Three Full Lives: Derek, Chuck and Jimmy
Over the past few days, three old men died.
There was the poet, whose poems exulted and exalted a whole geography, whose major metaphor and song was the sea itself.
There was the inventor of rock and roll, lean and skinny, who drew his energy from the blues, and from whom nearly every rocker ever after drew his or her inspiration.
There was the journalist, a guy who hated being called that because it sounded pompous, a guy who was in a grand tradition of dogwork, a glorious chronicler of common men made uncommon, of the grind and ground of the biggest city.
The three men — Derek Walcott, Chuck Berry and Jimmy Breslin — were undoubtedly different in their lives, but close in time (90, 88, 88), having lived full and incident-drama-achievement-love-and-loss-filled lives, which is a part of the parchment of their legacies: words on thin paper, running carefully across the page after thought and swirling silence; words punched into once-upon-a-time typewriters then into our mutual mode of communication, the computer; and songs, writhing along with the punchy rhythms of rock and roll, an invention with long roots, made electric by guitars and a slyly moving man, crossing the stage knees up, guitar up.
Seeing and hearing of all this, we recognize affinities, those six or whatever degrees of separation that somehow connect us all.
News depends on the receiver. What news of the death of Chuck Berry means to somebody depends entirely on whether you can conjure up a teenaged self not quite mastering the dance moves to “Johnny B. Goode” in the high school gym, but nevertheless being stirred by the sound, the tempo and the glazed look of the girls who always seemed to be able to dance to anything.
It might mean that you recognized the roots in the covers of his songs by the likes of the Rolling Stones, and how they saluted him for inspiring them. And it means still later that you might know a little about the somewhat notorious life, including legal trouble, an arrest for taking a teenaged girl across state lines, and his later professional survival into legend.
Those early songs that predated Elvis (and probably helped created the King as a white Southern boy who could sing black music) were a form of explosive catnip. “Maybellene,” “Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news,” “Back in the U.S.A.” crashed across every divisive line that hung over the landscape. The music jumped and resistance was pretty much useless.
You might even in the long run remember a revival to the knowing, naughty song that became ubiquitous: “My Ding-A-Ling.” You might even know that Berry was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor in the stately, chandelier-lit Opera House.
Berry lives on the internet and especially on YouTube, where you can see him in his glittery post-70 mode at a concert in Switzerland, all lean and leering mean in a shiny jacket, playing blues guitar like a bluesman, or rocking out with Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard and about a thousand guitar players.
President Barack Obama, ever the pulse of pop culture, tweeted — yes, he could — “Chuck Berry rolled over everyone who came before him, and turned up everyone who ever came after. We’ll miss you, Chuck. Be Good.”
Derek Walcott was a Nobel Laureate, but he was also poet laureate of a place, the small island of St. Lucia, a speck of land surrounded by the sea, by water, by the mighty ghost from whence we all came. Everything sun-filled, water-surrounded, cloudless and stormy nature could offer found its way into his poetry, which was song-filled, metaphored with sand and sea, leaf and tree and cultures and lovers at war with one other.
Walcott was a handsome man who in old age resembled a sage or a wandering poet (perhaps Homer) in a suit. “The sea,” he was quoted saying to an interviewer, “is always present.”
He turned that sea, that island’s history and its rhythms — not rock and roll, not blues, but something less obvious, more permanent and insistent — into a Caribbean homage and final statement, a (here he comes again) Homeric epic poem of 300 pages called “Omeros,” the ambition of which probably had something to do with his selection as a Nobel Laureate.
One of his poems, the haunting “Love After Love,” could serve as a preliminary acceptance of one life, not just his: “The time will come/when, with elation/you will greet yourself arriving/at your own door, in your own mirror/and each will smile at the other’s welcome,/and say, sit here. Eat.” It ends: “Sit. Feast on your life.”
Reading his life and the leftover lines fills you with a wish for more.
In Breslin and his jaunted, sometimes jagged life, the tribe of writers, reporters, “journalists,” wordsmiths, and, yes, even bloggers, can see themselves in a different mirror. But the first mirror is New York, the writer’s paradise, the home of the news and the News and, it seems, even of fake news. In his career is a list of dead newspapers and living ones: the New York Daily News, the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Magazine with Clay Felker editing, the New York Journal-American, and all the sister and brother publications whose members were part of a tribe.
Breslin is and was a Queens guy, which is to say a neighborhood guy risen to heights of some size — a Pulitzer and other prizes, novels such as “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” He had a penchant for finding the stories of overlooked people; assigned to cover the JFK funeral, he found and interviewed the gravedigger.
No question he cared, and being Irish he had a sardonic sense of humor — self-deprecating but also self-centered. Something of a self-promoter, he could be a boor but was never boring. He loved baseball, wrote about the early Mets, about Son of Sam — who communicated with him — and corruption and ran on a ticket with the irascible Norman Mailer, a feat for which he begged forgiveness for “causing the bars of New York to be closed for the better part of a day.”
He was said to be a part of what was called New Journalism, where opinion and personality and person mattered in a literary sense, although he took little comfort in it.
Here is what he was: The guy who at some point is in danger of breaking his heart over others not of his closest circle, a guy who is bent over from typing. He was special, to be sure, as a good and excellent writer, but he also had the dogged nose of the investigative reporter, the smell for injustice and news, a taste for which many a reporter who fancies himself a writer has no gift.
Here’s to Chuck, here’s to Derek, here’s to Jimmy. Goodbye to all that.