Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Chuck Berry and Jimmy Breslin

Tim Tooher | 21st March 2017

Tim Tooher pays tribute to two icons no longer of this realm:

Two of the great American writers of the twentieth century died at the weekend. Both men who helped to shape the mediums that made them famous. Chuck Berry helped to write the mythology of rock’n’roll and Jimmy Breslin shaped the new journalism of the nineteen sixties. They might seem like disparate figures, but, at heart, once you cast aside the labels ‘musician’ and ‘journalist’, they both did the same thing. They both told stories. They both understood the power and importance of stories, and both told other people’s stories rather than their own.

Chuck wrote about teenagers at a time when the world was still working out just what teenagers were. He helped to define what it was to be seventeen. His songs were both mirror and mould, reflecting the lives that kids had begun to live while at the same time showing them what was possible. Chuck tapped into the energy of the teenage experience and the teenage experience fed off the energy of his songs. His lyrics told the stories of teenage lives. Stories make the world we live in and Chuck’s stories, like his guitar playing, continue to ring out with the sound of the newfound freedom that teenagers felt in the mid-fifties. They are of their time but free from their time, because they still resonate today. In fact, the world we live in today wouldn’t be quite the same if Chuck hadn’t told those stories.

Jimmy Breslin’s writing, as a reporter, columnist and novelist, was a mirror to the world too. He told the stories of life’s bystanders, its downtrodden. Of ordinary people, people like me and you. His writing was concise and punchy, and felt closer to fiction that it did to traditional reporting. Breslin knew that people’s stories mattered because those people mattered and if their stories were told, those people were harder to forget. When reporting the death of Kennedy, he told the story through the eyes of the emergency room surgeon that attended the assassinated president and the gravedigger who prepared his grave. He said that when he worked as a sports reporter, the first thing he did after a match was to go to the losing team’s dressing room, as that’s where the story was.

The power of stories is immense and they can be used for both good and bad. In the past year, we’ve seen storytelling used to secure Brexit and the election of Trump. The people behind those two events understood only too well the power of a story. Watch just about any advert on TV and you’ll see stories being used to sell you things, to make you feel that you need that which you don’t.

Both Berry and Breslin, however, used storytelling in a better way. Breslin wrote with compassion and care for those around him, and with a simplicity and power that few have been able to match. And though, of course, Chuck wanted to sell records, his stories ring true and communicate a sense of joy and liberation that speaks to us all, to something good inside us. Compassion and joy. That’s what these two men brought to the world. And, boy, do we not need more of that right now?

Chuck Berry, 18 October 1926 – 18 March 2017

James Earle Breslin, 17 October 1928 – 19 March 2017