This is the map, as “The Poor Boy” sets out from Norfolk, Virginia, to discover the country: a journey that moves from poverty to wealth, from a bus to a plane setting down at LAX. All pop music that takes America as a subject—whether winding toward tragedy or toward an even sweeter harmony—runs off this mountain. Written when Berry was in prison; he needed an atlas to get the geography right, and when he requested one from the prison library, word went out that he was plotting an escape—which, of course, he was.
2. Carl Perkins: “Blue Suede Shoes” (Sun, 1956)
‘Don’t tread on me,” with a smile and an open hand.
3. and 4. Chuck Berry: More Chuck Berry (Chess, 1955-60) and The Beach Boys: The Best of the Beach Boys Vol. 2 (Capitol, 1962-66)
The map begins to fill up, with blacks and whites, cars and girls, grand adventures into the night. “Let it rock,” Berry commands; “I get around,” the Beach Boys answer coolly, a car full of guys on top of the world. There’s no threat in this land that a good song can’t answer.
5. Dion: “Abraham, Martin and John”/”Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms)” (Laurie, 1968)
It breaks my heart; sometimes I can’t bear to listen to it, to hear the country that isn’t there.
6. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia, 1965)
Out here it’s all one endless game of chicken. A squinting eye sees a land that’s all threats, and a voice that could have come from any state or all of them describes a nation defined by hysteria and redescribes it as an awful, somehow thrilling joke—without a punch line.
7. and 8. ZZ Top: Eliminator (Warner Bros., 1983) and Tarnation: Gentle Creatures (4AD, 1995)
Same road, but no problem: You want all night convenience stores, hot-sheet motels, heartbreak hotels, we got ’em on the interstate, and cheap, too.
9. Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland: Two Steps From the Blues (Duke,1961)
You also got the St. James Infirmary—and a nation of strangers.
10. Pere Ubu Pennsylvania (Tim/Kerr, 1998)
So you turn off the interstate, into forgotten small towns, and pretend that you, too, could belong in that diner—that you, too, could be one of the ghosts.
11. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska (Columbia, 1982)
The map shrinks to a single state where, once, as Chuck Berry was singing, a teenager and his girl got in their car and drove: “I killed everything,” Springsteen as Charlie Starkweather sings without glee or apology, “in my path.” It’s the early Reagan years; wealth has become the measure of all things, and Starkweather has returned as the prophet of that nihilism.
12. “5” Royales “The Slummer the Slum” (King, 1958)
But the map can open up at any moment. “Don’t try,” says the singer in deadly stop-time, “to figure out/Where I come from,” and you can’t. Though there are two Americas in the number—one black and poor, one rich and white—there is also a single, shared church. It’s what the late Robert Palmer called the Church of the Sonic Guitar, which Lowman Pauling burns down and rebuilds from the ground up.
13. Barrett Strong: “Money (That’s What I Want)” (Anna, 1960)
Money as the measure of freedom, the sound of a riot, the pursuit of happiness grabbed like a handoff and taken straight through the line.
14. Allen Ginsberg: Holy Soul Jelly Roll—Poems and Songs, 1949-1993 (Rhino World Beat, 1994)
Citizenship: how to get it, how to use it.
15. Prince: Dirty Mind (Warner Bros., 1980)
An orgy, staged in Minnesota, by blacks and whites, Christians and Jews; the First and Fourteenth Amendments acted out and put to the test.
16. Randy Newman: Sail Away (Reprise, 1972)
A slave ship as the Titanic—Nothing can go wrong. The ship sails gloriously into Charleston Bay, and sinks the country.
17. Jimi Hendrix: Woodstock (MCA, 1994)
As he told it, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the story of a nation ripping itself to pieces, then stitching up the flag as a crazy quilt. His lace is still in it.
18. and 19. Fastbacks: In America, Live in Seattle 1988 (Lost and Found rec. 1988) and Martina McBride “Independence Day” (RCA, 1993)
Patriotism from Seattle and Nashville: “Who says the government’s on your side?” a woman asks flatly as another fills her lungs with the realization that the government doesn’t matter at all—not on home ground, where “The Declaration of Independence makes a difference” (Herman Melville).
20. Bill Parsons: “The All American Boy” (Fraternity, 1958)
Elvis meets Uncle Sam: ‘Ah, I’m gonna cut yo’ hair off…”
21. Geto Boys: We Can’t Be Stopped (Rap-A Lot, 1991)
Inside the never-ending pageant of self-congratulation that is white America, there’s a black hole—a few blocks of Houston’s Fifth Ward—where life is so unfixed, it’s not that bodies can’t find their souls, it’s that souls can’t find their bodies.
22. Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding (Columbia, 1968)
A 1950s black-and-white western as staged by an 1870s minstrel troupe made up of seventeenth-century Puritans and veterans of the Revolution.
23. Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence: Oar (Columbia, 1969)
Another western: Cowboys sit around a campfire and sing old cowboy songs. The only thing bigger than the land, they think, is the sky. The vastness of the nation overwhelms them. Then it swallows them up.
24. Sly and the Family Stone: There’s a Riot Goin’ On (Epic, 1971)
There was, anyway. This is the sound left when it’s over and nobody wants to talk about what happened, and what didn’t.
25. X: Los Angeles (Slash, 1980)
They shot Philip Marlowe up with heroin. He stayed on the case. He stayed on the needle.
26. James Brown: “Night Train” (King, 1962)
Still on the rails.
27. The Stax/Volt Revue, Vol. 1: Live in London (Stax, 1967)
“Hold On, I’m Comin'” is a re-enactment, not of the record, but of V-E Day.
28. Firesign Theatre: How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All? (Columbia,1969)
Oh, you didn’t hear? The U.S. lost World War II. But, hey, if you lived here, you’d be home by now.
29. Laurie Anderson: “0 Superman” (One Ten, 1981)
If there were a home, that is. There’s not, a woman says, so softly, so carefully, each word clipped to its note. Maybe long ago, on the plains, on the river… now there is only power, and we’re mere figments of its aura, a dream that doesn’t need us, a dream so complete we’d dream it ourselves if we could.
30. Sam Cooke: “A Change Is Gonna Come” (RCA, 1965)
Cooke was dead when his answer to Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind” appeared on the radio. The new country he demanded—an old country, really, that promised land, without the catch, without separation, without exclusion—flared up with the passion in his voice, in his whole body; then it faded away. The song remains a rebuke of the decades that followed it, passing by the tune the way you pass a bum on the street.
Rolling Stone, May 28, 1998