Landmark 2017 passings mark three visions of America.
“Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today,” sang Chuck Berry way back in 1959. Why was this man feeling so good that day? Simple, because “We touched ground on an international runway, jet propelled back home, from over the seas to the USA.”
Berry, who died in March at 90, had been abroad and witnessed conditions in other parts of the world. That left him singing “New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you” along with “Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge” and his “home back in ol’ St. Lou.”
Chuck Berry missed the skyscrapers and the long freeways. And in the USA “hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.” And in those cafés the juke box is “jumping with records like in the USA.” And as Chuck Berry sang “I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the USA,” because “anything you want they got right here in the USA.”
So unlike baleful white leftists such as Pete Seeger, the strumming Stalinist, the African American Chuck Berry celebrated his country and had a good time doing it. He wasn’t one to divide or limit his audience.
In 1955, he thought of calling Johnny B. Goode a “colored boy,” but then changed it to “country boy” and the record became a smash hit, a rock classic for all time. Berry avoided protest and politics in his music, and it paid off for him. There were, of course, country and city boys of all shades who could play guitar just like a ringin’ a bell and duly saw their name in lights: B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Benson, Barney Kessel, Jimi Hendrix, and many others.
Talent has no color, and in the late 50s on “American Bandstand,” teens were astonished to discover that groups they thought were black, such as The Tokens, were all white and groups they thought were white, such as the Silhouettes, were all black. Other groups were black and white: The Crests, The Marcels, The Del-Vikings, Booker T. and the M.G.s and others but that was not a new thing.
Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Charlie Christian and Bennie Goodman paved the way for racial harmony along with musical harmony. What mattered was whether you could play. So long before Chuck Berry, a musician of any shade could celebrate living in the USA. That was not the view of the left, and the Communist Party did not consider blacks to be Americans.
Charles Manson, who passed away in November at 83, hoped to launch a race war by butchering wealthy whites, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, and throwing the blame on militant blacks. Manson duly became a hero to leftist radicals such as Bernadine Dohrn, “First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them,” Bill Ayers’ wife exclaimed, “then they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach. Wild!”
Other Weathermen touted “Manson Power” in their war on America, in which many would have to die. Violent criminals come in handy for that task, and in socialist regimes, as Hayek showed, they tend to get on top.
When Playboy founder Hugh Hefner passed away in September at 91, the Rev. Jesse Jackson hailed him as a “strong supporter of the civil rights movement.” Kim Kardashian West was “so honored to have been a part of the Playboy team” and Jenny McCarthy thanked Hefner for “being a revolutionary and changing so many people’s lives, especially mine.”
Hefner did give a platform to comedian-activist Dick Gregory, who also died in 2017, but Paul Rodriguez was closer to the mark with his proclamation of Hefner as the “Bill Gates of poontang.” By transforming women into “playmates,” a kind of leisure accessory, Hefner laid the groundwork for the shagadelic utopia of the sixties.
The watchword back then was “never trust anyone over 30,” but as Jodie Foster now has it, sexual misconduct is everywhere and “pretty much every man over 30 has to really look and start thinking about their part. And I guarantee, lots of it is unconscious.”
The “revolutionary” Hugh Hefner certainly played his part, but some addled academic will doubtless hail his famed bunnies (oryctolagus cuniculus) as an early civil-rights triumph over species dysphoria. On the other hand, we may see a tell-all book in which a favorite bunny says, “Listen, Hughie baby, if you never want to have sex again, just keep walking around the mansion in that f****** housecoat. And lose that reeking pipe too.”
Meanwhile, Fats Domino, Tom Petty, Glen Campbell, Jerry Lewis, Martin Landau, John Hurt, Robert Guillaume and other notables also departed in 2017. They will be missed but this is not the time for sadness. With all the changes now going on, at the end of 2018 many more Americans could be singing, “I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the USA.” After all, as Chuck Berry said, anything you want they got right here in the USA.