Peter Guralnick and the Man Who Invented Rock And Roll

9 Feb

Peter Guralnick [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Peter Guralnick [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

While renowned chronicler of American music Peter Guralnick made his bones with his seminal two volume study of cultural icon Elvis Presley ( of whom I was not a fan) when I came upon Guralnick’s Dream Boogie *: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (of whom I am an immense fan) I suspected we might be kindred spirits. So, when I received his recent opus on Sam Phillips , I  arranged to meet with him. As it turns out, among other things, we both place value on and enjoy digressive conversation (which I think is redundant, as I view real conversation to be inherently digressive.) In any case, what follows is that chat (hopefully the first in an ongoing series), which is, as you may suspect, a peripatetic journey through mid century American music and much more. 

 

Sam Phillps by Peter Guralnick

Sam Phillps by Peter Guralnick

 

 

Robert Birnbaum: Would it bother you— I really don’t like to pose people. Do you mind, if while we’re talking, I take your picture ?

Peter Guralnick: As long as I’m not eating, or dribbling.

Robert Birnbaum:Yes.

Peter Guralnick:Or drooling.

Robert Birnbaum: (laughs) I’d like to get the drooling photo.

Peter Guralnick: Everybody wants that.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s the money shot, that’s what they said to me. People Magazine said, “Get Guralnick drooling and there’ll be lots of money for you.”

Peter Guralnick:I’ve looked at some of your other interviews, they’re really cool.

Robert Birnbaum:Thank you.

Peter Guralnick:The people you talk to… and you even talked to Don Winslow

Robert Birnbaum: I  introduced him and spoke with him in front of an audience at [Brookline] BookSmith.

Peter Guralnick: What a great writer, [author of]  The Power of the Dog.

Robert Birnbaum: I like both that one and the new one, The Cartel

Peter Guralnick: I don’t know, The Cartel didn’t grab me quite as much, maybe it’s because  I couldn’t follow it as well.  But The Power of the Dog —man, that just knocked me out. How about Kem Nunn? You’ve got to read The Dogs of Winter.

Robert Birnbaum: Ok, today’s the 17th of December. I’m talking to Peter Guralnick.

Peter Guralnick:It’s not the 17th.

Robert Birnbaum:Well, lets pretend it’s the 17th. What day is it?

Peter Guralnick:The 15th.

Peter Guralnick [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum

Peter Guralnick [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum

Robert Birnbaum:(laughter)You have to be picky about it.

Peter Guralnick:No, ordinarily I wouldn’t know.

Robert Birnbaum:I’m talking to Mr. Fussy here.

Peter Guralnick: If you ask me any other day, I wouldn’t know, but I do know today.

Robert Birnbaum:See, I even have a date book and I don’t know. Well, whatever the date is, I’m talking to Peter Guralnick. And we are rolling. You spend part of the year in Nashville at Vanderbilt, are you still doing that?

Peter Guralnick: Yeah, I’m going back this year, this is the 11th year I’ll be teaching Creative Writing spring semester there. It’s been great. It’s kind of misleading that Little, Brown wrote that, “He divides his time.” I said, “Well, that sounds okay,” but really I live around here and I teach creative writing at Vanderbilt spring semester.

Robert Birnbaum:Is Vanderbilt separate, like many colleges, from the community? Is it a little island unto itself? When you’re at Vanderbilt can you see where you are in the town?

Peter Guralnick:You’re pretty much in the middle of things. I’d say my largest range of association is, not just within the music community, but within the larger community. I’m certainly friendly with people at Vanderbilt, but the larger community is very accessible and you’re right in the middle of it. I’m not sure that Vanderbilt chooses to be in the middle of it, but they are.

Robert Birnbaum:Compare life in that town, to life in New England for instance. Big cultural difference?

Peter Guralnick: I can’t.

Robert Birnbaum: You just don’t spend enough time?

Peter Guralnick: What it is, is that my life in Nashville the teaching is like running a camp. I think it’s total immersion, in a self-sustaining community. It’s been very rewarding working with the students, both under-graduate and graduate. But, because of the fact that I’m living in town, living on the edge of town you might say. I go out all the time, I see people, I meet people.

Robert Birnbaum: Catch live music?

Peter Guralnick:I go out to hear live music all the time. Whereas, basically when I’m at home, at least for the last 20-25 years, I’m writing. I’ve always been writing, but the point is I live an hour outside of Boston.

Robert Birnbaum: No distractions.

Peter Guralnick:There are no distractions. And in Boston music starts later and later. In Nashville you can go out and you can catch a  9:00 set, you might even catch two sets and be home by 11:00, because you’re only 15 minutes away.

Robert Birnbaum:Well,everyone wants, inquiring minds want to know. Is the Sam Phillips book—I’m not sure it’s a biography. Is the Sam Phillips book like an penultimate project for you? Is everything else going to be anticlimactic after this?

Peter Guralnick:No. I always said, I never set out to be a professional biographer.

Robert Birnbaum:Are you a professional biographer?

Peter Guralnick:No. I’ve always wanted to write something different,to continue to write something different with each book. I started out to be a writer, when I was a kid. When I was eight or nine years old. I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a baseball player. I have no professional concept of either.

Robert Birnbaum:If you’re at spring at Vanderbilt, you watch very good baseball [Vanderbilt  has a very good baseball program]?

Peter Guralnick:I don’t much like watching. I love to play. I played baseball until I was 48 and then I ran into a tri-focal crisis. Now, I just play tennis. I’ve played sports all my life, it’s been a great source of reward, satisfaction and friendship. A great source of friendship.

Robert Birnbaum:You were talking about writing.

Peter Guralnick: I wanted to be a writer. The music came about just because – I mean, I wrote my first novel when I was 19, I published a couple of collections of short stories when I was 21 and 22. But I started writing about music during this same time period – the whole point was purely, entirely, simply to tell people about this music that I thought was so great. The opportunity came about when the underground press started popping up – Crawdaddy! started in ’66 or ’67,  Boston After Dark began around the same time, and then there were the blues magazines in England. People who knew me couldn’t help but know how much I loved the blues, so they asked me if I’d like to write about it. How could I say no? Just to have the opportunity to put the names of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley in print….But just to square the circle, to go back to your original question,  I think as I continued on this path that I had set out on first with Elvis, I guess I saw the Sam Phillips almost as the third in the trilogy of biographies. That wasn’t how I started out, but that’s how I eventually came to see it. I can’t conceive of writing another biography, not out of any disaffection, or disillusionment with it, but because I’ve spent the last 27 years writing biographies. Now I’m going to go back to writing short stories.

Mister Down Child by Peter Guralnick

Mister Down Child by Peter Guralnick

Robert Birnbaum:Not a novel?

Peter Guralnick:Well, maybe.The last novel I wrote, which is either the 10th or the 11th, has been stuck in the middle of third draft for a long, long time. So I want to go back to it, see if it’s worth finishing. It may well not be and if it isn’t I’m going to be doing the stories, then I think I’ll go on to another novel.

Robert Birnbaum:There isn’t another, forget about musical, there’s not another figure, cultural figure  or person that you are interested enough in to investigate their life?

Peter Guralnick:There is, but not that I want to write the book. I read the review of the John le Carre biography in the Times today. Which I was quite interested in. As I think you know by now, I don’t read biographies much, I don’t read non-fiction much. I thought that would be an interesting subject to explore. I would have loved to have written a biography of Willie Mays. That was something I thought about a lot after finishing the Sam Cooke. Then I just realized it would be like starting all over again, I had no contacts. I had no access to that world. It would be a matter of persuading people who had no idea who I was, that I was somebody worth talking to.

Robert Birnbaum: You’d have to persuade him that you were worth talking to.

Peter Guralnick:Then it turned out somebody else was working on the book. That actually wasn’t what discouraged me, I had already decided I couldn’t do it.

Robert Birnbaum: Is there a musical figure, character that deserves a biography that no one has written about?

Peter Guralnick:There are hundreds.

Robert Birnbaum:Name a few of them?

Peter Guralnick: Merle Haggard, has had a lot of books written about him, but I think no great biography. He’s one of the great creative artists of our time. Somebody like Alice Munro, deserves a great artistic biography. There are many writers like that. Somebody like, Charlie Rich would be a tremendous subject for a biography, but probably it would not be one that could be sold.

Robert Birnbaum:How could a Sam Phillips biography be viewed as having commercial potential? ? Especially as the cultural literacy window has narrowed so much.

Peter Guralnick: Five years.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s right.

Peter Guralnick:Is that being generous?

Robert Birnbaum:I was going to say 7-10, but five sounds about right. I asked people, in fact I even asked my physical therapist who’s 30. I started naming names, both current and 15-20 years. I said, “I’m reading a book about Sam Phillips.” “Who’s Sam Philips?” She didn’t even know there was a singer named Sam Phillips.[1]

 

Peter Guralnick:I wanted to say one thing. After I finished the Elvis biography I would run into people who’d say, “Now, you’ve written about the King, who would be a worthy subject?” I would say, “Anybody.” I would say that this is a matter of human dignity and human worth. It has nothing to do with fame, it has nothing to do with celebrity.  I’ve spoken many times about a friend of mine, Irving Roberts. He did – and this isn’t even the beginning of all that he did – he did all of the maintenance work and construction and, oh, just everything that needed doing, including good advice, at camp. His  father built the camp that my grandfather started and that I later ran. I couldn’t even begin to describe all of Irving’s talents and skills –  he’s one of the most interesting people, one of the most brilliant people, one of the most inventive people, one of the most resourceful and compassionate people I’ve ever met. He would be a great subject for as biography!

Robert Birnbaum:Uncle Silas would have been a worthy subject.

Peter Guralnick:That’s true. In other words, this ranking of the worth of subjects to me is, I’m not saying you’re doing it, but it’s anti-democratic. In a way that only a true Trumpian could understand.

Robert Birnbaum:The point is, you’re lucky to be affiliated with a publishing house that has somebody like Michael Pietsch, whose really an editor and a book person.

Peter Guralnick: Michael Pietsch [2]is the best friend I’ve ever made in publishing. In all the years I’ve been in publishing, I’ve made good friends, but he is the best friend I’ve made.

Robert Birnbaum:The introduction he wrote, the tip in he wrote to the advanced reading copy was, I think appropriate, do you think somebody else would have bought this book?

r.

          Peter Guralnick: Cal Morgan at Harper, but he just left Harper. You know, he published Jess Walter[3].

          Robert Birnbaum: I love Beautiful Ruins.

          Peter Guralnick:Oh, all of his books are great. Every one is different.

Robert Birnbaum: Has anyone written about Howlin Wolf, in a good way?

 

 

Peter Guralnick:There’s a biography of Howlin Wolf that’s a wonderful accumulation of so much great stuff.  Mark Hoffman wrote it, Mark and James Segrest. [4]It’s great that they did it. That’s a book, you wanted to ask me, is there a biography I would have liked to have written? I would have loved to e write a biography of Howlin’ Wolf, but I talked myself out of it, I thought it was too late. But Mark and James Segrest went out and found all these people, contemporaries of Wolf,  friends, family, everything. So, you know, I’m not ranking or regretting – I mean, as Solomon Burke said to me a number of times, “Bile will consume you.” You never want to go there if you can help it!

Robert Birnbaum:Did he make that up?

Peter Guralnick:I think so.

Peter Guralnick: He also said, “Who is it that’s Pete the Writer when he’s alone in his hotel room at night.” He was pissed off at me, mildly pissed off at me at the time. I sign all my letters that way now, Pete the Writer In his Lonely Room. No, I mean, they went out and did something that I didn’t think could be done. That was a book I would like to have written. My own biography of Howlin’ Wolf, I mean. Satchel Paige [5]is another person I would have loved to have written about. I pitched the story on Satchel Paige to Rolling Stone, while he was coaching out in Oklahoma. He was coaching third base in a rocking chair. I figured, how could it miss? But Rolling Stone  didn’t see it that way.

Robert Birnbaum: Are there pictures of that?

Peter Guralnick:I’ve never seen any.

Robert Birnbaum:There’s got to be. How could somebody not.

Peter Guralnick: On the internet, anything. Even if it didn’t exist, it does exist.

Robert Birnbaum: I agree with you, I think that’s right, but that’s not the way the book industry works. That is to say they do need subjects with high name recognition.

 

Peter Guralnick [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum

Peter Guralnick [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum

Peter Guralnick:Well, look, after Elvis – and this is just an exemplary tale (no bile) – after Elvis, I was looking for a new agent and I talked to 16 or 17, I think. I told them my next book was going to be about Sam Cooke, and every one of them said, “Big mistake. Bad career move, after the King.” Then they suggested things which they said could bring a great deal of money, and I believed them and I said, “Yes, but I’m writing about Sam Cooke.”

Robert Birnbaum: Let me bless you for that. First of all I don’t read biographies and I don’t usually read musical biographies. But, I loved Sam Cooke. I’m from Chicago, I love that book. Thank you for the book.

Peter Guralnick:This is what happened to me, I’ll say to you that the 18th agent that I spoke to was David Gernert, and he said, “This is really cool.” And he went out and sold it, and that’s what I did. But it involved a conscious recognition on my part. That I was reducing my market share with each book, enormously. And, you know, it’s no big deal, but I was writing the books I wanted to write. And I can honestly say I’ve never written about anybody that I didn’t want to write about. Every single person I’ve written about is somebody I’ve written about out of admiration.

Robert Birnbaum:And love.

Peter Guralnick: And love.

Robert Birnbaum:You loved Sam Phillips.

Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick

Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick

Peter Guralnick:Yeah. Loved Sam Cooke too, even if I didn’t know him. The point is, my concept is that, I want to write as much as possible from the inside out. I’m not interested in being an arbiter of fashion, I’m not interested in providing judgments. I’m interested in providing an open book and to some extent, by doing it, I discovered  that writing biographies provided me with  a landscape that offered as much potential as the fictional landscapes that I had been focusing on.

Robert Birnbaum:Let me pause you here. Your conversation with Mark Feeney,  [6] you’ve come to see non-fiction as, “As giving me the opportunity to create these great characters on this expansive plane and populate this world. Because, I came to see it in each of these books, the facts we’re given but not the story. The characters were extraordinary people who developed out of ordinary circumstances. We live in a society that seeks judgement so much of the time, that seeks a bottom line that so often distorts the complexity of reality. Whether it’s Elvis or Sam Cooke, or Sam Phillips, I’m interested in what motivates them, their aspirations, their hopes, their dreams, their disappointments, their inner life. Not a catalog of their achievements.” I think deep down that’s what people want to really read. 600 pages of facts about what a guy had for breakfast when he was seven and what his sex life was at the age of 70 maybe more information than a reader wants.

Peter Guralnick:From my point of view the ideal is to write a book as interesting as the person. To write a book, in the case of Sam Phillips, in which it’s not just the main characters but the cultural milieu that provides the focus. It’s the supporting cast, it’s people like Tom Perryman, in the Elvis book who is out there in Gladewater in East Texas. Out there in Gladewater, he’s the program director and a DJ, and he sees something in this 19-year-old and promotes Elvis on for the first time outside of Memphis and the Hayride. The point is this is a man of imagination, he’s a man that’s looking to get ahead on his own. He’s a man looking towards the future. He doesn’t play a big part in the book, but there are so many people like that.

 

Robert Birnbaum:It’s that old democratic thing, ideally everyone has a story. There’s a story with everyone, you can find multitudes of people that would make an interesting story and book. Getting back to this craft of talking about people, I like biographical essays. Which concises someone’s life, somebody who knows the person and that can speak eloquently. I have read a few [ your books], David Hadju’s book on Billy Strayhorn.[7] Nick Tosches’s and a couple of his books,. I didn’t really like his Dean Martin. But he put him into cultural context. He doesn’t just about the details of the person’s life, a lot of which is mundane,  and banal. I don’t think many people capture that, is it because the publishers  look for hagiographic tracts or exposes  on popular artists.

Peter Guralnick:I think you’d have to expand your definition, it’s not just the industry, it’s academe, it’s the academy. Which is also looking for facts and for instance some of most acclaimed biographies, well, leaving aside, let’s say, a book like Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters,” which is a masterpiece of portraiture and a masterpiece of describing the climate of the time – well, look, I don’t want to get into anyone in particular, but sometimes these books just pile up, they just pile on the facts, as if they were writing a PhD thesis, or a glorified school paper. You’ll read something and you’ll be struck by it, and then the next paragraph will reinforce it, the following paragraph will drive home the point even more. You say, “I get it, I get it” – you know what I mean?

t, the following paragraph will drive home the point even more. You say, “I get it, I get it” – you know what I mean?

Robert Birnbaum: I mean, four volumes on someone’s life. Didn’t Dumas Malone write six volumes on Jefferson? But what I was going to say, by now its sort of a cliche for me, my feeling is that novels like Gore Vidal’s, “Lincoln,” and “Burr” – I felt that I learned more about Lincoln in Vidal’s novel, “Lincoln ” than I did in reading any texts and any description of him.

Peter Guralnick:I thought those two were wonderful novels. But so was Henry and Clara.

Robert Birnbaum: Tom Mallon. Henry and Clara. That’s a great book.[8]

Peter Guralnick:Isn’t that a terrific book?:You can see what I read.

Robert Birnbaum:I’ve been talking to Tom for years, since I discovered that book.

 

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

 

Peter Guralnick: I just read the Reagan and I read the Nixon before that. To me Henry and Clara

Robert Birnbaum:It’s a brilliant idea. To take a great event and take it from the side, then see what it did to these characters. It’s like writing a novel about a people who were in the grassy knoll. Tom Boyle wrote something about McCormacks era, Colonel McCormack’s era, Riven Rock.[9]

Riven Rock by TC Boyle

Riven Rock by TC Boyle

 

 

Robert Birnbaum The woman [Katherine McCormack] that McCormack’s son married turned out to be a really fantastic woman who ended up at MIT. I think they’ve named buildings after her. I guess what I wanted to get to was, a few years ago the notion of creative non-fiction was introduced and people like to argue about it. I guess, I think that the dividing line, between fictional narrative and non-fictional narrative is blurring. In many cases you can tell a story better and you can argue about what the facts are, but you can tell a story better by introducing elements that are not necessarily factually correct.

Peter Guralnick: I’m not sure. I wouldn’t make that division, I wouldn’t draw that distinction. I think in many ways the characters, the real-life characters that you run into in anybody’s life, that I’ve run into in the stories of Sam Cooke or Sam Phillips or Elvis Presley, are just as compelling. You have all these ancillary characters whose stories in their own way are just as compelling. I think the two essential elements, different elements but in the end fusing into the same thing, are the focus on character and the focus on story. The point is that in terms of narrative, you have to have this narrative momentum. Which is an invention like Hemingway’s dialogue, like slapback, the repetitive-echo device that Sam Phillips employed to such wonderful effect, it’s an invention to make the real realer. Without that narrative momentum you’re just dead in the water. You attempt to get an overview, but you have to recognize that the overview you’re getting is entirely different from the overview another writer, or the reader, might bring to it, or that that person sitting over there might get from another angle. Each of us, given the same set of facts, the same set of interviews, the same set of quotes, the same set of everything, would create an entirely different book.

Robert Birnbaum:I would amplify that, by saying that it’s also the case, that if I read this book a second time, or if you wrote the book a second time there would be differences.

Peter Guralnick:There would absolutely be differences. It’s how the weather is. The point is, I mean,  that I used to think, in terms of writing fiction, what I had for breakfast, something that might be in the news, whatever was in the air, started you off in a completely different – or somewhat different – way.  I mean, it struck me early on, when I first started writing. I started writing every day when I was around 15. I read the Hemingway interview in the Paris Review where he said that –

Robert Birnbaum:He wrote 1000 words a day or something like that?

Peter Guralnick:He wrote every day, he wrote for a certain amount of time. I thought, man, I don’t think that I can write as well as Ernest Hemingway. But I can at least write every day, I think I can write 1000 words a day. It may be shit, but I can commit myself to that. And I did, from the time I was 15, pretty much for the next 30 years. I mean, I could get in at 3 o’clock in the morning, I might have to go to work at 9 – when I was in college, I might have an early class – it didn’t matter. I was going to get up early to write.

Robert Birnbaum:What’s the feeling like when you’re doing that? What do you feel like?

Peter Guralnick:Frustration. Frustration. So much of the time what you’re writing just doesn’t make it, it isn’t any good.

Robert Birnbaum: And you know that when you’re writing it?

Peter Guralnick:Well, not so much if you’re involved in ongoing work. What I was doing for the most part, at the start anyway, was doing beginnings of things which never panned out. Later on, when I was committed to ongoing work, whether it was a novel or a book, it got easer. But I can remember sitting down every day to write the profile of Johnny Shines in “Feel Like Going Home” –  I remember specifically how overwhelmed I was by all the material I had, and how could I convey the essence of what I wanted to say? That was one of the few stories, that and Charlie Feathers in “Lost Highway” –

 

Lost Highway by Peter Guralnick

Lost Highway by Peter Guralnick

 

Those two times, it wasn’t that I had more facts or more information than I did on anybody else, but I remember feeling a sense of hopelessness that I could ever boil this down to create the portrait that I had in my head. The finely etched portrait! Then, finally, I guess the dam just broke. But that’s different from what I was talking about before , in high school and the first couple of years of college, starting fresh every day, and then having to start fresh again the next day, because what I’d written the day before just didn’t go anywhere, it was, like, scribbling. I suppose it isn’t that different from what all of us face all the time, from what I know I still face, certainly. The idea of starting – you have a blank piece of paper, a blank screen and you sit there and nothing comes. You start to write and you say, “This is terrible, this is ridiculous.” You force yourself to keep going and at the end of the day you have 600, 800 words.

I used to do it in notebooks, I would just turn the page. I didn’t crumple up the pages. You turn the page and you start something else the next day. That’s entirely different from working on a novel, or continuing with ongoing work. To me the whole point of what you’re looking for in any creative act – and creative act can encompass just about anything you commit yourself to fully in life – the whole point is, you’re looking for that moment when you’re lost in what you’re doing. You have applied everything that you know and in some ways you’ve cast it out and you are going just on autopilot, because you’re lost in the act.

Robert Birnbaum:Contemporarily. I guess that’s being in the zone, I guess.

Peter Guralnick:In the moment, in the zone. It’s what Chet Baker [10]talked about when he said, “Let’s get lost.” I mean, if I write for three and half, four hours, say, which would be my ideal time, although lately I’ve been writing in much longer stretches, because of the exigencies of life – but if you write for three or four hours and get five or ten minutes in which you’re just completely lost, that’s what it’s all about.

Robert Birnbaum:Against the background of frustration, occasionally you get that high of feeling something good has happened?

Peter Guralnick:Yeah. Again, I think I’m misleading you a little, because I don’t mean that writing the Sam Phillips, writing about Sam Cooke or Elvis day after day, I mean, certainly I could get stuck at certain points, but that was not the same kind of frustration that I might feel –

Robert Birnbaum: You had a goal.

Peter Guralnick:Right. I had a goal. And if I wrote something – if I wrote 5000 words that I committed myself to, I thought, This is fantastic, and then I decided it merely repeated action or themes that I had already developed, I was prepared to throw it out. Well, to save it in a file of lost moments anyway!

Robert Birnbaum:How big was the original manuscript that you turned in?

Peter Guralnick:The same size.

Robert Birnbaum: How big was the manuscript that you worked on before you turned it in, or did you just pare it down as you went?

Peter Guralnick [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Peter Guralnick [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Peter Guralnick: As I went. The idea of re-writing, I used to write three discrete drafts. Of everything that I wrote pre-computer. The first draft was long hand. Second draft I typed out from the manuscript, changing as I went along, , the third draft I typed out from the beginning, every single page. Now, I feel like it’s almost inescapable that you’re re-writing all the time. I save, if you could see my hard drive – I save all the different versions and variations. When I finished the Sam Phillips, it was the book that I wanted to write. From the beginning, for example, I knew that there needed to be this turn, there needed to be this personal element that would gradually intrude and then take over, change direction over the last third of the book. It was kind of like recognizing with Elvis, not too long after I had started writing, that it was going to have to be two volumes. That the story took place in two entirely separate acts and that after his mother died, it was as if the curtain came down. What followed was a different story, with a different person involved. With Sam Phillips, I knew from the start, among other things, because I didn’t want to pursue a linearity which in no way did justice, either to Sam as a character, or to the fact that the last 40 years of his life were spent pursuing things that were not of intrinsic narrative interest. Not just to the reader, but to me. I didn’t want to write about, he acquired a radio station, sold a radio station. He built a radio tower.

Robert Birnbaum:He called Fidel Castro after the Bay of Pigs.

Peter Guralnick: Well, yeah, that’s the kind of thing I wanted to write about exactly, I wanted to create a narrative structure that was as entertaining as what Sam wanted to create in the studio. Which meant blowing up strict linearity, giving much freer rein to anecdote and above all to digression.

Robert Birnbaum:Let me ask you. If an FBI profiler looked at Sam Phillips life and maybe used your book. Would there be a more contemporary diagnosis of his psychological profile?

Peter Guralnick: I feel as if, what I want to write is something which is a sufficiently open book that every reader can come away from it with his or her own impression. I feel with each of the books I’ve written, there were necessarily points at which you think, I’m just not going to get there. “There” meaning, it’s never going to come into focus, I’m just getting too far out on a limb. But then, with each of the books and even the profiles, at some point it snaps into focus. All of a sudden I see the person, it seems like I see the person whole – I mean, that sounds reductive, but I see the person as a dynamic character. If I’m writing about Johnny Shines or Charlie Rich, I’m suddenly able to zero in on to what I want to focus on, what I want to bring out. And I would hope that the discerning reader, or the non-discerning reader, might find something entirely different. The portrait of Colonel Parker in “Careless Love,” for example, is intended to be a nuanced portrait. One in which I actually take a countervailing view of both the Colonel’s role and character.

Robert Birnbaum:A more generous interpretation.

Peter Guralnick:His intellectual brilliance, his imaginativeness, his humor, and his insecurity. Many people have said to me, “Boy, you really nailed the Colonel as the son of a bitch that he was.” That’s fine with me, for them to see it that way. But I want to portray something different, I want to portray a multifaceted person.

Robert Birnbaum:You’re not interested in concise judgement, you want the pictures. Let somebody else say what they are. Was it your quote or somebody else’s quote that said, “Phillips was an impenetrable mystery.” I can’t remember.

Peter Guralnick: I don’t remember.

Robert Birnbaum:You probably didn’t say that, I don’t think you said that.

 

Peter Guralnick: No. It’s the same way in which people I know, I was with people sometimes who were either offended by Sam, the kind of defensive maneuvering, or preventive maneuvering that he did. The preambles that he would deliver before you even started the interview – it really didn’t matter, because when you got down to it, he was going to say whatever he was going to say, and you could say whatever you wanted to say, there weren’t going to be any holds barred.

Robert Birnbaum:How many hours did you spend with him, do you think? Do you have any sense of the amount?

Peter Guralnick: No. Hundreds.

Robert Birnbaum:On tape?

Peter Guralnick: On tape, I would say several hundred. We did a documentary in 1999, and that really, actually, for one thing I think it brought us closer. Everybody says, “Oh, you were friends with Sam for 25 years.” I wasn’t. It took a long time – and there were lots of stages to pass through along the way. As he said to me, and I’m sure you picked up on this in the book, he said, “My son Knox loved you from the minute he met you – but I didn’t.” I mean, he could say things, and some people might think, Well, did you feel intimidated? Insulted? But I had no basis to be insulted. I’m just interested in Sam’s reaction, whatever my personal feelings might be. And it’s not that I don’t have personal feelings – that I can’t be enormously gratified at times, or disappointed at others. But you really have to take the view that it’s all phenomenological – Pete the Writer, as Solomon Burke pointed out to me, is different from Pete the Person.

Robert Birnbaum:It’s understandable to expect that if you spend that much time with someone and you connect the project to love and admiration.

Peter Guralnick:But, I wasn’t saying that to him. Sam prided himself on his ability to read people. He said to me, kind of to explain his withholding of approval, or love, or whatever, from me over that period of time, “Well, I know you had your doubts about me for a long time.” And I’m thinking, “Boy, talk about projection! I was sold on you from the minute we met.” But that was okay. The point was, as I worked on the Elvis biography, and I interviewed Sam a good number of times and came to know him better. I would say during that time, we became friendly, not friends exactly, but friendly, friendlier. Then during that time period, Knox and I began to talk to him about doing the documentary. Which is something he wanted more than anything in the world, but to which he kept saying no for 6 or 7 years—

Robert Birnbaum:He wanted to do it, but he said, no?

Peter Guralnick:He said, no. I came to realize when we finally did it, the reason that I think he said no, was because he was so committed, with any project that he involved himself in, there was just no holding back. Shooting the documentary meant three, four months of doing nothing but that. I think that’s what he was reluctant to commit himself to. There was no drinking, there was nothing but the project. To some extent it involved an extremely challenging attempt at reigning himself in, which he wasn’t altogether successful at. There was no attempt to influence the outcome – I mean, he was disappointed that his nephew, Phillip Darby, wasn’t in it, because Phillip had been so instrumental in setting everything up in Florence, and he did a great interview, too. But other than that, there may have been some things he didn’t like about the show, but there was never any issue.

Robert Birnbaum:Was he being interviewed by other people when he came back into public life after ’79?

Peter Guralnick:Totally.

Robert Birnbaum:What was your sense of those conversations, was he as frank and honest with them, with everybody as with you?

Peter Guralnick::I think so. And, you know, the thing was, in the aftermath of doing the documentary. I think that’s when we really became good friends. I mean, you know, everything operates on the eleemosynary principle

Robert Birnbaum:Which principle?

Peter Guralnick:Eleemosynary. It’s my father’s favorite word, my father is 99 now, and he always used the word, ‘eleemosynary’ from the time I was a kid, but at the age of 90 he came to feel he had been misusing it all those years. But I’m going to stick to the way he always meant it.

Robert Birnbaum:What does it mean?

Peter Guralnick: It’s doing well by doing good.

Robert Birnbaum:              [inaudible 00:44:02].

Peter Kind of, I guess so. It’s why Sam for example, I don’t think I used the word in the book – I’m sure I didn’t – but when Sam was trying to persuade Jules Bihari, the oldest of the Bihari brothers, who had Modern Records, and then Leonard Chess, too, that they had to pay the black acts, and pay them well – they had to pay them for their songs as well as their performance, the argument that he used was that it was only by paying them, by recognizing their worth financially, as well as in the respect that they accorded them, that they would give the artist a sense of true self-worth, self-empowerment and get out of the artist the best that he or she had to offer. And, in the process, sell more records.

 

Robert Birnbaum: Can we talk a little bit about post-racial music.  There was a Viagra commercial or Cialis that had a Howlin Wolf song behind it.

 

Peter Guralnick:Yeah, right. Elvis, too.

Robert Birnbaum:To me that’s astounding.

Peter Guralnick:  One of the great benefits of having Tivo, or I guess any DVR, but I’m sticking with Tivo, is not seeing the ads. But really what we’re talking about here is the ultimate commercialization, or Disneyification, or commodification of – well, of everything. Everything is just grist for the mill – the mill, I guess, being the marketplace, the infomill, the way in which we are distracted, or distract ourselves – from what? I mean, it doesn’t matter if it’s Beethoven or Picasso or Howlin’ Wolf – it just comes down to trivialization, it reduces everything to the ironic wink. It denigrates the whole idea of intrinsic worth.

Robert Birnbaum:I think we’re past that, I think I’ve told you it’s past that.

Peter Guralnick:We’re way past it.

Robert Birnbaum:Right, but I do always think of when I hear that. I remember hearing a Charlie Mingus, “Goodbye Pork Pie,” in a Volkswagen commercial. My first thought was, I tried to  imagine the meeting, the creative meeting, “Oh, wait what kind of music, what are we going to do here?” Then some 25 year old, who just discovered Charlie Mingus goes, “Why don’t we play this,” and they go, “Yeah, that’s hip.” Without just even acknowledging that this guy was a masterful musician, that he created some of the best music of our time. Just throw it in behind a Volkswagen ad.

 

We’ve got to assume the commercials are about making people stupid anyway.

Peter Guralnick: Oh, I don’t know, I’m not just talking about commercials – really you’re talking about capitalism, you’re talking about the commodification of everything. But, you know, I’m not trying to offer any great judgments on this. I mean, I’m not the arbiter of taste. To tell you the truth, the first time this started happening on TV, I’ve got to admit I was kind of thrilled. I thought, “Wow, that’s incredible” – man, to see Wolf’s image in a Levis ad, or to hear him on a soundtrack, even if it was the soundtrack for a commercial, I thought, “Wow, that’s incredible!” because it seemed in a way, I know this is really silly, it seemed like he was being embraced by mainstream culture. But, I’ve gotten over that.

Robert Birnbaum:If it was being embraced, his records, his recordings would be sold out and there would be docudramas about his life. But getting back to Sam Phillips, what I wonder about is, his goal, his mission, or his hope was that this music would drop the barriers between races –

Peter Guralnick: At the end of his life he was saying, he believed that music had the power to stop wars. I think that this would be a further extension of this vision that he had, one that I wish were the case. I can’t say that I altogether endorse it, that I can see it altogether. Wish I could.

Robert Birnbaum:Music’s always been a powerful force in my life. I’m always listening to music, there are times when it takes me to places that nothing else does, so I think it’s probable. But, I don’t see that, maybe for a lot of people some music sometimes does that, but I don’t know that I see music as the cleansing elevating force. What I wanted to say was, this notion that there’s divide between white people and black people on music, that never made sense to me. I guess what the music corporations didn’t get was that there was always an audience.

Peter Guralnick:There was always a crossover too. If Jimmie Rodgers is the father of country music and is in essence a blues singer. There’s a certain irony in that, isn’t there? I mean, crossover always existed, but it was like segregation being the law of the land –I mean, it may have been the law, but in fact it was a total denial, an attempt to deny the way that things actually were. That in the South in particular blacks and whites were living cheek by jowl, that you have a history of mixed race that goes back forever, and that the majoritarian culture never was willing to acknowledge, from slavery on.

Robert Birnbaum;Plus, I’m sure a lot of white people, for their entertainment went to backwoods juke joints.,

Peter Guralnick:I don’t think so.

Robert Birnbaum:You see it in the movies every once and awhile, some white kids end up at some  black ….

Peter Guralnick:This would be really extraordinary. I don’t think Howlin Wolf and B.B. King saw too many white kids. The one thing I’d say is that you can’t dismiss the historical context, the fact that black and white music were separated commercially, in the way that they were sold, in the way that they were accounted, right up until the advent of Rock and Roll

Robert Birnbaum:The advent of ‘rock and roll ‘ coincided with the advent of teenagism.

Peter Guralnick: This is the way it’s come to be seen.

Robert Birnbaum:Maybe that’s retrospective.

Peter Guralnick:I’m not convinced that that’s actually what it was. I mean, Ray Charles was not a teen artist, but he was very accessible artist, as well as being a very profound artist, just like Louis Jordan in a much slyer, more ironic way before him (and he was one of the few who actually reached a pop audience, like the Ink Spots, or the Golden Gate Quartet, I suppose, in the ‘40s). I’m not sure it had anything to do with the teen audience, their popularity, they were looking to be popular artists like Frank Sinatra, at first on the r&b charts, but then when the charts really opened up, on the pop charts, too.

Robert Birnbaum:Do you know the story of Ray Charles going to, playing Birmingham Alabama. He had a white Jewish guitar player. Do you know the story, it’s in the, “The Wrecking Crew,” the book[11] ? There’s a white Jewish guy whose in the Wrecking Crew, but Ray Charles liked him so much he hired him for his band. They’re playing a gig in Birmingham, the State Troopers are in front of the venue, where they’re unloading. They get on the bus and they’re looking and they see this white guy.This guy starts speaking pseudo-Spanish. So it was okay if he was Spanish.

Peter Guralnick: I hope with curly hair.The point was that, the music had the potential to break down barriers all along. And what Sam foresaw, was that the power of the music, the scope of the music, just the grandeur of the music would break down those artificial categories. As it turned out, it didn’t happen exactly the way the he foresaw it, but it did in effect happen. Not because of Sam alone, or Elvis either, obviously, it was something that was in the air, to which they contributed enormously.

Robert Birnbaum:Why do people want to say that Rocket 88, was the first Rock and Roll song?

Peter Guralnick:I think it probably goes back to Paul Ackerman, the editor of Billboard, as far as I can tell he was calling it the first rock ‘n’ roll record early on, maybe as early as 1956-57. I mean, really, you could point to “Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening” just as well. But if you’re talking about “Rocket 88,” basically, I think it’s because of the propulsiveness of the rhythm, because of the subject, maybe it was because of the lead guitar and the sound that was coming out of that guitar as a result of the amp being busted. (To Sam, that was an original sound.) To me it just seems to capture the spirit of the age, in its rawness, its exuberance, its brashly optimistic post-war mood. But again, I don’t know that it was aimed at the teen market at all when it first came out. In retrospect, it came to fit the definition of teenage music that was imposed on rock ‘n’ roll – as much as a commercial label, a marketing tool, as anything else. And in a way I think that was the least important part. I mean, think of someone like Fats Domino – what makes him a teen artist? I don’t think he was. He was a blues singer, he was a rhythm and blues singer, he was a pop singer. I mean, to begin with, he was a huge R&B star, and as a Rock and Roller he became a huge pop star, with a uniquely lovable appeal.

 

Robert Birnbaum:Are we seeing a eternal return with the adoption of Rap music by white kids? Or, identification with?

Peter Guralnick:

Peter Guralnick: Oh, I suppose so – but that’s always been true. There’s always been an exchange of cultures, ever since the invention of the radio and the phonograph, ever since you had these tools for mass dissemination. I mean, there are no more purely isolated cultures, although there are certainly regional strains. I remember, one time David Evans took me to see R.L. Burnside at his home, it seemed like it was somewhere out in the woods, somewhere around Coldwater or Holly Springs, Mississippi. And he just rolled back the rug, took out all the furniture, and people came and danced to this incredible, driving music – and it was all R.L. Burnside and his sons. It was original, as Sam might have said. But even in this isolated situation, the music you heard was heavily tied to the commercial music R.L. Burnside grew up with – I mean, it wasn’t isolated at all. The point is he’s playing music that actually is tied directly to Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, but he’s not impervious to other influences, too. Nobody is. When I talked to Howlin Wolf and I said, “Where did you get your howl from?” he says, “Jimmie Rodgers.” I’m writing down “Tommy Johnson,” or I’m thinking, “Mississippi Sheiks,” and he’s saying, “Jimmie Rodgers” – you, know, the Singing Brakeman, the “father of country music.” He was very insistent on it. So you never know. I mean, you have somebody like, Bobby “Blue” Bland, being equally influenced by the sermons of Aretha’s father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, and Perry Como. Cultural theft is such a misunderstanding in so many ways, because you have cultural exchange going on all the time – in all directions. If you’re talking about monetary theft, there you’re describing capitalism and to some extent, you’re talking about the theft of what they earned from people who simply don’t know contractual language, the language of business, both blacks and whites, blacks more so certainly on a broad societal basis, but there’s no question that in the music business hillbilly artists, kids, neophytes of every sort have been just as disadvantaged and stolen from on that basis. To get past that, you might have to overthrow the whole capitalist system.

Robert Birnbaum:I worked in record stores. I worked for an independent record promoter in Chicago for a couple of years. I worked for a record company. My sense of it always was, it was one of the filthiest, most corrupt businesses, I couldn’t think of anything more corrupt. Maybe the movies with the Hollywood bookkeeping system…

Peter Guralnick:I would argue that if you’ve worked in other areas of business.

Robert Birnbaum:They were just as dirty?

Peter Guralnick:Many of them, sure. My father who has been a physician all his life and at 99 is still fighting for a better system, a single payer system, a system that puts the patient at the center of the treatment, rather than on the sidelines. I’m not saying he would endorse this view –  but I think you could find the same kind of financial manipulation within the medical field. Look at all the doctors who are called to order, or called up on their overcharging, on their misuse of the system. I feel like when there’s a profit motive, and it is in essence the primary one, it will tend to misplace a certain sense of priorities

Robert Birnbaum:I agree with you, but I think what I’ve noticed is that there were less regulation of the systems, so that for instance if you are an independent distributor and you wanted to get a record played, boxes of records would go out your back door over to the radio station.

Peter Guralnick:It was less regulated in a sense, but surely after the financial crisis of 2007-2008, how much more regulated….

Robert Birnbaum:By regulation I don’t mean that kind of regulation. I just mean there wasn’t that much book keeping, loosey-goosey, expense accounts were pretty. When I worked for a record company people, my colleague promotion men. —when they went to a conferences or  prom tours they would charge watches to their hotel room.

Peter Guralnick:I’m not arguing for them, or for that system. I’m only saying, how many more millions were squandered in similar ways, but magnified beyond imagination, on Wall Street, by the whole financial system –

Robert Birnbaum:In the main I would agree with you. If there’s a profit motive, your contractor’s going to try and rip you off, it’s not even that it’s ripping off. They understand the game is to maximize whatever money they can and if they have to gain that system. That’s legitimate really.

Peter Guralnick:All my life, this is from the example of my father and my grandfather, I’ve tried to find people that I can work with on a handshake basis. Which would be everybody from Michael Pietsch, down to the plumber or the carpenter or the electrician. Whom I value as highly as anybody. I’m looking for those people, people like that, and I’m looking to act that way myself.

Robert Birnbaum:What I’m hearing and what I’m sensing, is that your father and your grandfather were people who actually lived by certain moral imperatives —that this was part of their conversation, their approach to life.

Peter Guralnick: It was always part of the conversation. It was always – not the subtext, it was the conversation itself.

Robert Birnbaum:Which is  glaringly missing from everyday life.

Peter Guralnick: It’s the conversation I always tried to have with my kids. It’s the conversation I try, however limited it may be, that I try to have with my grandchildren and that my kids have with their children. I’m not trying to prescribe anything for anybody else, but to me, I don’t know anything else. I don’t know how people can be led to vote. You just want people to be able to think for themselves.

Robert Birnbaum:What is that Jewish maxim, “You save a life, you save a universe.” Something like that. That’s, I think ,the way it is. We have to end this, but I think we should talk again and maybe I’ll take a drive up to Newburyport when the weather is nice. I usually don’t even leave my zip code , but I could take a drive up north. Anyway, this was enjoyable.

Peter Guralnick:I feel like I misled you, I took you down too many divergent pathways.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s what a conversation is,isn’t it? Well, thank you.

###########

ENDNOTES

* Dream Boogie is also a poem by Langston Hughes which he reads here

1) Sam Phillips, singer

2) Micheal Pietsch,NPR interview

3)  Jess Walter, my conversation with

4) Howling Wolf biography

5) Larry Tye biography of Satchel Paige

6) Mark Feeney interview with Peter

7)David Hadju, one of my conversations with

8) Tom Mallon , my latest conversation with

9) TC Boyle/ Riven Rock

“Stanley McCormick, youngest son of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the mechanical reaper and founder of what was to become International Harvester, was confined for most of his adult life on a grand estate not far from where I now live. Shortly after his marriage to Katherine Dexter, a socialite from Boston (and the first female graduate in the biological sciences from M.I.T.), he suffered a mental breakdown that manifested itself in extreme hostility toward women, his wife in particular. He was diagnosed as a “schizophrenic sexual maniac,” and locked away in Riven Rock, the family estate. Katherine nonetheless remained married to him all his life and never stopped looking for a cure to his condition. What many readers have found interesting here is that the most outlandish developments, like those in The Road to Wellville, adhere very closely to reported facts, proving once again that pure invention is no match for the truly bizarre and sad ways in which we organize our lives. That said, this is a love story, grand, depressing, and, I hope, ultimately touching. It is also morbidly funny.”

10) Chet Baker, Lets Get Lost trailer

11) The Wrecking Crew The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret  by Kent Hartman

“In Los Angeles in 1960s-70s, if you wanted to record a chart-topping track or album, you called in the crack session musicians collectively known as the Wrecking Crew. Consisting of artists unknown outside the music industry, like drummer Hal Blaine and bass player Carol Kaye, as well as those who would go on to recording fame of their own, such as Glenn Campbell and Leon Russell, the Wrecking Crew was the West Coast’s cream of the crop of session players, backing top-notch hit makers Phil Spector, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, and many more. Hartman (marketing, Portland State Univ.), who has worked with many well-known recording artists including Hall & Oates, Three Dog Night, and Lyle Lovett, tells the group’s definitive story with a music industry insider’s insight and enthusiasm. The only other work on these behind-the-scenes pros is Blaine’s Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew, which is more narrowly focused on the experiences of the stalwart drummer. Verdict: Recommended for readers interested in popular music and the music industry, particularly West Coast pop and classic rock.” ―Library Journal

There is also a documentary called the Wrecking Crew. Here’s the trailer

 

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