There’s a moment which catches the eye in The Farthest, the excellent documentary by Irish director Emer Reynolds about the Voyager space mission. Actually, there are many, many such moments in this fond tribute to the engineers and dreamers behind the project, but this one deserves its own podium. Hell, it deserves its own paragraph.
It features Chuck Berry playing Johnny B Goode at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California in 1989. The occasion is an event to mark Voyager 2’s historic fly-by of Neptune on its way beyond the heliosphere towards interstellar space. Berry plays and various engineers, scientists and sky-watchers dance awkwardly. History records that the late, great Berry always made sure he got paid so we assume he got a handsome fee for this engagement.
The reason for Berry duckwalking at this particular Voyager gig had to do with the presence of Johnny B Goode on the spaceship’s Golden Record. Cheek by jowl with Bach, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, gamelans and chants by Navajo Indians, Johnny B Goode was one of the pieces of music chosen to represent the sounds of earth to any alien being who happens upon the record in the future. The vinyl revival truly has gone much further than anyone intended.
It makes sense that Berry was wrapped up in such a project. A maverick, leader and pioneer, he was always one to head to those odd places before anyone else. In the aftermath of his death earlier this year, it was the stories and yarns about these sorties and advances into unchartered territory which reminded you of just what Berry was doing back when rock’n’roll was still new, still young, still feral. Like Voyager, he was breaking new ground.
He wasn’t alone. From Little Richard and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to James Brown and Nina Simone, to name four other single-minded spirits, popular music’s back pages are full of maverick swashbucklers and thrillers who were the first of a kind in a variety of ways. They tested limits and ranges, turned chances into opportunities, took liberties with their own lives and safety. They were characters who were never going to stick to the middle of the road if either ditch looked more inviting.
Age did not dull them, either. I encountered Little Richard holding forth in a corridor in the Austin Convention Centre a few years back at the SXSW festival and he was still a charismatic, cocky figure capable of shooting out the lights. A couple of months before his death in 2000, you found Screamin’ Jay Hawkins putting that voodoo spell of his on all at a sultry, sweltering Button Factory in Dublin. The following night, Nina Simone glowed and glowered at the old Point Depot with much of that old spikey magic still intact.
Of course, it wasn’t all high jinks and the like. Read James McBride’s compelling Kill ‘Em & Leave about Mister Please Please Please and you’ll come across a more melancholic and less documented side to the hardest working man in show business.
You can understand then why many of them were so bullish about their careers and getting paid in later life. You go through the troubles those people had seen in no-mark American towns where even the one horse had skedaddled a long time before and you’d be the same. You might even have just cause to be cavalier about paying your taxes like Brown.
Many would argue that the walks on the wild side which those pioneers made still have to be made today. These are still hard times, and that clutch of strong, attritional, fiery records which emerged in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement like To Pimp A Butterfly, A Seat At the Table and Black Messiah tell tales of fear and loathing in the America of today which wouldn’t be out of place in Berry’s era. The ugly rallies, clashes, riots and unrest in Charlottesville at the weekend are a reminder that a lot of that kind of thing has not gone away. Same shizzle, different day: the pitch remains the same and the response from artists who are truly engaged has always been a match for it.
Yet there’s something in those stories of the daring dandies of old which you keep circling back to even in the midst of these troubled Trump times. Perhaps it’s the fact that this is the week when we remember that Elvis Presley is 40 years in the grave and how the disruptive manner in which he leapt up, squared the circle and changed the narrative when it came to rock’n’roll requires a retort.
Perhaps it was seeing a clip again over the weekend of Brown hollering and preaching at Boston Garden the night after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 and how it was, a poor gombeen from Georgia, who kept Beantown from going up in flames that night. Perhaps, most of all, it’s that wolfish smirk Berry is sporting in The Farthest. First up and best dressed, those mavericks were the ones who wrote the script and we shouldn’t forget that.