The Sun", was ecstatic... it was their own publisher who vetoed approval after the space agency failed to ante up some mysterious and "hefty" royalties. Can you blame them for protecting their clients? No matter how you cut it, a cent a song ain't much. Should the stinginess of Uncle Sam's record label be credited against cost of production ($865 million)? Distance of distribution (thousands of light years)? I think durability of product should stand for something in the equation - any old independent label can offer its artists interplanetary exposure by way of standard college radio. Not many can offer a recording that comes with its own stylus and cartridge and will still be playable one billion years later. (It is durability, after all, that gets ex-UN secretariat & SS lieutenant Kurt Waldheim's opening remarks on the Voyager LPs to the next galaxy and leaves Skrewdriver's cover of "Johnny B. Goode" - perhaps never played on any radio station - earthbound and obsolete.)

Chuck is the only living celebrity artist on this rare, first pressing compilation LP. Of the 27 musical tracks, four (including a Navajo chant) are by Americans... disproportionate representation that's fair only if you consider that we financed the whole thing and could've stacked it with the 1977 top 20 if we'd so wished. Jazz representative Louie Armstrong died 6 years before launch, and blues representative Blind Willie Johnson died 30 years earlier, after catching pneumonia from sleeping in the smoking ruins of his burned down house. But Chuck's not the only living American on the disc - Jimmy Carter contributed a spoken word piece- and he's also not the only living solo artist. There's an unfortunate and uncredited performance by NASA's Ann Druyan, best known for co-authoring "Cosmos" with Carl Sagan, her late husband and the head of the Voyager LP track selection committee. Three months before launch, Druyan hooked into an electroencephalogram in NY's Bellview hospital (known to my generation as the loony bin from TV's "Barney Miller") and meditated for an hour. A computer translated her body's electrical signal data into a sound montage “to be decrypted by extraterrestrials”. Her musings “followed a mental itinerary" which included a "version of the history of the world and the history of life on Earth, a little compressed... thoughts on war and poverty followed by thoughts on love." Essentially a performance art piece, the only thing more mortifying than having this bit represent us for the next billion years is the idea that someone will actually find it. And, all things being equal, the odds are 50/50 that any "someone" who sits down to enjoy this record would be more likely to comprehend converted electrical signals than human music, and that they would mistake the new age noodlings of one lone me-decade confusnik as some built-in genetic flakiness of humankind as a whole.

Although "Johnny B. Goode" probably seems, to most readers of the 21st century, about as relevant as the pips and dings of Druyan's nervous system, it's important to remember that Berry was once very important indeed. These songs of his, now compressed and distended through car commercial and elevator misuse, were at one time as psychically significant as submarine warfare. Chuck Berry was, briefly, the Johnny Rotten of 1958 - a looming (if always grinning and enunciating) menace to white American parents. His crossing that double yellow line between "race records" and "crossover" was paid for with a mid-career, nearly 2 year person term on trumped up "White Slavery" charges brought by midwestern anti-race-mixers. Berry's cosmic redemption is just as weird as Dick Nixon & Jefferson Davis getting their commemorative postage stamps within a few weeks of each other, but certainly more uplifting.

Before you jump to the logical conclusion, however, and start calculating which Dead Kennedys, Crucifucks or Artless songs might make some redemptive interstellar cut in 50 years time, keep in mind that this was almost definitely a once-in-a-civilization opportunity. Chuck was the right man in the right place at the right time. Space travel is currently easing into a "leaner and meaner" commercial phase that has no use for grand statements. The plutonium laden Cassini probe may have been famous for endangering all life on Earth (both during its '97 launch and again on its gravitational drive-by two years later), but Cassini was also the intended carrier of a failed sequel to the Voyager LP. A similar "Sounds Of Earth" type disc, complete with a creepy multicultural photo dubbed "portrait of humanity" (naked children on a beach beaming up at a Raymond Pettibonish-grandma in a rocking chair), was to be deposited by probe on Saturn's largest moon. Word leaked to the taxpayers, and the disc was squashed before takeoff by outraged politicians, leaving but a blank mounting area to prove to future beings that we weren't sure what to say after all.

I had a scheme a while back to register as a bone marrow donor. I think my original intentions were pure (they've some strict travel restrictions, so I had second thoughts). A bonus motivational theory, however, soon exerted its tug. Namely; anyone who so selflessly saves a human life would not only incur good karma points or whatever counts in the grand scheme of things, but would also be granted a free pass to make an utter ass, buffoon, ruffian and nincompoop of themselves for their rest of their life (or in my case, like a bad O. Henry tale, until my own recklessly boorish behavior ironically caused someone's accidental death, sending me back to square one). My theory now is that Mr. Berry is on this regimen. Astronauts, the guys with more right than anyone to use their laurels as the healthy foundations for a lifetime of obnoxious behavior, are probably screened for such assish tendencies in their very first NASA interview. The same qualities that allowed John Glenn to sit cool as a cucumber during flaming reentry most likely also prevented him from barging to the front of long supermarket lines yelling "important astronaut coming through!", or striding through shopping malls in his underwear, or other general Keith Moon type behavior.

Thorough decentness was a trait specifically NOT accounted for in the selection of world's best rock performer. And regarding the lack thereof, Mr. Berry has performed with flying colors. In 1990, the man was charged in a class-action lawsuit with secretly videotaping the women's room stalls in his St. Louis restaurant. He was hit with the same charge a few years later at his "Berry Park" estate. Some time in the mid-90's a videotape made the rounds of Berry urinating on a (presumably consenting) woman's face. If not the actions of a man who no longer has to care about mere Earthbound niceties, who has been magically freed from the burden of history, then what? I've seen a nice publicity photo of Chuck standing outside the old Chess Records studio, arms linked with Hillary Clinton, wearing a sailor's cap tilted roguishly to one side. His grin is that of a man who knows some of his work will survive in pristine, playable form long after the fossilized bones of everyone else in the photo are ground into motor oil by the glacial smoosh of continental drift. I can only think of poor Johnny B. Goode, perhaps denied his similar life of boorish, rude behavior, and shudder.