Thursday, April 25, 2013

Dancing About Architecture: Peter Guralnick's Epic Elvis Biography

Posted By on Thu, Apr 25, 2013 at 8:30 AM

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“Singing about economics,” “dancing about architecture” — why bother writing about music at all? You can sing it, you can play it — not only does it live and breathe, but it walks around and dances! Doesn’t scrutiny take the life out of it? One Friday morning, I tuned in to Nashville Jumps, Pete Wilson’s program on the late, lamented WRVU, and had one of my first experiences with writing that really does justice to music and musicians, bringing them to life in a way I hadn’t thought possible. Wilson’s guest that day was Peter Guralnick, a native of Boston who teaches creative writing at Vanderbilt every spring.

A blues enthusiast since his teen years, Guralnick’s body of work rests on a foundation of three seminal studies of the stuff we call “roots music”: Feel Like Goin’ Home, a portfolio of profiles on blues musicians published in 1971; Lost Highway, a similarly styled text that expanded his reach into country, rockabilly and R&B; and Sweet Soul Music, an exploration that broadens its focus to include producers, promoters, talent agents, songwriters and record executives, as well as the incredible musicians whose fusion of gospel and R&B took the world by storm in the '60s. Guralnick’s other work includes Dream Boogie, an extensive biography of Sam Cooke that further explores the origins of soul, as well as key roles in several music documentaries, including Sam Cooke: Legend, and the Solomon Burke biopic Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, as well as a forthcoming biography and completed film about Sun Records’ visionary founder, Sam Phillips.

Arguably, Guralnick’s most ambitious project to date is his biography of Elvis Presley, published in two volumes by Little, Brown in 1994: Last Train to Memphis covers the star’s rise, while Careless Love details his decline. Few if any public figures are surrounded by as much myth and legend as Presley, whose first recording became a hit when the singer was just 19. Like any figure born poor but full of quiet persistence in his aspirations, Presley is easy to canonize: the 20th century Atlas who, when faced with the choice, chose to shoulder the whole country’s dreams and desires. He became a transformational cultural figure, whose work changed the face of popular music. He was profoundly human, struggling constantly with questions of purpose and identity: Even his personal faults make him into a larger-than-life figure. In Elvis’ case, it seems like enough work to separate fact from fiction, but Guralnick takes extra pains to make the eminent singer and movie star as real as possible, as he explains in this passage from his author’s note:

When I finally decided to write the book, I had one simple aim in mind — at least it seemed simple to me at the start: to keep the story within "real" time, to allow the characters to freely breathe their own air, to avoid imposing the judgment of another age, or even the alarums that hindsight inevitably lends. ... I wanted to remain true to my "characters" — real-life figures whom I had come to know and like in the course of both my travels and my research — and because I wanted to suggest the dimensions of a world in which Elvis Presley had grown up, the world which had shaped him and which he in turn unwittingly shaped, with all the homeliness and beauty that everyday life entails.

On opening the first volume, I had a cursory knowledge of Elvis. I always thought of him as someone whose music I respected as important to history and to others, but not much to me (prime example, and perhaps a little unfair: Elvis' "Hound Dog" vs. Big Mama Thornton's). But I never thought about him as a guy with smelly feet. A guy who was deeply affected by his mother's death. Who might buy you a car just for hanging out with him for the afternoon. The duality of Elvis, in the sublime and mundane — for he was both, without a doubt — is the ultimate subject.

I had a cursory awareness of Elvis' relationship with his extraordinary manager, Colonel Tom Parker, which the books explain in great detail. I knew Elvis had made a mediocre movie called Clambake, but I was completely ignorant of how serious he was about his acting career, and how integral it was — as product, not as art — to the Colonel's grand plan. I figured that Elvis had plenty of girlfriends; the books explore those relationships too, with a balance of cold fact and modesty that lets the reader understand them, and the broader role they played in his life, without overreacting.

By the end of the second book, I was much more sympathetic than I expected to his intense loneliness. His experience of "loneliness at the top" was a lot deeper once I understood that, for many years, Elvis couldn't fall in love, lest he imperil his entire organization. He could have all the sex he wanted, so long as there were no scandals, but he had had to fight any kind of emotional connection — that wasn't made onstage, between artist and audience — at every turn, in order to follow the Colonel's plan.

Guralnick’s books overall, and certainly these two in particular, are an excellent primer on post-war popular music. They transcend a mere collection of facts and opinions. Implicitly, through the stories they tell, they turn a mostly-transparent critical lens on the whole of American culture during a period, from WWII through the Carter administration, that has shaped the thirty years of culture we've been living through. Perhaps most importantly, they’re a great read: personal, vivid, engaging but never lurid or sensationalized. They let the spectacle of greatness, in whatever form it exists, speak for itself.

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