Peter Guralnick: In Love With the Life of Music

Peter Guralnick has written biographies of Elvis and Sam Cooke. He could kick back and write fiction or teach. But forget that. He’d still rather sit around waiting for a Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland horn rehearsal in the middle of the night—even if it never happened.

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“Long before the existence of Crawdaddy! or Fusion or Rolling Stone,” Peter Guralnick wrote in his first book, Feel Like Going Home, “I wanted to do a history of Sun Records.” That was 1971. Now, more than four decades later, Guralnick’s wrapping up a biography of Sun’s founder, Sam Phillips. “I think I’m something like 27 pages from the end right now,” he said during a recent phone. There’s no firm publication date set, so he’s got time to revise the manuscript—which he describes as “about as long as [Dream Boogie],” his 2005 biography of Sam Cooke, so call it roughly 800 pages—before turning it in to Little, Brown.

What does it feel like to fulfill a lifelong creative ambition? “I haven’t enjoyed instant gratification,” Guralnick admits, but his career has “gone way beyond anything I could have imagined. I mean, to be able to talk to Howlin’ Wolf, to get to interview Merle Haggard, to meet Sam Phillips—these are things that were on my mind from even before I started writing.” Those stories (among many others) are collected in Feel Like Going Home and its followup, Lost Highway, which have been reissued in “enhanced” digital editions that feature audio extracts from Guralnick’s original interviews as well as new video segments. “It was a way, in a sense, of revisiting territory that I’ve never left,” he explains. “I mean, I’m no less invested in, no less passionate about, no less excited by the music of Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters or Jerry Lee Lewis today than I was when I first discovered them, or when I first met them.” During our conversation, we revisited aspects of those two books, and how his approach to music writing—which also includes a definitive two-volume biography of Elvis Presley—has evolved over time.

There’s a section in Lost Highway where you discuss choosing the subjects of your early profiles, keeping in mind what magazine editors would be likely to accept and publish.

I never wrote anything on assignment. There isn’t a single piece I’ve written that wasn’t at my own initiative or wasn’t about somebody that I wanted to do. The challenge was to actually make that work … I can remember in particular in the mid ‘70s, when I did the first James Talley piece, which might have been for Country Music, went out on the road with him. We left out of Memphis, through Arkansas and up to Oklahoma … I went back to Memphis and did stories on Charlie Feathers, which I believe was for the Village Voice, and Rufus Thomas, which was for the Boston Phoenix.

Each of them … I could get the story on Charlie Feathers published. What I couldn’t do was get any money for expenses for that. So you have to juggle all of these things in order to make it something that wasn’t a huge money losing project.

Earlier, in Feel Like Going Home, you wrote that “it would be nice to just sit back and listen to the music again without a notebook always poised or the next interviewing question always in the back of your mind.” Even at the beginning of your career, you seem to hit a wall where you got into music writing because it was fun, but recognized the risk that it might at some point not be fun anymore.

I think it was more a matter of self-consciousness… I always saw writing about music as purely an avocation. In the beginning, it was exclusively with the idea of telling people about this music I thought was so great. Anything you read, whether it was reviews that I wrote in Rolling Stone, or what eventually became the profiles that I would focus on, all of them are basically a celebration of something I thought was really important.

Meanwhile, I’d written four novels at that point, maybe five, and—this is kind of embarrassing—at the end of the first edition of Feel Like Going Home, it sounds as if I’m saying my farewell forever to writing about music. And the thing was, for two years after it was published, I didn’t write anything about music. I wrote another novel. That was what I thought was my, I don’t know, my mission in life. And it was only when Jim Miller became the music editor at the Real Paper and offered me a column, and he said it didn’t have to be in a regular schedule, and I could write anything I wanted… and then he probably suggested, well, how would you like to write a thing about Waylon Jennings? That was the first profile that I’d written since Feel Like Going Home, I think … then I did a story on Bobby “Blue” Bland that never ran because Jim left the paper, and that was really where I came to realize … I’d thought of myself as so pure-minded, that this was just about the music, and I realized what I think had been true all along, that I was really drawn in by the world. I enjoyed being drawn out of, taken out of my own little world and I went around, and I met these people, and it offered up realms of experience and opportunity that I had never imagined before.

I spent a week with Bobby Bland. One night, he was having trouble with one of the horn players, and they called a horn rehearsal for after the show, at the Sugar Shack in downtown Boston. The show probably wasn’t over until one o'clock or so, so rehearsal was going to be at two o'clock in the morning, and I hung around and it never happened.

The next day, or the day after, I had an interview with this exclusive prep school outside of Boston. I knew the headmaster there, he had set it up to have lunch with the head of the English department. We had a very nice lunch, and the head of the English department was asking me what I liked to read, and I was talking to him about Tristram Shandy and Last Exit to Brooklyn and V. by Thomas Pynchon. I was having a good time talking about things that I loved, but I had this flash, at some point right after that meeting, that I’d rather spend the rest of my life waiting for a Bobby “Blue” Bland horn rehearsal that never happened than teach one minute at this prep school or anywhere else.

Meanwhile, you kept on writing novels, all through the ‘70s and ‘80s, until Nighthawk Blues was published in 1988.

When Nighthawk Blues was accepted by Seaview Press, they gave some thought to publishing [One Way Out, the novel he’d written just before that] as well, publishing the two simultaneously. Then they decided not to, to take an option on the other novel instead—which never happened in the formal sense, but still, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

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But then Seaview went out of business, and someone else accepted the other novel with the provision that I make some editorial changes. Before I made the changes, the editor who accepted it got fired. I don’t think I took that as a message … it wasn’t even that discouraging. It was just reality.

It’s not a question of giving up on fiction, or retaining a dream, or anything like that. I’ve just always been drawn to writing both fiction and non-fiction. I didn’t expect the non-fiction, but I’ve been drawn into it more and more, and I expect I’ll continue to do both. What I’ll do with the fiction, I have no idea. I don’t know that I have anything to do with it, other than to write it.

In 1971, you wrote: “Rock’n'roll today, to my mind at least, is a middle-class phenomenon almost exclusively.” As I read that, I realized punk was just around the corner, but then, too, punk would go the same way … What’s your perception of the cycles of rock music since you wrote that?

I probably wouldn’t make that statement today. Not that I disagree with it, but I simply wouldn’t want to make that sweeping a statement about anything … What’s naive about the statement, I think, on my part, was that somehow or other I was equating the commercial world with the world that I was interested in… but, you know, I was 26 years old when I wrote it.

The truer way that I might have seen it, and have certainly grown to see it, is just that … You know, I’ve said that I’d give all of the records I have just to be able to see Howlin’ Wolf on stage one more time. There’s a truth in that, metaphorically speaking, in the sense that Howlin’ Wolf performing live, or James Brown performing live, is something beyond any static representations that you get on record. But I wouldn’t put that on somebody of another generation. They’re going to have their own moments, and I’m not pretentious enough to say I’m going to share your moments.

If we were to have a conversation about Charley Patton or Rev. Gary Davis or Blind Willie McTell—those are things which I know pretty well. There are other people who know it better, but I know it pretty well. But if we were to talk about … and I can’t even think of someone now, and I don’t want to throw out any particular name, but I wouldn’t pretend, even with things that I like a lot in contemporary music, like alternative Americana … I’m never going to know them as well as I know those blues.

When the Sam Phillips book is finally done, have you started thinking about a next big project?

When I got done writing the Sam Cooke book, I started writing a series of loosely connected short stories. I was out on a book tour and I’d taken with me one of Dawn Powell’s Ohio novels, My Home Is Far Away. I’ve liked her New York novels okay, and they’re the ones for which she’s best known, but they always struck me as kind of brittle. But My Home Is Far Away was just one of the most heartbreaking and intimate books; it reminded me of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, like Fanny and Alexander go to Ohio. For whatever reason, it freed me up in terms of what I was writing about and gave me … not a blueprint, but a suggestion for the way you could use personal experience but not be bound by personal experience.

I think what I want to do is go back to those stories. I’ve got six or seven now, and I’ve got quite a few more in mind. Whether this will have anything to do with an actual published book, I don’t know. It’s not that I’d be against publishing it, I just don’t know that I’ll be afforded the opportunity.