Peter Guralnick didn’t set out to be a music journalist. The occupation didn’t really exist at the time when a combination of luck and bluster led the obsessive blues fan to interview a “rediscovered” Skip James in 1965 for a non-existent magazine assignment.
His piece was eventually published, and it started him on a path of music and discovery that’s lasted 50+ years, with a body of work that includes many seminal books of musician profiles, a novel, and the definitive biographies of Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, and Sun Records founder Sam Phillips.
His latest effort is the door-stop sized compendium Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music & Writing (576 pp., $30, Little, Brown & Co.). Featuring reprinted, revised, and unpublished pieces—with a dash of autobiography—it’s an in-depth and compelling summation of his life’s work and encounters to date.
“Writing about music is, as more than one dismissive wag has pointed out, a little like dancing about architecture,” he writes in the book. “What I was trying to capture, though, I realized from the start, was the feeling, not the technique. [Writing] that would in a sense mimic the same emotions not just that I experienced, but that I believed the musician had put into the music in the first place.”
On the phone the day after Thanksgiving, Guralnick says the excitement of holding a finished copy of one of his books for the first time has never diminished. “That never goes away. After the entire process, the thrill never wears off. And this one developed into something more, going across genres and to an extent that my own story intersects with it,” he says. “But if I called it a summation, I’d get worried because I think ‘What’s next?’ I looked at it more as a gathering of old friends.”
Guralnick talks to and digs deep into the giants of country, bluegrass, R&B, soul, and early rock like Ray Charles, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Howlin’ Wolf, Joe Tex, Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard, Chuck Berry, and Solomon Burke (with whom he’d have a closer relationship). Along with pieces on songwriters Mike Leiber, Jerry Stoller, and Doc Pomus, and Elvis’ manager Col. Tom Parker—larger than life characters all.
The reader will also encounter Delbert McClinton, Eric Clapton, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint, and a couple of non-musical subjects. One of the unpublished pieces is practically a short regular biography of lesser-known classic country star Dick Curless. That one is particularly close to the author’s heart and 20 years in the making, but only actually written in the past two or three. Guralnick says that Looking to Get Lost was the perfect outlet for the end result.
Along the way, he also reveals a bit about his journalistic approach, and how even the friendliest of subjects has a certain wariness meeting a writer. When he tells the story of having to read a published piece he wrote about Howlin’ Wolf – out loud to the man himself just before he stepped on stage for a club gig — the sweat and nervousness coming off a young Guralnick fairly oozes from the page, his experience fleshed out from the piece as originally published in his 1971 book Feel Like Going Home.
Success for conducting a good interview, he adds, has little to do with technique and everything to do with respecting the subject and his/her work, gaining their trust, getting them to speak honestly and intimately, and preparation, preparation, preparation. Guralnick knows that the kind of artist access he had is a rarity in modern times, though he points out that his subjects weren’t huge pop or rock stars of the day.
“Many of the people I wrote about hadn’t been written about in much detail before. So hanging out for four or five days with Lonnie Mack was something that could happen, even though I was [ostensibly] down for a record release party,” he says. “What became the story wasn’t the original purpose. You’re around and you just see what develops. You don’t always know the story going in.”
One of the more interesting chapters recounts Guralnick’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-organized “The Summit of Rock” event in 2011 when he interviewed Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino all in the same room at the same time. Of that Mt. Rushmore of early rock, only Lewis survives today.
“That was quite an experience. The most fun I’ve ever had, but also the most daunting,” Guralnick offers. Perhaps the biggest surprise was how the age and mutual respect of the quartet softened some historically sharp edges and grudges.
Berry talked about poetry and his father’s love of it (reciting lines from memory) as much as music. Richard went to “great lengths and was incredibly kind” to try to coax and encourage the mostly-silent Domino (suffering from early dementia) to be part of the conversation by singing snippets of his own songs back to him.
When asked to play some Domino songs on a piano in the room, the normally ready-for-any-challenge Lewis demurred out of respect. In fact, all three were so fond of Fats, any well-documented quarrel they might have with each other (usually about careers and credit) just disappeared.
“Chuck’s memory was failing, and he was much more mellow and open to talking about things he otherwise wouldn’t. And you have to be open to going where the particular moment takes you in a profile rather than have a pre-determined [agenda],” he says. “You have to be prepared to make abrupt left turns, right turns, and U-turns! Jerry Lee told me in the group interview how much of an influence Fats Waller was on him. The next day, during the individual interview when I asked [more] about that, he said he didn’t know what I was talking about! So you just have to go along.”
So, given the stature of the giants and titans of many genres of music Peter Guralnick writes about in Looking to Get Lost, the reader if left to ponder (in the words of the George Jones song), “Who’s gonna fill their shoes?” And the answer that comes to mind first is “nobody.”
“I don’t know if that’s true. I’ve also written about people far less well-known, but of no less significance,” Guralnick counters. “What you don’t have today is the centrality there was then. Someone like Johnny Cash could Ray Charles could span generations and genres and reach audiences from such different backgrounds around the world, and they had a staying power. You really don't have that anymore.”
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