Peter Guralnick is a commanding figure in music biography; his lives of Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips are, as the Michelin guides used to say, worth the journey. His new book is a collection made up primarily of decades-old profiles and essays, some rewritten. It’s not so commanding. There’s something warmed-over about it. Reading it is like watching Merle Haggard perform in an uptight club with a quiet policy and a two-drink minimum.
Actually, that doesn’t sound so terrible.
Guralnick’s biographies work because he’s a peerless researcher with an unobtrusive style. He knows everything. He fits puzzle pieces into a seamless whole. There’s nothing like a pile of mostly old journalism, on the other hand, for letting seams show.
“Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing” is a collection of profiles of figures such as Skip James and Howlin’ Wolf, Tammy Wynette and Bill Monroe, Ray Charles and Leiber and Stoller, Chuck Berry and Colonel Parker. There are visits with two of Guralnick’s favorite novelists, the Southerner Lee Smith and the enigmatic Englishman Henry Green.
None of these profiles are bad; none are particularly striking. They’re heavy on quotation and filler. What links these artists is the author’s interest in them. When Guralnick searches for deeper links than that, he tends to lose his footing. His first sentence, which nearly made me back right out the door, is one example: “Simply put, this is a book about creativity.” Well, yes, but so is a book about making Halloween costumes.
There’s a lot of writing of this vague sort early on. “Art is meant to be shared and treasured”; “Art is always there to be found”; “Art is a mystery. Where does it come from?” Delbert McClinton, another of Guralnick’s heroes, learns to “roll with the punches and appreciate the battles.”
On their excellent and digressive political podcast, Robert Wright (on the left) and Mickey Kaus (on the right) recently agreed that whenever a literary critic holds up sentences for praise or blame, they’re not convinced — the sentences don’t seem as good, or as bad, as advertised. So maybe my previous paragraph was for naught.
But there’s a fuzziness to Guralnick’s old stuff, at least when he isn’t writing to the beat of a good anecdote. Part of the fuzziness the reader feels in “Looking to Get Lost” is because these pieces aren’t dated, and we’re not told where they originally appeared. We’re not looking to get lost; we are lost. There are clues; most seem to be from the 1980s and ’90s.
One thing to like about this book is that, as you proceed, an autobiography of this important biographer — the artist as young blues fanatic — presents itself. Guralnick was born in 1943 and grew up in Boston, where his father was chief of oral and maxillofacial surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. He fell hard for the blues at 15, and later caught a lot of his favorite acts on tour in the revival era, when they were being rediscovered by college audiences.
Guralnick is excellent on first listening to the Robert Johnson album “King of the Delta Blues Singers.” No one had prepared him; he’d read nothing about Johnson; there hadn’t been any reviews or publicity. Few of us get to experience art so innocently any longer. There were few if any music magazines to write for in the mid-1960s. When they started to spring up — the first issue of Crawdaddy! appeared in 1966 — Guralnick’s byline was ready.
He worked in bookstores and wrote for The Boston Phoenix, the city’s late, lamented alternative weekly. He wanted to be a fiction writer and wrote many unpublished novels. He found himself teaching classics at Boston University and hanging around blues clubs.
He came to realize that he liked nighthawking and did not want to “spend a lifetime teaching English in a muted, well-bred academic setting. And so my fate was sealed. It involved an admission I had never wanted to make: that I was drawn not just to the music but to the life.”
Guralnick is a good quoter of other writers. Albert Murray, in a letter to his friend Ralph Ellison, lets fly, writing: “That goddamned Ray ass Charles absorbs everything and uses everything. Absorbs it and assimilates it with all that sanctified, stew meat smelling, mattress stirring,” guilt, violence, “jailhouse dodging,” secondhand American dream material, “and sometimes it comes out like a sermon” and sometimes it comes out like Count Basie but better. Whew!
Murray had a jitterbugging critic’s full-tilt mind; Guralnick is more pensive. He’s better on the details of the lives of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Monroe than he is on, let’s say, how they tapped into the hillbilly subconsciousness. Lester Bangs wrote that Elvis replaced “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” with, and I am paraphrasing, your place or mine?
It’s a cliché to remark that a book sent you running back to its subjects’ work with fresh eyes. But Guralnick’s book contains good endnotes, replete with savvy song recommendations. I’ve been slowly compiling a Spotify playlist.
There’s a land mine or two in these endnotes. About Haggard, Guralnick writes: “We’re talking about someone whose oeuvre could qualify for a Nobel Prize.” I’m a fan of Haggard’s; I was lucky to see him on his last tour. But the only way to respond to an assertion like Guralnick’s is to say: No, it couldn’t.