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The Boston Phoenix Sound of Freedom

Peter Guralnick's American music saga

By Jon Garelick

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999: 

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 pages, $17.
By Peter Guralnick. Back Bay Books/Little, Brown.

Peter Guralnick's epic 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 success."

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.


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