Sound of freedom
Peter Guralnick's American music saga
by Jon Garelick
FEEL LIKE GOING HOME: PORTRAITS IN BLUES AND ROCK 'N' ROLL, 261 pages, $15.
LOST HIGHWAY: JOURNEYS AND ARRIVALS OF AMERICAN MUSICIANS, 364 pages, $16.
SWEET SOUL MUSIC: RHYTHM AND BLUES AND THE SOUTHERN DREAM OF FREEDOM, 437
By Peter Guralnick. Back Bay Books/Little, Brown.
Peter Guralnick'S eipic biography of Elvis Presley (the second, final volume
came out earlier this year) has been widely admired for what it is not:
sensationalistic, speculative, or slapdash. And it's been attacked for the same
reason ("The main things missing . . . are ideas and dirt,"
carped the "dean" of American rock critics, Robert Christgau, about the first
volume). It's as though Elvis's story was so good that Guralnick merely had the
sense (or the inhibiting self-restraint, depending on your point of view) to
get out of the way and let it tell itself.
Guralnick's narrative skill is so sure that it's invisible -- even to his
admirers. His art -- and his ideas -- are apparent on every page of the Elvis
biography. The real dirt of the first volume was not in how much Elvis's mother
drank (as Christgau would have us know) but in the epic struggle between the
man who issued Elvis's first singles, Sam Phillips, and Elvis's manager,
Colonel Tom Parker. Guralnick's "objectivity" is a kind of sleight of hand --
yes, he's giving us the truest portrait he can, but meanwhile he's negotiating
the minds and voices of dozens of characters. Great novelists manipulate
narrative voice the way great film directors edit montage or choose the range
and focus of a shot, and Guralnick shares that sensitivity. What does emerge
from the Elvis books is a portrait of Elvis not only as
star-trapped-by-celebrity, but as a working musician -- something we've never
seen so clearly before. The drama of every recording session, every Vegas
appearance, is heightened because Guralnick sets up the context of each scene
so carefully -- so "objectively." The drama emerges precisely because the
author doesn't overplay it.
I harp on Guralnick's skill -- and his formidable ideas -- because in the
current climate of rock criticism and universal hype, they seem to me so
undervalued. Little, Brown has reissued Guralnick's first three nonfiction
books about music (from 1971, '79, and '86), and they once again make all the
Guralnick virtues and values evident. He's a scholar who prefers research and
argument to opinion, the tried-and-true to the trendy, live performance to
recordings, and "emotional substance above mere beauty." He wanted to write
about music (originally in the Phoenix), he says, not to judge good
performances and bad, but to produce "uncritical pieces about my heroes in
blues and rock 'n' roll." His original fantasies were to write a history of Sun
Records and a biography of Skip James.
In his exhaustive research, Guralnick shares a trait with the academic
scholar: he seems to feel that a writer's real work is original research,
interviewing primary sources, hunting up old newspaper stories. Just as with
his Elvis books (and there are a couple of Elvis pieces in Lost
Highway), the goal is to take us as deep as possible into the life of the
working musician, the dailiness of his or her lived experience, the commonplace
facts and aspirations, and, finally, the shared experience of artist and
audience. It's a point of view that puts the emphasis on process over product,
that considers a recording little more than "an accident." His basic tenet,
Guralnick writes, is that "the music is out there. It is, as Robert Pete
Williams says, in the air. It has nothing to do with records or radio or
trends." He values the honky-tonk road warrior (Sleepy LaBeef, the "human
jukebox") as much as or more than the superstar. "[Every] singer I met, with
the single exception of Jerry Lee Lewis, considered himself a failure,"
Guralnick writes in his epilogue to Feel Like Going Home. And he values
the idiosyncratic over the predictable. Through it all, Guralnick comes again
and again to the "honesty" he finds, if not in the musicians, then in their
music; in the emotion if not in the beauty.
In his pursuit of his passion, Guralnick has become a critic in spite of
himself -- not in the usual sense of a record reviewer, but as a social
historian. The first two of these books are collections of profile pieces, and
they culminate in Sweet Soul Music, which purports to be not only a
portrait of a genre of music, but also a portrayal of that music as a social
force. These social forces are at work behind the profiles, too, in the
description of a Southside Chicago blues joint, or Elvis's trips to Vegas. You
could say that all of Guralnick's writing is about the rise of what he calls
"American vernacular music," a term he often prefers to "pop." And in the world
of Guralnick's writing, that is the great American story -- the movement of the
vernacular into the mainstream, whether that's represented by Dan Penn's
movement from Vernon, Alabama, to the center of American pop songwriting, or
Ernest Tubb's journey from West Texas to Nashville stardom, or the racial
integration of the pop charts as represented by the success of Percy Sledge's
"When a Man Loves a Woman." Inherent in these stories is the dramatic, dynamic
struggle between "regional isolation" and "cultural homogeneity."
One of the advantages of Guralnick's unfashionable "objective" style is that
there are no heroes or villains in his story (Wilson Picket and Willie Dixon
are the only characters about whom he entertains serious doubt). These books
don't tell the familiar tale of commerce crushing art or the white man stealing
the black man's music. Especially in Sweet Soul Music, it's about blacks
and whites working together, often with little in common except a love of the
blues and the poverty of their origins. And when it comes to pop music, art and
commerce are shown to be part of the same process. Penn recalls the session
where he cut one of his peerless classics, "Sweet Inspiration": "My cash
register started going off inside." These are artists who wanted to record
hits. A dirty idea, by today's standards.
The grand narrative arch of the trilogy grows out of Guralnick's specific
observations of his subjects. It's in his description of the 63-year-old Tubb,
playing night after night on the road for people not much different from
himself: "It is almost as if, having cheated fate once when he escaped the
bleak West Texas farmland on which he was raised, he has only met it in another
guise further on down the line, as his origins make themselves plain in the
worn weathered features, the honest creased roadmap of his face." And in his
portrait of a white Jewish blues-label owner: "Phil Chess is like everyone's
Uncle Phil, sharp, aggressive, faintly disreputable, a success." And in the
words of hard-luck black country singer/songwriter Stoney Edwards: "My life has
been happy days and sad days, and I take it all as being necessary to go
through to be what I am." And in one remarkably compressed assessment of Elvis
Presley: "He didn't write songs, nor did he aspire to anything more than
In Sweet Soul Music, Guralnick attempts to unify all his themes in a
single story. He doesn't succeed, but it doesn't matter. The story's too big.
It veers from individual artists such as Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke,
James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding to the story of indie soul
labels such as Stax and Fame and Muscle Shoals. The story is roughly
chronological, with Stax as a recurring topic that at times threatens to take
over the book (it gets three chapters to itself). But you can see why he's
drawn to Stax. In Guralnick's ongoing story of American regionalism versus the
mainstream, of white and black, of rural poverty versus the main chance in the
big city, of American aspiration for freedom and independence -- Stax had it
all. The Memphis label was begun by innocent white brother-sister entrepreneurs
as a garage-based part-time lark, peopled by "free-lancers and individualists,"
including an array of characters that included Booker T. and the MG's,
Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, and Otis Redding.
In the Redding story, Guralnick is at his best -- dramatizing the building of
a career and a legend, session by session, concert by concert, single by
single. Redding comes across as such a vivid, dynamic figure, not just on stage
but in the studio, that it's hard to believe no one has yet made a movie of his
life. We see him directing all-night recording sessions, stripped to the waist,
a towel around his neck -- an artist completely engaged in his work and
inspiring everyone around him.
Stax's growth and eventual demise seem to take in the whole American
experience -- a homegrown regional music brought to new heights of
sophistication and to a worldwide audience, in part through the label's
relationship with New York-based Atlantic Records and its savvy executive and
producer Jerry Wexler. Atlantic and Wexler had their slick arrangements, their
mix of R&B with jazz sophistication (Ray Charles). And Stax had its
earthier rhythm-section-based style (Booker T. and the MG's). Or, as MG's
guitarist and Stax producer Steve Cropper said about Wexler, "We had the funk,
but he knew what the kids were dancing to." Maverick Memphis producer Jim
Dickinson goes one further in his assessment of the two styles: "[T]hey started
copying each other without even knowing it."
That kind of synergy, that kind of movement, is at the core of this trilogy.
At its simplest level, it's the story of Stax session trumpeter Wayne Jackson,
who said, "Man, I never thought I was gonna leave the dirt farm in Arkansas."
At another level, it's about the liberating miscegenation of American life. If
the story of the civil-rights movement isn't always explicitly paralleled in
Sweet Soul Music, it doesn't have to be -- the characters are living it.
For Guralnick -- always presenting himself in these books as the outsider, the
white middle-class Northerner intruding on the lives of blacks and Southern
whites -- the lived "shared experience" of these musicians is the fulfillment
of a promise he first heard in the music, the word made flesh.
Jon Garelick is the associate arts editor of the Phoenix.