Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick continues his musical journey with 'Looking to Get Lost'
Peter Guralnick’s career as a writer could have turned out a lot differently had his first novel, “Guilt,” become the success it seemed it might in the early 1960s.
“The first publisher I sent it to, wrote back and said, ‘This is just wonderful -- we are so excited about this book.’ I was 18 years old and I thought, wow, this is easy. You write a novel, you send it out and an editor falls all over herself, and the future is assured,” recalls Guralnick.
“The catch is I said I’m working on a second novel, too. I sent that one to her and she was less enthusastic. She said, ‘Well, ummm, I think we’ll wait a while maybe,” laughs Guralnick. “Looking back, I actually caught a break. What a terrible thing it would’ve been to have that book come out and be some teenage wunderkind and have to live up to that for the rest of my life.”
Although Guralnick, now 76, has continued to write – and occasionally publish – his fiction, he remains far better known for his work as a music historian and biographer over the last half century. His first two collections, “Lost Highway” and “Sweet Soul Music” stand as literary touchstones in the study of American roots music. He would follow with a series of epic, definitive, bestselling and award-winning biographies of rock and roll supernova Elvis Presley, soul genius Sam Cooke and Sun Records visionary Sam Phillips.
His latest book, “Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing” harkens back to his early collections of portraiture, but uses his own journey as a musical seeker for its narrative thread.
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The book begins with a prologue that imagines a party populated by his many musical heroes and ends with deeply personal reminiscences of his forefathers. In between are finely etched profiles of a dozen musicians and musical figures of varying renown, from Howlin’ Wolf to Jerry Lee Lewis, Col. Tom Parker to Dick Curless, Robert Johnson to Johnny Cash.
“I loved doing this book -- it’s similar in many ways to ‘Lost Highway,’ but was conceived and evolved in a somewhat different manner. I wasn’t certain of its course when I started it about four years ago. Having the personal element as a though line, I knew I wanted to frame it that way, but I didn’t know I was going to end with chapters on my father and grandfathers,” says Guralnick. “And the prologue, the idea of having a party, is almost a statement of theme, it’s how I consider the [book] itself. It’s a party for many of the people I have loved and admired over the years.”
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Though modest, even self-deprecating in conversation, Guralnick is America’s preeminent musical chronicler because he possesses – as he notes of Johnny Cash – the “gift of empathetic transference.” Nowhere was that more evident than in his humanistic approach to understanding Elvis Presley in his much-lauded two-volume bio of the singer, "Last Train to Memphis" and "Carless Love."
The inspiration for the book, and for much of Guralnick’s approach, came while researching “Sweet Soul Music” in Memphis in the early ‘80s. Driving around South Memphis with his friend and fellow writer Rose Clayton Phillips, Guralnick recalls her “pointing out this boarded up drugstore where Elvis’ cousin Gene Smith worked. She told me how Elvis would sit at the counter and drum his fingers on the countertops impatiently waiting for Gene to get off work. And then Rose said, in this remarkable way, ‘Poor baby,’” recalls Guralnick.
“I just got this image of a kid, a kid who’s got this jittery manner, acne on his face, dressed in an odd way, who is madly, passionately in love with music. That was who I wanted to get across in the book. When I decided to do the book on Elvis I’d never thought about writing a biography before. I went with my instincts. I’ve always tried to do it by feel. Which is what I’ve admired so much in almost everyone I’ve written about.”
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Guralnick’s evocative, deliberate prose bestowed a kind of dignity on Elvis, as well as his later subject Sam Cooke in his bio of the singer, "Dream Boogie." “I wanted a style that did justice to the scope of their achievements, that suggested the respect that I felt for them and their work,” says Guralnick. “And that didn’t trivialize that by using over the top language, or any language that wasn’t suitable to really recognize the nature of these people who were truly extraordinary. I wanted to express that using a more colloquial or vernacular language.”
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of Guralnick’s Presley and Cooke bios is his ability to maintain deep immersion in his subjects without injecting himself into the unfolding narrative.
“In both the Elvis and the Sam Cooke books it required a rigorous self-restraint to maintain the story always in the present,” he says. “I think there were only one or two places where my presence intruded. That was the way I felt it had to be to tell the story as it applied to Elvis’ evolving consciousness. The Sam Cooke book had a greater intensity, stylistic intensity. The characters take over in a way. But I’m absent from it, I’m personally absent form it.”
Having had a long and close relationship with the Phillips family, Guralnick ended up taking a completely different approach and had much larger presence in his biography of Sam Phillips, “The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
“That was the first time I entered into the story. I had no role in any of the other stories. But I was in and out of Sam’s story for the last 25 years in his life,” says Guralnick. “The challenge was to give a sense of Sam that wasn’t entirely dependent upon of his achievements. Because his achievements are limited to a certain period, but he remained Sam Phillips – one of the most unique and charismatic, fascinating and brilliant people – all his life.”
Embracing a new challenge
Having published his long-gestating Phillips bio in 2015, Guralnick was ready for a new challenge. “I was committed in my mind that I was never going to do another biography, because enough is enough,” he says, laughing. “I mean, I love doing them, but it’s such a commitment and I wanted to something different. And [‘Looking to Get Lost’] turned out to be the something different.”
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Another different avenue for Guralnick has been a return to fiction. Specifically, he’s been writing a series of loosely autobiographical short stories inspired by Don Powell’s “My 比特币合约交易地址_合约交home is Far Away” and the work of Alice Munro. “That gave me a whole opening, opened up a way in which I could explore things as fictional memoir, or memoir as fiction,” he says. “It touched a nerve in me, and so I’ve finished 11 or 12 short stories, a couple are novella length. What will happen to them, I don’t know yet.”
Despite his youthful ambitions of becoming a great novelist, Guralnick admits he derives equal pleasure in writing about music as he does fiction. “And maybe the music stuff is just better. It has struck me that it may not be coincidental that people are far more interested in my non-fiction than my fiction,” chuckles Guralnick. “And that’s okay. I can live with that.”
Bob Mehr, who covers music and pop culture, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org