By Rebecca Bulnes
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Great music writing should thump you on the head and in the heart with the visceral power of the music itself. It should dance in your mind with the sure-footed authority of a tightly locked rhythm section riding a bodacious groove into the Valley of the Big Beat. It should tell you something you don't know, or make you rethink something you thought you knew. It should both transcend time and define a moment. Its artistry should call you back repeatedly, like the beckoning riff of an ancient Fats Domino single or the plangent poetry of an Otis Redding ballad.
Peter Guralnick has been writing that kind of music prose since rock journalism's mid-Sixties infancy, first for a start-up entertainment paper in his hometown of Boston, later for Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, and other first-wave music magazines. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who fumbled for meaning among the lysergic gibberish of psychedelia, Guralnick focused on the forgotten or neglected masters of rock, blues, and country, bringing to the nascent rock press a sense of both roots and history. His first piece for Rolling Stone featured soul giant Solomon Burke, probably a stranger to the magazine's predominantly white readership, although one of Burke's hits -- "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" -- was covered to great effect by the Rolling Stones on their 1965 album Now.
Guralnick stood apart from the other fathers of rock journalism. Instead of plowing through the pop landscape and calling them as he heard them, Guralnick wrote about what he liked, eschewing the strong critical tones that shaped the work of contemporaries such as Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh. Although he occasionally wrote in first-person, he never spieled with the frenetic, self-absorbed abandon of Lester Bangs. His taste was impeccable, and he wrote about his subjects with equal amounts of respect and passion. In the process he created definitive portraits of a vast array of now-legendary artists: brooding country genius Charlie Rich; bluesmen Muddy Waters, Big Joe Turner, and Howlin' Wolf; honky-tonkers Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard; soul crooner Bobby "Blue" Bland; and forgotten heroes Charlie Feathers, Sleepy LaBeef, and Stoney Edwards.
His first two books -- profiles of blues, country, rock, and rockabilly artists collected in 1971's Feel Like Going Home and 1979's Lost Highway -- drew unanimous praise from the mainstream press as well as his rock-press brethren, including hard-liners such as Marsh and sharp thinkers such as the Village Voice's Robert Christgau. In a 1980 review of Lost Highway published in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Bangs wrote: "You put the book down feeling that its sweep is vast, that you have read of giants who walked among us, inspired by the truly mighty dreams and possibilities of the kind of place where any kid could grow up to become Elvis Presley."
Presley has been a central figure in Guralnick's work for more than twenty years and is the reason the 51-year-old author, who lives outside of Boston, was in town for the recent Miami Book Fair International. His latest book, 1994's Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, was published in paperback earlier this fall. Although Presley's life and music have inspired innumerable essays and examinations, memoirs and tell-alls, biographies and photo journals, Guralnick's tome -- the product of more than four years of research -- will no doubt stand as the definitive study of the singer's formative years, from his hardscrabble beginnings to his catapult into the previously uncharted reaches of pop celebrity; it concludes in 1959, when the U.S. Army served Presley his draft papers. Using well over a hundred interviews as his basis, Guralnick has managed what no other Elvis writer has: He gives readers a sense of how the world appeared to this most overanalyzed of sociocultural wonders, what Presley was thinking while he unknowingly changed the direction of popular music. Guralnick puts you in Elvis' shoes, whether those shoes are skittering across the stage of the Louisiana Hayride or propped up on the sofa in the living room of Graceland.
"As much as I could, I wanted the world to look as it had for Elvis, so that when new characters appeared on the horizon, they would appear as he saw them then, not as events would later prove them to be," Guralnick says, relaxing at the Hotel Intercontinental after his appearance at the book fair. "What I wanted to do was different [from previous Elvis books]. I wanted to really explore and present Elvis as a real person in a social and cultural context, but also with a sense of what was going on from a present-tense perspective.
"I was never interested in criticism per se," Guralnick states. "Everything that I've ever written about is something that I believe passionately in. I've never been interested in getting up on a soapbox and saying, 'This shall not pass.' What I'm interested in is embracing what I'm writing about. I feel like I started out writing about the musicians I most admired as a way of advocating, telling people about this great music, this music I really love. I think you can get a very clear picture of my biases or my views from reading Last Train to Memphis, but I hope I don't come out and declare them outright."
Rather than destroying myths or projecting his opinion onto historical events, Guralnick wants readers to look at Elvis's life and accomplishments with fresh eyes, taking for granted none of the acknowledged earmarks of his career. "I wanted to set aside other people's preconceptions, and most of all I wanted to set aside my own preconceptions. Let's say you assume that Elvis's primary influence is blues and rhythm-and-blues. It's a question of not taking that on faith. You may eventually come out with the same view, but you want to look at it as if nobody had ever written that before -- as if you'd never thought of it before. And a big thing I wanted to do was to avoid any sort of retrospective judgments. I didn't want to come up with these kind of I-told-you-so's."
Guralnick says he will apply those same principles to his next book, which will trace the remainder of Presley's life: his 1959 stint in the army, his 1960s film work, his triumphant television comeback of 1968, his marriage and divorce, the endless concert tours, and his 1977 death. He'll begin writing in January and expects to have the volume finished in two years.
For many critics and rock fans, these are Presley's worst years. They include the string of abysmal film roles in such dead-on-arrival frivolities as Clambake and Kissin' Cousins; the music which, according to naysayers, contained little of the hell-bent rebellion and blues-singed firepower of Elvis' early work; and the spectacle of a paunchy, muttonchopped showman, draped in sequined capes and gaudy jump suits. It is an era through which many claim the singer sleepwalked, wasted on a litany of prescribed pharmaceuticals, ambivalent to his artistic decline. Guralnick hopes to prove otherwise.
"The greatest challenge in the second volume will be keeping Elvis at the center," Guralnick explains. "I'll have to maintain Elvis's perspective and try to see it as he saw it, whether it was with blurred vision or not. I'm going to try and focus on his aspirations. The idea of aspirations is central to me, and the idea that, if you don't fully succeed in your aspirations, you have failed. Well, nobody fully succeeds in their aspirations, and failure is not a condemnation in my mind. But I think it's important to focus on what anybody is trying to do to get a sense of who they really are. And in that light the end is just terribly, terribly sad, when you see this guy so alone, so unhappy, so abandoned. It's a sad, deeply tragic tale, but it can't be any of those things if there were no aspirations.