March 18, 2017 3:15 a.m. Wentzville, Missouri. Chuck Berry, delirious from the medications his doctor has prescribed as he nears death, wanders down an alley adjacent to his house. He’s wearing a captain’s hat and a white, knee-length night gown. No shoes. He’s carrying his electric guitar in a case in his right hand, and an empty brief case in his left. One last show, he mutters to himself, get the cash up front. Do what I do. Get the hell out before they know I’m gone.
As he walks, a strong gusty wind picks up, gale force, causing Chuck to stumble. His gown ripples in the wind like a flag on a pole as his captain’s hat blows away. He starts coughing, feeling like he’s not going to make it more than a few steps before collapsing and dying. This is it, he thinks.
The wind keeps pushing him down the road, and Chuck closes his eyes to avoid the dust and debris, bracing himself for what will surely be his last fall. He still hasn’t fallen as the wind subsides, actually feels himself getting stronger. He opens his eyes and realizes he must be dreaming. He’s wearing his black show suit from 1957, complete with pressed white shirt and bow-tie. A pair of black-and white wing tips on his feet, white socks. He’s not just walking … he’s duck walking, something he hasn’t been able to do for decades due to his knees. This is the most realistic dream he’s ever had, and he starts laughing. As he gets his bearings, he realizes he’s somewhere in the deep South, can smell the delta on the breeze, a sugar cane field spreading out on the left side of the road. Cicadas buzz in the trees. Crickets chirp in the field. A bullfrog belches in a nearby pond.
Chuck comes to a crossroad and feels déjà vu, although he knows he hasn’t seen this place in years. There have been so many southern crossroads in his life, most just as vacant and directionless as this. He notices a shadowy figure sitting in a lawn chair under a cypress tree, an empty lawn chair next to him. As Chuck walks nearer, he realizes, that’s not a person sitting in the lawn chair. It’s Satan. Just as he remembers seeing him the first time as a teenager in 1947 when he got out of prison for armed robbery. Long, lean, all red, with a human body, naked, with yellow eyes and black hair swept back in a pompadour, hooves instead of feet. Chuck picks up the smell of sulphur, which he also remembers. There’s a large, clear gallon plastic jug at his feet, filled with a clear liquid, and an upside-down stack of dixie cups. The next smell on the breeze is moonshine, over-powering, almost like gasoline.
Satan: Hello, Chuck, I’ve been waiting for you. Come, sit with me and imbibe on this summer night.
Chuck: It ain’t summer, Mr. Satan. It’s coming up on spring.
Satan: It’s always summer in hell. Here, it's always the heat, not the humidity.
Chuck: Hell?! You’re telling me I’ve done gone to hell?!
Satan: Where else would I be? I got rid of your night gown. Made you look too much like an angel. I’ve also given you back your youth …. you’re welcome.
Chuck: I guess I should thank you for that much.
Satan: No need to thank me. It’s all part of the contract.
Just hearing the word “contract” makes Chuck freeze up. He signed hundreds of them in his lifetime, most of them forbearing bad news masquerading as good. Son, here’s that big contract, and that shiny new Cadillac I promised you, he could hear the record-company man from New York telling him in a parking lot in Manhattan. Not quite realizing the cost of the Cadillac, and the biannual royalty checks that were promised monthly, were all he’d see of the fortune his music was making for these thieves. Still, they afforded him travel, mass adulation, the illusion of prestige, women, but Chuck knew these were trinkets and baubles compared to the real money they were stealing from him. Thus, the empty brief case, important in its own way as the guitar case. Get the cash up front, contractually-agreed-upon fee, provide a service, then leave. Still, it was coming back to him, that first contract he signed with Satan …
Chuck: You know, I was a minor when I signed that first contract back in 1947.
Satan laughs heartily.
Satan: In God’s court of law, we don’t fret over such trivial informalities. You knew what you were doing.
Chuck: Yes. I sold you my soul in return for talent, wealth and fame.
Satan: And as you saw, your talent started a social movement and made you world famous for about five good, productive years. Just long enough to afford you a legacy you could build the rest of your life on. That’s the standard issue rock-star contract, and you were the first. Of many.
Chuck: Did they all come down to the crossroads the same way I did?
Satan: Oh, no, I make house calls. As you recall, the bus was gone by the time you got released from prison, so you had to walk back to town, and that was the perfect time for me to introduce myself and make my sales pitch. I got Lennon and McCartney in a church parking lot in Liverpool. God, the Quarrymen were such an awful band.
Chuck: How is it that Lennon got shot down in 1980 and McCartney is still alive?
Satan: Lennon started pitching a fit around the time that he wanted out. Even swallowed his pride and called up Allen Klein again to see if he could negotiate a deal with me. Well, you know, I like Allen Klein, a lot. He works for me now; he’s very good with numbers. But he’s no Satan. Originator of third-person self reference. I took umbrage and created what you might call a Short-Term Modification Agreement that provided me with a more immediate Return on Investment.
Chuck: You had some maniac kill him.
Satan: Well, on the plus side, I gave him a legacy that was something else entirely. And I don’t have to remind you of what Yoko Ono’s singing voice sounds like.
Chuck: Please don’t remind me. I nearly murdered her on The Mike Douglas Show in 1972. They cut to commercial but I had the guitar over my head and ready to bring it down on her before those hippies in Elephant’s Memory jumped on me.
Satan: Imagine being married to someone that clueless.
Chuck (singing): Imagine there’s no heaven. I wonder if you can.
Satan (singing): No hell below us. Above us only sky.
Satan laughs and takes a long sip of moonshine from his dixie cup.
Satan: I gave him that line, you know, back at the mansion in Tittenhurst, while he was busy imagining no possessions.
Chuck: Mr. Satan, if this is hell, what am I doing here? This doesn’t feel like punishment. I know I’m a sinner and have spent a life time not losing a minute of sleep over the bad things I’ve done.
Satan: Come on, now, Chuck, trying to get on my good side now. There’s a reason I swooped down out of the sky and picked you.
Satan: Partially for what you just stated. Your unapologetic nature. That’s a very admirable quality in hell: it’s essential to understanding pure evil. And when you understand pure evil, you understand human nature.
Chuck: Understanding don’t make it right. Or me any smarter.
Satan: No, but it gives you self-awareness, again, another essential quality. You knew what you were doing when you committed those armed robberies. When you transported that teenage girl across state lines at the height of your fame. When you stopped paying your taxes. When you started filming the women’s restroom in your restaurant. Phew. Chuck, if I was wearing a cap right now, I would be tipping it towards you. Hats off, friend, your resume, while slight in comparison to the real heavy hitters of mankind, is impressive.
Chuck: I chose evil over good.
Satan: And that wasn’t even in the contract! That’s why I like you so much. I didn’t ask you to choose anything, not even in the fine print. I simply made a transaction. You could have lived your life like a complete saint afterwards, performing nothing but good acts and spreading charity the rest of your days. And we’d still be sitting in these lawn chairs at the crossroads right now.
Chuck: If I’m such a lightweight, why the special treatment now?
Satan: That’s just it. The acts of your private life were minor evil. Most of it was just chasing skirt, which is high-school stuff in hell. Don’t you understand what you created with rock and roll?
Chuck: It seemed to do a lot of good in terms of creating harmony among different races.
Satan: In a very surface, menial way, sure. You see how people are. With supposedly open minds and hearts in their youth. And they grow out of it. More importantly, they spend the rest of their days covering their own asses, and a lot of that verbose teenage goodwill turns into empty nostalgia for the saints we never were. But when you get down to it, all those hell-fire preachers at the time were right. It was the devil’s music. It’s mine. I’m not even speaking as Satan now. I’m speaking as an agent of God, a reluctant employee, if you will, sent off to work in a dusty corner of the basement, to do the dirty work, of enticing mankind to realize his free will and sometimes pay the consequences.
Chuck: I didn’t feel like I was possessed by any evil spirit when I was writing those songs.
Satan: You weren’t. That was all you. Again, I saw these things in you walking down the lonely two-lane black-top in 1947. You understood the appeal of a teenage girl standing by a jukebox playing her favorite song. Or how good hamburgers taste in America. How good it feels to slam the pedal to the floor on a large, eight-piston automobile. You could verbalize these basic human thoughts and emotions. And this is where I came in.
Satan: I granted you the musical talent, particularly through the electric guitar. And I’m glad to see you brought it with you! But I took what T-Bone Walker, and Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed, and Ike Turner and so many others, were already doing, fed that raw talent into you, and allowed you to so perfectly marry those basically innocent thoughts and emotions onto my, the devil’s, music. I should point out here, hell is not inherently evil. Much as heaven isn’t purely virtuous.
Chuck: I take it you and God work on a sliding scale.
Satan: Well, yes, but in my case it tends to slide down. The larger issue, for me, is that you showed the world the duality of evil. It isn’t all “evil” in any traditional sense. It’s sex. Drugs. Rock and roll. Did you enjoy these things?
Chuck: Hell, yeah!
Satan: Good. You were supposed to. I should point out to you, most of the great musicians of the world, rock or not, are down here. They either signed the contract early on or were just bad people to begin with, albeit highly-talented bad people. Much of their talent was often tied into understanding that duality. That what they were doing was pure in some sense, but not necessarily good or evil. At their best, they moved freely between both and couldn’t tell the difference.
Chuck: This doesn’t sound like the Adolf Hitler, Charlie Manson type evil most people see as being pure evil.
Satan: For good reason: it’s not. I’m not all evil. I used to be an angel! God picked me for a reason: he knew I understood this, inside and out, and that I would do exactly what he asked me to do. I wouldn’t even call this temptation. Was rock and roll, in and of itself, evil? No, it was great music, electric guitars and drums, a beat you could dance to. Music that felt like liberation and escape. But those crazy preachers, back then, were tapped into that higher power and knew, correctly, that God did not create this. I did. And I didn’t create it in a void either.
Chuck: You created it here.
Chuck draws out his arm to take in the crossroads and the sugar cane fields in the dark of night.
Satan: That’s right. The blues. Sharecroppers with beat-up acoustic guitars, sitting on porches, a generation or two removed from slavery, three or four generations from African tribes, simply doing what their ancestors had always done: play music in the night to make sense of the darkness.
Chuck: Was Robert Johnson the first one you met at the crossroads?
Satan: Yes. And he got ripped off, I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time, gave him a raw deal. One recording session in a hotel room that sounded like shit, and he goes and gets himself killed a short while later, basically chasing tail. I felt so bad about him that I sent him to heaven when his time came, God was pissed off at me for getting the first one wrong, but I got the formula down pretty fast, surely by the time I met you.
Chuck: So, you got me here, Mr. Satan. Now what?
Satan: As I said, Chuck, I like the cut of your jibe. I could make a challenging hell for you. Oddly enough, The Mike Douglas Show with Yoko Ono offering her background vocal talents was the first thing that came to mind.
Chuck: Oh, for the love of God, please, no.
Satan: I don’t want to punish you. I want you to work for me. You signed a contract, after all, and consciously chose to come here. If you hadn’t? I’m not even sure you’d be here. Aside from being a pervert, a bit of a prick and a little nuts, you weren’t really all that evil. And the good you did was enormous in terms of showing the world how tightly intertwined good and evil are.
Chuck: What kind of work is there to do in hell?
Satan: Oh, you have no idea, it’s a 24-7 job, and then some. Evil never rests, nor do I. Which is why I could use some help. I need someone to take over the crossroads.
Chuck: Are we talking in theory or right here where we’re sitting?
Satan: Right here. There are no theories in hell. This is where it all happens. We’re somewhere in Mississippi right now, but this is just the template. The crossroads could be anywhere. Lennon and McCartney met me where two alleys crossed behind that church parking lot in Liverpool. In a perfect world, every signing would take place somewhere like this, but, no, just two roads intersecting, to represent possibilities and fate, could be where a Walmart service road meets a McDonald’s drive-through lane in Wisconsin. I’m not picky. Many a soul has been signed over waiting for an order of large fries and a chocolate shake.
Chuck: But I’m not the devil. People are going to come up on me and just see this young black dude sitting in a lawn chair.
Satan: That’s not the Chuck Berry I know! It’s just as well they don’t come to the crossroads and see me. I'm too cheesy now, too clichéd, they’ll think they’re being pranked. Imagine coming to the crossroads to sell your soul, and Chuck Berry is sitting there. That’s a much more cool, easy-to-grasp transition for most young musicians to make.
Chuck: What do I do exactly?
Satan: For starters, open up your briefcase.
Chuck opens up his briefcase to find a five-page document on legal paper.
Satan: That’s our boilerplate agreement. No redlining allowed, no amendments, no subordination agreements, in short, none of that legal bullshit that makes hell such a miserable place with all the lawyers down here. You just figure out what they want in terms of talent, wealth and fame – it’s almost always the same deal – and get them to sign the agreement in their own blood. Bowie knife, small cut on thumb, fountain pen, yadda yadda yadda. Once signed, they will be sent down the road they need to go, whether it takes them to a recording studio, or a stage, or just a quiet room to start writing their songs. You can read it, again, to make sure you understand the fine points. Understand the balloon payment.
Chuck: Balloon payment?
Satan: Their souls. The final payment reflecting the last installment and all outstanding interest that’s accumulated over the years. I’ll still handle the collection and closing procedures – you’re not ready for that – but you’d be the perfect front man to entice them into singing in the first place.
Chuck: Any chance I’ll get to heaven?
Satan: No. And I think you’ll find after awhile, you’re not going to want to go there. You’re allowed to do anything here that you did in life, when you’re not working. Camera in the ladies room? Buddy, not just that, I’ll send Marie Antoinette, Venus de Milo, Josephine Baker, Maude Fealy and Marilyn Monroe to your restaurant and make sure they get a belly on. How do you like them apples?
Chuck: Oh, I like them apples.
Satan: Best of all. Pull out your guitar. Let me show you something.
Chuck takes his electric guitar from the case. Satan stands and pulls up a long black vine that was at the base of the cypress tree. Chuck had thought maybe it was snake, like in the Garden of Eden, but it’s just a power cord. Satan plugs it into Chuck’s guitar.
Satan: Go on and play something.
Chuck strums the introduction to “Around and Around.” The cypress tree radiates blue and gold light to match the sound of the chords played on the guitar. The only remotely similar vision Chuck has seen in his life that compares is the Northern Lights he saw once while touring Norway.
Satan: Understand that when some young musician comes walking down the road, wherever that may be, if you’re plugged in and playing, that’s the first thing he’s going to see, this celestial shower of light, whether emanating from a tree, a building, wherever you find the power source. If it isn’t enough that they recognize you as Chuck Berry, and most of them will, this sight will surely encourage them to sign their names on the dotted line.
Chuck: This is working out better than I thought it would.
Satan: Don’t get too excited. If you hadn’t noticed, the overall state of music has been in a slow decline since your time, the innovations over the decades decreasing, musical trends dragging on for decades instead of a fruitful few years, the quality of the stars diminishing to the point where it seems like there’s a shit-flavored ice-cream factory in Orlando, Florida turning them out. Your job is not going to be easy. The devil’s AR man. These days I can’t guarantee that even if you find someone with enormous raw talent that they’ll end up rich and famous. They’ll more than likely end up making a modest living playing theaters and clubs, and spending a lot of time bitching about the three-digit checks they get from Spotify after their hit song gets 5,000,000 plays.
Chuck: Is that in the contract?
Satan: Yes. And much like you, even when it mattered, these kids won’t read the contract!
Chuck: Seems like you thrive on the stupidity of humans.
Satan: That’s one thing me and God have always had in common.
Chuck: One last thing. How do I find this talent? Where are these people? How do they wander down this road and find me?
Satan: What do you remember of meeting me?
Chuck: Just that I was fresh out of prison, felt like my life was about to end before it even began, and that I had nowhere to go as I walked down that road. I had no purpose. I didn’t care about anything.
Satan: You were open to persuasion?
Chuck: Sure. I had nothing going for me.
Satan: Exactly. That’s the key. But let me show you how I found you.
A beach-ball size globe appears at Chuck Berry’s feet, glowing in the night, an exact replica of earth. Chuck could hear faint snatches of music in the night: rock, jazz, classical. Voices singing acapella in different languages. Choirs. Natives chanting. Violins. Synthesizer beats. Mandolins strumming.
Satan: Touch the globe, but only with your index finger.
When Chuck touches the globe, the music that had been floating around in the night air ceases, and he faintly hears an acoustic guitar picking out slow chords. His finger is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. He moves it towards America and hears nothing. He traces his finger back towards Europe, and the guitar grows louder. He pushes towards Scotland. John o’ Groats, on the northern tip. Chuck now hears the guitar as if the player is sitting next to him. The playing is extraordinary: an odd mix of classical, celtic and acoustic blues, like nothing he’s heard before. This kid’s good, Chuck thinks, he’s on to something. The globe, slowly morphs into a room that Chuck finds himself viewing through a window. He sees a skinny young man in t-shirt and jeans, red hair, bedraggled, playing in his bedroom in a small row house on the end of a rainy, windy block.
Chuck: Hey, Mr. Satan!
But Satan is gone, as is the Mississippi night. Chuck finds himself at a cold, rainy bus stop in John o’ Groats, Scotland. The rain is practically falling sideways with the wind. Chuck is still wearing his show suit, sees his reflection in the bus shelter’s glass: he’s still young and handsome. He’s cradling his electric guitar on his lap, his briefcase at his feet. The town is desolate at three in the morning. The bus stop is at an intersection: a closed fish-and-chip shop across the way. Chuck hears footsteps approaching: the young man who has been playing guitar, out walking at night in his hometown. Chuck plugs his electric guitar into an outlet on the bus shelter and starts playing, “Back in the USA.” The glass on the shelter pulses with the glowing blue and gold light. The young man is awestruck, partially by the light and sound, but also because there’s a black man playing electric guitar at a bus stop in John o’ Groats at three in the morning, and he looks and sounds a lot like Chuck Berry. He approaches the bus stop.
Chuck: Hey, there, Liam. It’s Liam, isn’t it? Why don’t you come in out of the rain, and let me show you this here guitar.