Love him or not, finding someone unfamiliar with Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show on TBS is a bit like finding sarsaparilla on tap at your corner pub; you may legitimately wonder if you’ve stepped into the Twilight Zone. Though he’s my favorite late-show host, I don’t make a habit of watching; however, Coco’s burgeoning online media portfolio has been perking up my ears lately. One of the latest additions to the lighthearted web-exclusive fare is indeed a rare bird in our fast-paced, hash-tagged world: Serious Jibber Jabber, a series of hour-plus conversations with people the red-maned host finds interesting.
Two of said interesting persons have strong ties to Nashville music. Third Man honcho Jack White, who hosted O’Brien at Third Man at the height of the media frenzy around his split with NBC, was filmed last December entirely on 35mm film, naturally, and spoke about the nature of art and success. Music historian and Vanderbilt creative writing prof Peter Guralnick, whose chat with the Ginja Ninja was published just last week, talked in depth about Sam Cooke, Sam Phillips and Elvis, each of whom he’s written on extensively. While the SJJ pieces all migrate to YouTube eventually (see the White episode above), the Guralnick episode still only streams via Team Coco.
I got to sit down with Guralnick myself before I reviewed his phenomenal 2-volume biography of Elvis Presley in April. We mostly talked about, well, writing about music. Check out some highlights from our conversation after the jump.
On becoming a music writer:
I had written four, maybe five novels by the time this editor I knew, who had turned down my last couple of novels, promised to publish my next one. He was sort of a young tyro in the publishing game, who would take us out to these fancy restaurants. ... I think he felt guilty [when he didn’t publish the novel as promised], and then he said, “How would you like to write a history of the blues?” and I said, “Not much.” But then I came back and I said, “How about a book of profiles that shows the progression?” and that’s what Feel Like Goin’ Home was.
You can read at the end of Feel Like Goin’ Home where I announce “I now bid my fond farewell to this. I’m going to put away my notebook and just enjoy the music.” In fact, that’s what I did. I didn’t write another thing about music for two years — I wrote another novel. Then my friend Jim Miller, who became the editor of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, was the music editor at the The Real Paper, a kind of rival to the [Boston] Phoenix. He asked me “How would you like to do a story on Waylon Jennings?”
All I’d heard was Honky Tonk Heroes and maybe This Time, which had just come out. I got a hold of his whole catalog, and I said “Man, this is like the blues!” Waylon was playing for a week at The Performance Center, a club in Harvard Square. I went every night, I interviewed him; that’s what lured me back in. Then, I did the same thing on Bobby “Blue” Bland, also for Jim Miller. ... That’s when I realized that I couldn’t pretend any longer that [my motivation] was just purely to tell people about this music that I thought was so great. That always motivated me, but I also loved writing about it. I had all along, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself. I wanted to consider myself a novelist who happens to be writing about music.
On approaching fiction vs. nonfiction:
One of the things I’m pointing out [in my classes] is that the line between the two is not very great; the same techniques are used in both. Hemingway writes a memoir, A Moveable Feast, and he writes at the beginning “Consider this fiction.” On the other hand, he writes a novel, The Sun Also Rises, and he gets sued by a couple of people because it’s too close to real life. For me it’s about writing, about doing your best. The aim, on some level, is losing yourself in your writing. Like that Chet Baker film, Let’s Get Lost, or “spontaneous bop prosody” — that’s what Kerouac called it. It’s really just not worrying so much about the end result, and considering whatever you do as process — whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, doing it to the best of your ability. Don’t get hung up, don’t workshop it to death, move on when you think you’ve done the best that you can do, go on to something else.
On goals and influences:
I read mostly fiction. I don’t mean to be a snob, but a book like Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch, the first volume of his three-volume biography of Martin Luther King: that made an enormous impact on me. Footsteps by Richard Holmes, which I quote in the introduction [to Last Train to Memphis] — that’s just a great book, not because it’s nonfiction, but it’s just a great book. I recently read Hemingway’s Boat, by Paul Hendrickson; it’s about the Pilar, but it’s as good a portrait of Hemingway as I’ve ever read. It’s a brilliantly eccentric book. It’s not a novel, but it has those imaginative properties. Zadie Smith, Alice Munro, Michael Chabon, Jhumpa Lahiri — I’m not doing justice [to my bookshelf].
I’m not interested in doing a thing where I say, "Here’s my thesis, and I’m gonna give you 19 examples that prove my thesis, and then I’m gonna come back and restate my thesis.” There are all kinds of great biographers and books of nonfiction, there are many people who don’t do that, and I don’t mean to characterize [nonfiction negatively]. Taylor Branch didn’t do that in Parting the Waters, or Paul Hendrickson in Hemingway’s Boat, or Robert Caro in his books on Lyndon Johnson — he’s an astonishing researcher.
Another great example is Will Haygood, whose biography of Sugar Ray Robinson came out a couple of years ago, and one's on Sammy Davis, Jr., and Adam Clayton Powell before that; he’s working on Thurgood Marshall now. These are almost lyrical portraits of the African-American community, as reflected [in the lives of their subjects]. I was telling my undergraduates today, “You don’t have to listen to anything I say, you don’t have to read anything I tell you, but make me one promise: This summer, every one of you should read The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin." There’s no more beautifully written book about the [Civil Rights] movement, about the community.
On reaching the person underneath the celebrity:
I’m not that interested in the cult of personality, or labeling in that way. It’s like labeling somebody a drug addict; it doesn’t make a difference to me. It’s a question of who they are. I want to write from the inside out as much as possible. With the decline of print, the Internet encourages a great deal of speculation and gossip, but it doesn’t encourage the long-form article or profile. …. When you read a profile of someone in Rolling Stone, generally speaking, it’s a publicity opportunity. You’re going to read the same story in all of the magazines; people are making themselves available to sell the movie, or new album, or whatever it is.
That doesn’t interest me. If that’s the only way one has to write about the person, that doesn’t interest me. Prince, for example, is a really interesting artist, and he’s continued to be somewhat mysterious. If you got the opportunity to hang out with Prince, follow him around, observe him, talk to him now and then, that would be interesting, but not to be one of half a dozen or however many more [journalists] who get the same quotes. I don’t know if Prince does that; he may not. But when you see someone like Justin Timberlake, who, like Prince, has used his success to explore new worlds, the question is, are you going to get any access to the actual person, or are you just going to get the public image? Generally speaking, you only get access to the image, but that doesn’t mean the person doesn’t exist. … I’m not saying that everyone should open up their door, let me in, and say, “Thanks, you’re doing me a favor.” They’re doing me a favor, by letting me in. …
I think you have to believe that everyone wants to tell their story — they may just not want to tell it to you. … If you’re talking to a carpenter, someone who’s genuinely proud of his work, what’s interesting is how they do their work. And that’s what I’ve tried to talk about. It’s a matter of just showing respect to whoever it is you talk to. … Everybody I’ve written about, I’ve admired. I may not know them as people to begin with, and maybe I won’t end up admiring them totally as people, but I admire their work, I admire their creative spirit, and that’s what remains at the heart.