By David Marsh
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Townes Van Zandt was, almost indisputably, the most talented of all these people, and my response to his death was simply to sit and listen for hours to the tale of doom he spins in "Pancho and Lefty," and the tales of love he spins on all his records. There are no bad ones but the new live set on Sugar Hill, Rear View Mirror, is a retrospective and thus perfect for memorialization. One can never be surprised at the death of someone legendary in part because of his self-destructive habits but that doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt, or that we don't grieve. And it certainly does mean that those who never experienced that rough Texas voice and the pure poetry that came out of it have now missed something very profound.
Richard Berry means something more to me, or at least more directly, because I knew him -- you could even say I wrote a book about him, for Louie, Louie is his story if it is anyone's. The night after I first got together with Richard, some friends asked me what he was like, and the answer came instantly to my lips: "He's exactly the guy you hoped wrote 'Louie Louie.'" He was, too. He told me of his high school quasi-gangsta period, and I am sure that he could be tough enough when he needed to be. You don't live 60 years in South Central Los Angeles without learning to take care of yourself.
But Richard impressed most of those who knew him as a gentle soul. I totally believed him when he talked proudly of bringing up his children -- and bringing them up well -- without a mother present. He could be riotously funny and he had a deep understanding of the ways in which racism operated in his L.A. childhood, especially in the school system. He seemed more engaged by such issues than any other artist of the period I've ever interviewed. Maybe that was just the parent in him, but I suspect it was also reflective of a deep intelligence and a life lived at the margin of literacy.
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Beyond that, Richard was the least bitter ripped-off R&B artist I ever met, and he got cheated worse than most. Not so much by the people who bought "Louie Louie" and a bunch of other songs from him in 1960 for $750; they made a fair deal under the system at the time. Richard got ripped off by the system itself, which left amazingly talented young people defenseless, without a shred of help or guidance when they created work of more lasting value than they were told it could conceivably possess.
And I don't mean just monetary value, either. You may think that "Louie Louie" is a trifling joke. But I wrote my book because the song Richard Berry created, and its journey through the world, contains within it the whole story of rock 'n' roll and all the people who have loved it, all the souls it has spoken to and all the ones it has spoken for. Richard Berry wasn't just the place where lightning struck; he was also a living example of what happens to those who it strikes, and that doesn't mean all bad shit, by any means. By the end of his life, he knew that with "Louie Louie," he had done something indelibly significant, even if no one -- certainly not me, and I tried -- will ever be able to adequately verbalize exactly what it was. (That's a key to the significance.)
Elvis Presley never did, which is reason enough to despise "Colonel" Tom Parker, whose rank was as phony and deceitful as everything else about him. I could give a fuck whether Parker was an "illegal immigrant" or not; America shouldn't have immigration laws in the first place. (It didn't for the first 130 years.) Parker's corruption didn't come from that. It came from his life-long practice of selling short the talent he represented, from his constant habit of doing what was good for Tom Parker at the expense of the artists -- Elvis, Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow -- to whom he owed a legal and ethical duty.
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