CHUCK BERRY IS MY HERO
Chuck Berry died not too long ago. To most people Chuck was nothing but a has-been, a ninety year old black man whose biggest rock and roll hits were more than fifty years ago. Some of the media people who did remember him made him sound like nothing but a pervert, another twisted and manipulative celebrity who got off on victimizing and demeaning helpless women.
Maybe those things are true. I only care about Chuck Berry because he was a hero and he saved my life. He was different from my parents, from the kids around me. He told me there was something good about me, something special, that I wasn't worthless and disgusting and some kind of stupid mistake.
Now when I was a kid back in the Seventies, my parents made me go to summer camp every year. I hated it because I hated sports and all the counselors ever did was make us play softball and wiffle ball all day, every day. They also let kids pick on each other and make fun of each other. The counselors looked the other way or laughed every time a kid got his feelings hurt. And a lot of times that kid was me.
There was one day I'll never forget, when a bunch of us boys were changing clothes in the locker room. Now I'd always been proud of how dark I got in the summer, what a nice tan I had from being out in the sun all day. It was one of the few things I really liked about camp. But on this particular day there was a fat, mean, stupid kid a couple of years younger than me who looked over and laughed and said, "what are you, half n****r?"
I wish I could say I beat that kid up. I wish I had said "What did you call me?" real mean and slow, like John Wayne. But I didn't. I was scared. I wasn't scared of the kid, but of what he said. Maybe I really was different. Maybe I was no good. Whatever I should have done, all I did was freeze like a deer in the headlights. It hurt. And the hurting never stopped.
Now my father was from Jamaica. He wasn't black, but his grandfather or his great-grandfather probably must have been. The thing about my father, though, is that he didn't like to take a stand on things. He just liked to sit in the kitchen all day drunk, listening to jazz and grading test papers. My father was a college professor. He had a lot of problems.
One good thing about my father is that he had a big record collection. When I got a little bit older and I started listening to rock and roll music, he went up into the attic and found a record that he'd got in the mail years ago as a mistake. It was Chuck Berry's greatest hits.
Even at thirteen, I already knew some of Chuck Berry's songs. I knew "Rock and Roll Music" because it had just been a huge hit for the Beach Boys. I knew "Roll Over Beethoven" because it was a song the Beatles loved to play in concert during Beatlemania. But some of the songs on that album really surprised me. One of them was called "Brown Eyed Handsome Man."
You can probably guess that "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" was really a song about being different. It was about how white women all through the ages didn't want to be with guys like them, but instead wanted a guy who was brown eyed, and maybe brown skinned as well. I liked the song because it was funny, and even mysterious, not telling for sure whether the brown-eyed man was black or white. The song let you figure out a lot of things for yourself while still making you feel important and special.
Chuck Berry is the one person who ever really understood how it felt to be me. I miss him. To me he will always be a hero.