Chuck Berry reportedly wrote that title in prison (for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines, violating the Mann Act). The song devolves into an amusing anecdote when the the protagonist cannot get the young lady’s ‘safety belt’ unbuckled, but after the first verse, where else could you go?
Riding along in my automobile
My baby beside me at the wheel
I stole a kiss at the turn of a mile
My curiosity runnin’ wild
Crusin’ and playin’ the radio
With no particular place to go
It was my favorite Chuck Berry song, in large part because “No particular place to go” fits so perfectly into the Berry-meter (which doubtless has a name, but I don’t know it), making it fun to repeat. It’s one of those felicitous occasions when the language almost drives the music. Chuck Berry was really good at finding the sweet spot between lyric and meter, Shakespearesque perhaps.
I also relished the spirit of “No particular place to go.” It just embodied the restless idleness of youth. The movie American Graffiti built a whole story around cruisin’. Of course, Chuck Berry was no teenager when he wrote the song, but he really did have “No particular place to go”:
Ridin’ along in my calaboose
Still tryin’ to get her belt unloose
All the way home I held a grudge,
But the safety belt, it wouldn’t budge
Cruisin’ and playin’ the radio
With no particular place to go.
He was in his own calaboose.
Chuck developed a winning formula of his own inventive rock-‘n’-roll licks, clever lyrics, and simple stories that appealed to a much wider public than the rhythm-and-blues he had grown up with. Like Elvis, who mixed country and blues, Chuck Berry came from the other direction. His music had distinctly ‘hillbilly’ themes, and that was no accident:
By early 1953 Berry was performing with Johnnie Johnson’s trio, starting a long-time collaboration with the pianist. The band played mostly blues and ballads, but the most popular music among whites in the area was country. Berry wrote, “Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly black audience and some of our black audience began whispering ‘who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?’ After they laughed at me a few times they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it.” (From Wikipedia, quoting Chuck Berry, The Autobiography, Harmony Books 1989)
Clearly he was no musical tourist. Along the way he had steeped himself in country music:
At the end of June 1956, his song “Roll Over Beethoven” reached number 29 on the Billboard’s Top 100 chart, and Berry toured as one of the “Top Acts of ’56”. He and Carl Perkins became friends. Perkins said that “I knew when I first heard Chuck that he’d been affected by country music. I respected his writing; his records were very, very great.” As they toured, Perkins discovered that Berry not only liked country music but also knew about as many songs as he did. Jimmie Rodgers was one of his favorites. “Chuck knew every Blue Yodel and most of Bill Monroe’s songs as well”, Perkins remembered. “He told me about how he was raised very poor, very tough. He had a hard life. He was a good guy. I really liked him.” (from Wikipedia, quoting Perkins, Carl; McGee, David (1996), Go, Cat, Go! Hyperion Press. pp. 215, 216.)
So it has been all along. Jimmy Rodgers brought the blues into ‘hillbilly’ music, and Bill Monroe’s bluegrass did the same thing. In the first part of the 20th century, there were ‘Hillbilly’ records and ‘Race’ records, for white and black audiences. By the 1950s they had a child: Rock-‘n’-Roll records.
I never saw Chuck Berry live, but the video clips of his live performances show what a delight he took in performing, and his enormous mastery of his art. Not so much in singing as in guitar playing and story-telling. What ebulliance! Look at the interaction he has with his piano player and the rest of the band in the coda to the wonderful “You Never Can Tell”:
It’s more than than a teen-age dance party. It’s balladry and great music. He really did have a place to go, and he went there in style. Only in America. /CL
[UPDATE: Thanks to Scott Johnson of the estimable PowerLine Blog for adding a link to this post in their ‘Picks’ list. Visiting music fans are invited to browse through this blog (when you get to the bottom of a page, click ‘Older Posts’). You might be interested in posts on some other musicians we lost recently, e.g. Ralph Stanley, Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, and Jean Shepard. /CL]