Gone: Chuck Berry, Jimmy Breslin, and Their Great American Middle Class
When they say that Baby Boomers didn't make anything, don't you believe them. We manufactured Celebrities, by the truckload -- on the TV shows we watched religiously while eating our Pop Tarts after school, on the 45 rpm records we played on those weird little jukeboxes in the diner booth, even in the folded and bent newspapers that our dads brought home on the 5:37. There was only one thing we never thought about as all the newly famous rolled off our star-maker machinery.
That someday they were all going to die.
It was just a couple of months ago we were talking in this space about the so-called flood of celebrity deaths in 2016, and how it actually wasn't some celestial curse. Rather, it was all just a natural consequence of the explosion of popular culture that occurred in the decades after World War II, when wealth, leisure time, the newfangled TV and a new kind of middle class that has never existed before caused more people to be more creative in more ways than anyone had once thought possible. I wrote in December that, if anything, the years ahead would see the loss of more pop icons.
And so it was right on schedule that the gods elected, in the space of just a few hours, to take from us both Chuck Berry, who drew up the blueprints for the classic age of rock 'n' roll, and Jimmy Breslin, who re-invented what you can do with 18 inches of a dead tree. It would be easy to say that while the two were 20th-Century contemporaries (Berry was 90, Breslin 88) who happened to pass away on the same weekend, these impresarios of hot guitar licks and cold newspaper type otherwise had next to nothing in common.
But the strange truth is that Berry and Breslin did have a kind of cosmic bond, because they both emerged from that uniquely American post-war era and celebrated its virtues and occasionally broadcast its rage. And in doing so they channeled the myth and the magic of the Great American Middle Class even as they were also creating it and then amplifying it as loud as the opening riff to "Johnny B. Goode." They also shared a relentless working-class ethic so that Breslin was still pounding a keyboard and Berry was bending his guitar strings almost up to the day they died. They both had maddening flaws, both lived incredibly full lives, and yet their loss still created a shroud of sadness -- and with good reason. Because their vision of an equal-opportunity America, where they saw the promise of falling barriers that is now being replaced with rising walls, is slipping away from us...just as they have.
Chuck Berry had the power of a prophet, someone who picked up his guitar in the middle of the Eisenhower Era and recognized the stirrings of a great cultural revolution before almost anyone else did. Suddenly in a prosperous 1950s, turning 16 didn't automatically mean grim life as a farmhand or on an assembly line; teenagers had joy, time, and disposable dollars that they spent on clothes, cars and especially their own brand of music.
Even though Berry himself was almost 30 when he first hit the charts with 1955's "Maybellene," he had the uncanny ability to understand the thrill for high schoolers of dropping their own dimes in the jukebox and telling Beethoven to "roll over," along with the nascent (if still vague) sense of rebellion against cultural conformity as "you finally lay your burden down" when "School Days" end at the 3 'o clock bell.
At least on the record charts, Berry also had a knack for breaking down racial barriers so smoothly that you almost didn't notice it -- grafting country-flavored guitar riffs onto rhythm 'n' blues while tackling those themes that so resonated with white middle-class teens. But he also pushed within that framework for a vision of racial progress and harmony -- most notably in "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," which was reportedly inspired by Berry witnessing the rough arrest of an Hispanic man. But he turned any anger into a celebration of what "brown-eyed" -- i.e., non-white -- people were starting to achieve even in the often-segregated 1950s.
"Two, three count with nobody on/He hit a high fly into the stand/Rounding third he was headed for home/It was a brown eyed handsome man/That won the game," Berry wrote in 1956, and in the time of Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Monte Irvin breaking baseball's color barrier, no one had to ask whom he was singing about.
But the grown-up authorities didn't look as charitably on what this black man was accomplishing as their teenage offspring; Berry was jailed on what some critics always thought was a trumped-up charge in the early 1960s -- right at the time that young Jimmy Breslin was making a name for himself in New York's rough-and-tumble newspaper world.
Raised in the blue-collar, Irish-Catholic enclave of Ozone Park, Queens, Breslin emerged from that world not to escape it but to celebrate it, to become its bard. A few years after Berry celebrated baseball's winners, Breslin -- starting out in journalism as a sportswriter -- covered its lovable losers, the 1962 New York Mets. The experience only seemed to hone his deeply held belief that the stories of the mid-20th Century were those of the foibles and the dignity of the common man.
Breslin's two most famous columns were about the laborer who dug John F. Kennedy's grave in 1963, and the cop who rushed the dying John Lennon to the hospital in 1980. In the first piece, Breslin wrote: "One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave."
But Breslin's two-fingered odes to everyday people eventually grew a harder edge than did Berry's gentle rock rebellions. Newspaper columnists, for better or worse, have a longer life cycle than rock stars, and with the arrival of the 1970s and '80s, it was Breslin who was there to vent bitterly at the high priests and crooked politicians who betrayed the common man (including his famous description of Rudy Giuliani as "a small man in search of a balcony.") Explained Breslin: "Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.”
(Believe me, I can identify. Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, I was -- and yet somehow wasn't -- a co-worker of Breslin at New York Newsday in the early 1990s. A week before I started in the Park Avenue office, a spat with a young Asian-American colleague over whether a piece was politically incorrect led to a rant that was definitely politically incorrect -- and then a permanent Breslin boycott of the newsroom. So my closest brush was the great columnist was merely answering his call one night when he filed his piece. "Beautiful," I said -- in what I thought was a tribute to his sarcastic catch-phrase. There was a long silence on other end.)
I think there was something deeper in Breslin's growing rage than merely the human aging process. It's hard to be a bard of the working class when you're watching the working class slowly disappear before your eyes. The overlapping notions that Jimmy Breslin and Chuck Berry celebrated in words and music -- an American society where race and class were hopefully fading as a barrier to opportunity -- had begun to ebb in the face of corporate greed and shuttered factories.
The once unbreakable bond between Breslin's tabloids -- the Post and the Daily News, not to mention the long vanished New York edition of Newsday -- and their vanishing outer-borough blue-collar readership has frayed to the breaking point. At the same time, the egalitarian ideals of a good public schools or racial harmony, the uptempo undergirdings of Berry's best songs, have been subsumed by the opioid crisis in what's now -- but wasn't then -- called the Rust Belt, and by the spasm of anger that was unleashed at the ballot box last November.
Some smart critics -- noting last year's outpouring of middle-aged grief over the loss of cultural totems like David Bowie or Carrie Fisher -- opined that Baby Boomers were really mourning the passing of their own youth. That is unarguably true -- and yet there's something else. We also fear that the almost naively optimistic America that the likes of Breslin and Berry revealed to us once upon a time will be buried with them. And that now we will have to fight these buffoons without their poetry to protect us. Beautiful.
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