When Chuck Berry died Saturday at 90, the musical pioneer was justly honored as the Founding Father of rock and roll and celebrated as the architect who designed the blueprint that those who built on his innovations would follow for decades to come.
Panegyrics were passed around social media, praising the man who could play a guitar like ringing a bell, and whose posthumous album Chuck is due out June 16. (The first single, "Big Boys," is startlingly good.)
In the weeklong mourning period we’re growing unfortunately accustomed to after the deaths of great musicians, plenty of fresh perspectives on the “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode” auteur have been shared.
On NPR Music, Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote how “Chuck Berry taught me how to be an American” while growing up in an immigrant family in Buffalo in the 1970s. Elvis Mitchell penned a perceptive Berry tribute in Billboard that identified the “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Promised Land” songwriter as “a revolutionary black figure who never hid his rage.” And Camden County rocker Ben Vaughn wrote on Facebook about how “Chuck Berry introduced me to poetry” and inspired him to become a songwriter.
Amid all those hosannas, mention is frequently made of Berry’s prickly personality. In Taylor Hackford’s 1987 concert movie, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, he’s seen bickering with Keith Richards, who fondly tells a story about the time Berry punched him in the face.
But those anecdotes are mostly told with intent to charm. If you scrolled down farther into the obituaries or just waited a day or so for Berry’s body to get cold, you were met with a just-hold-on-a-minute counter to the reverence with which Berry is regarded by his admirers, pointing out his considerable human failings.
In 1960, Berry was found guilty of transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines “for immoral purposes,” in violation of the Mann Act. He served 20 months in prison but bounced back almost immediately upon release, scoring hits like “Nadine (Is It You?)” and “You Never Can Tell,” in 1964.
And that’s only one chapter in Berry’s sordid history. The New York Post waited a few days after his death to go into great detail in a story headlined “Chuck Berry was more than a rock icon -- he was also a huge pervert.”
It tells of how, according to a 1993 Spy magazine report, Berry allegedly installed hidden cameras in the women’s restroom in a Missouri restaurant he bought in 1987. In 1994, he settled two suits filed by dozens of women, for more than a million dollars.
It seems that if you put the music aside, Chuck Berry was not a very good guy.
The question is: Do we care?
And I don’t mean simply to raise the age-old "Should we trust the art or the artist?" question. As a starting point, the answer to that one is: We should trust the art and judge songs or movies or books for their intrinsic worth, and not expect their creators to live up to our expectations as paragons of virtue, lest we be sorely disappointed when they turn out to have feet of clay.
Under extreme circumstances involving allegedly heinous behavior, however, those questions get trickier. Before Berry died, I was thinking about this already because I happened to catch an HBO stand-up comedy special starring Jerrod Carmichael. The show was filmed in 2015 and was a precursor both to his current NBC sitcom, The Carmichael Show, and his new HBO special, Jerrod Carmichael: 8.
Carmichael has an engagingly low-key, deadly deadpan delivery, and he uses it to great effect in a routine in which he frames the question as being about how, for Americans, “talent is more important than morals.”
He introduces the concept by talking about going to see the remake of Robocop. “A terrible movie,” where, he says, “halfway through it, I forgave Woody Allen." Why? “Talent is limited, it’s a precious resource, and Woody Allen makes these great movies, romantic comedies that are smart and sophisticated... And it’s invaluable. Do you know how much Woody Allen is worth to the film industry? Apparently, one daughter.”
The uncomfortable argument Carmichael makes is that any discomfort we feel with enjoying the lighthearted comedies made by Allen -- who has been accused of sexual assault by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow -- is outweighed by our desire to be entertained. We love our celebrities, and we’re willing to give them lots of leeway and forgive them for transgressions we’d rather not think about.
Carmichael, who has a taste for the taboo, goes on to riff on other entertainers who’ve been accused of career-threatening misdeeds that their music has survived, even if they haven’t.
“Michael Jackson’s victims still listen to Michael Jackson,” he says to gasps from the audience. “And they should! They’ve been through a lot and they need something beautiful and inspiring and uplifting.
“When did you guys forgive Chris Brown, exactly?” he asks. “For me, I was in a Foot Locker. And it was right after he hit Rihanna, and we were all pretending to be mad at him, and this song called 'Excuse Me Miss' came on and it was such a beautiful song and I was like, ‘Oh yeah -- we all make mistakes.’ ”
The list of show-biz luminaries who have endured self-perpetuated infamy to continue working -- and be celebrated for that work -- is long.
Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to felony charges involving sex with a 13-year-old in 1977 then fled the country, won an Oscar in 2003 for directing The Pianist. (A legal decision on his case is expected in Los Angeles Superior Court this spring.) Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic rant in 2006 sidelined him in Hollywood for a while, but he was back with an Oscar nomination for directing Hacksaw Ridge this year. (Bill Cosby, whose sexual-assault trial is set to begin in Montgomery County on June 5, would seem, at this point, anyway, to be one accused entertainer whose allegations of wrongdoing have effectively ended his career.)
The contemporary celebrity whose history of allegations most resemble Berry’s is R. Kelly. In 2008, the R&B singer was found not guilty of 14 child-pornography charges that experts had predicted would ruin his career. Instead, Kelly continued to thrive, playing up his image as a self-satirizing lothario and scoring many big hits, like “Ignition (Remix)” after the charges became public.
Would Berry have survived the publicity from his 1959 Mann Act violation if he had faced such a conviction today?
That’s impossible to say, of course. The intensity of the media attention would be overwhelming. But the collective willingness of fans to forgive damaging charges by favorite stars whose art or celebrity they cherish is not to be underestimated.
The president of the United States himself made that point, in fact, to Access Hollywood host Billy Bush in 2005 in their caught-on-tape conversation that came to light in October and wound up not being the death blow to his electoral hopes against Hillary Clinton that pundits predicted it would be. “When you’re a star, they let you do it," he said. "You can do anything.”This story has been updated to correct the name of the 2003 Roman Polanski movie.