“Chuck! Chuck, it’s Marvin … Your cousin, Marvin Berry? You know that new sound you’re looking for? Well, listen to this!”
And thus it is suggested that Chuck Berry, the musical maverick who finished his earthly gig on Saturday, did not so much help construct rock and roll out of rhythm and blues, country and his own genius, as much as he stole it from a kid he heard play over the phone.
This line, a presumable and admittedly goofy throw-away from 1985’s “Back To The Future,” has always confounded me because it proposes a history-bending fact — that time-traveling teen Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), who has come to 1955’s Enchantment Under The Sea dance to ensure that his parents meet and fall in love so that he exists, sits in for guitarist Marvin Berry, whose hand is injured. While sitting in, he plays Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” including explosive electric guitar riff.
This riff inspires Marvin, who until this point is just the dude with the bandaged hand whose injuries almost dash Marty’s plans, to call his cousin and announce that he’d found his new sound. And that always bugged me, not only because it blithely suggests that Berry isn’t responsible for his own creation, but creates a whole space-time continuum situation where, because Marty was covering a song that Berry wrote in another timeline, he’s actually stealing from himself. And now there’s math and science involved, and I went into entertainment journalism so I would not have to deal with math and science, so now my head hurts from thinking too much about it.
In the immortal words of Biff Tannen, think, McFly!
Because entertainment and pop-culture reporters are known for making cultural mountains out of molehills, I am not the first of my kind to ruminate on what is honestly a really silly but tantalizing proposition. Noted satirical site The Onion wrote a hilarious brief titled Chuck Berry Remembers Call From Cousin About White Kid Playing ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ which winks at the absurdity of stealing from oneself, but also acknowledges the probably unintentional suggestion that a black man widely credited for helping create rock was ever so stuck for inspiration that he up and stole it from some random white kid. That, of course, plays into the whole cultural appropriation question, and now Elvis and Pat Boone are involved, and what about Ike Turner’s seminal 1951 “Rocket 88?” Did Chuck go back in time and steal from Ike, only to have Marty McFly steal from him? Now my head hurts again.
And Overthinking It, a proudly nitpicky site that has over-analyzed everything from the legal outcome of every “Law and Order” case to whether Olympic rules strictly prohibit the golden retriever athlete star of the “Air Bud” series from competing, wrote an appropriately detailed story proving that even if Chuck Berry wanted to steal “Johnny B. Goode” from McFly, who was stealing from him, Marvin called him too late in the song for it to have made a difference. (Man, I love people who are bigger pop culture nerds than me. And I’m writing this story, so you know my dorkiness is impressive.)
“Back To The Future” isn’t the only movie to suggest comically that a rock genius borrowed one of their best ideas from some unwitting stranger - according to “Forrest Gump,” John Lennon cribbed the opening verse of “Imagine” from some happy idiot talking about playing ping-pong in China on “The Dick Cavett Show.” These things are, again, throw-away and somewhat cutesy attempts to tie a fictional character in their time and place, and they work because they’re written to trigger a recognition in the viewer, who’s sitting in the theater going “Wait… ‘No possessions? And no religion, too?’ I KNOW THAT SONG!”
And as for Marvin Berry, whose signature line is gloriously obvious that my husband and I used to quote it every time we saw clunky and lazy exposition in a movie or TV show (“Wait, maybe the murderer is my cousin Marvin! Marvin Berry!”)? I’m sure that in the end, that was director and co-screenwriter Robert Zemeckis’s acknowledgment of the timeliness of “Johnny B. Goode,” and of Chuck Berry, which was so influential that it was the go-to song for a kid who supposedly heard it 30 years later. And more than 30 years later, we’re still talking about it.
That’s what good art does, makes you talk about it. Even if it’s silly.