Peter Guralnick Gets Lost

Books Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Peter Guralnick’s books are never quite finished. With every new edition comes another round of corrections, elaborations or reappraisals that reflect new information or attitudes on his subjects and the music they made. “They’ve all been revised to some extent,” he says. “I’ve gone back into all my books, but I try to make sure I don’t change them in a way that requires extensive rewriting. I can’t do that.”

The idea is to add to the books, but not to change them—which is the focus of his latest project. With his son and daughter, Guralnick is working on a new set of enhanced digital editions of several of his titles. First up: Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues, Country, and Rock ‘n’ Roll (1971) and Lost Highway: Journeys & Arrivals of American Musicians (1979). These digital versions will include archival audio interviews with several of his subjects, new video interviews and new chapters on Jerry Lee Lewis and Delbert McClinton.

These are essential studies in American roots music, written by one of the foremost historians working today in any field. Guralnick is a tireless researcher, and that process doesn’t end with the publication of the book or essay; rather, he is always plumbing the depths of a song or a genre or a life. Furthermore, his background in fiction brings an emphasis on character, narrative and scene to all of his books, making them not just histories but literary endeavors. His biographies of Sam Cooke (Dream Boogie) and Elvis Presley (two: Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love) have the scope and import of Great American Novels.

Revisiting these books is akin to debating great music with a previous version of himself. “What I write today,” Guralnick explains, “is going to be slightly different than if I hadn’t written it yesterday. It might be because of the weather or because of some deep depression over the future of democracy or because you just had a fight with, I don’t know, Santa Claus. The point is, there’s no total stability in your approach from day to day. Everything affects you, and I’ve always thought that’s the reason why there can never be a final version of anything. There’s nothing definitive in the ultimate objective sense.”

Guralnick spoke to Paste about these new digital editions from his home in Boston, where he’s putting the finishing touches on a biography of Sam Phillips.

Paste : What was the impetus for this project?
Guralnick: I owned the electronic and digital rights to a number of my books, and the idea of doing what is now called enhanced digital editions of them cropped up. It seemed like an exciting way to revisit and revivify material that has lived me all these years and bring something different to it. At first what we were going to bring to it was not at all definite. It was ultimately defined by Jake and Nina, my son and daughter. We joined some audio and visual components and in the case of Feel Like Going Home a bonus chapter. We went down to Memphis and shot some footage with Robert Gordon, who’s been a longtime friend. It was a lot of fun, but it’s not as though we started with a roadmap.

Paste : It sounds like you were adding to, but not changing, the original text—like remastering an album but not remixing it.
Guralnick: I didn’t want to create a different approach to the text by breaking it up and fragmenting it and having people read it in any order they wanted. I wasn’t interested in taking it apart. I would be doing the book a disservice if I attempted to jump in and rewrite it. This essentially preserves the books but expands upon them. Again, we hadn’t started out with this idea, but as we talked about it, it seemed like a good idea to include excerpts from the original interviews with Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Willie Dixon and Merle Haggard. To some extent it was dictated by what existed, because I didn’t always use a tape recorder. I spent a lot of time with Charlie Rich, but I didn’t have anything on tape. I can’t really explain why. It didn’t seem appropriate for some reason.

Paste : This kind of multimedia approach seems appropriate, considering these are books about music.
Guralnick: It’s another way of introducing the subject. You can hear Muddy Waters speak. You can hear Johnny Shines speak. I can remember vividly being down at the hotel where Muddy was staying—the Hotel Diplomat in downtown Boston, I think. This was one of the very first interviews that I did. He was sitting on the bed while we talked, playing slide guitar. So you have this very eloquent conversation that is punctuated by his playing. You never knew what he was going to do. These aren’t hi-fi recordings or anything. You can hear a dog bark while Merle Haggard’s talking. As Sam Phillips would say, they’re real. R. E. A. L. Real.

Paste : How has your relationship to these artists and their music changed as you’ve grown older?
Guralnick: I think it’s a deepening appreciation. The bonus chapter in Feel Like Going Home is a piece I wrote about Jerry Lee Lewis three or four years ago, and it’s kind of a bookend to the original chapter on him from 1970. He was living outside of Memphis with his wife, Myra Gale, whom he had married when she was 13. She was a ceramicist and was very nice. You can really see the difference between the two chapters. They both visit or revisit somebody whose work remains with me ever since I can remember. They’re different takes. The new chapter is not a revision of my feelings of admiration.

Paste : Has working on these projects with this tech changed the way you’re writing or publishing your upcoming book on Sam Phillips?
Guralnick: No. You know that song by Chet Baker, “Let’s Get Lost”? To me the whole aim in writing—in any form of art, and in life, too—is that you’re aiming for those moments when you actually do get lost. They can be few and far between. I could write for five or six hours, and it might be just 10 minutes in which I’m just totally lost, totally absorbed in what I’m doing, totally unaware of what’s going on outside the window. To me that is what writing is about. [Publishing an enhanced edition] has nothing to do with writing. It’s about being able to offer an additional window onto the world. That’s what’s exciting to me. But it’s entirely separate.

Paste : It almost sounds like a deluxe reissue of an album. These new elements are the bonus tracks, but the album itself remains inviolate.
Guralnick: Or a DVD with extras. That’s what it is. I think the DVD of L’Avventura is phenomenal. As is The Passenger with Jack Nicholson. They’re amazing DVDs, but they don’t change the film itself. They offer something entirely different that enhances your appreciation of the original. I’m not claiming that’s what we’ve accomplished, but I think the enthusiasm for the work is similar. If I weren’t enthusiastic about it, it wouldn’t be any fun at all. What would be the point?

Paste : Will any of your other books get this same kind of treatment?
Guralnick: We’re preparing the enhanced digital editions of Sweet Soul Music and Sam Cooke. With Sweet Soul Music, I’m going to include a bonus chapter on Joe Tex. I did a profile on him at the time, but it didn’t seem appropriate for the book. That’s been fun to work on. We’re going to have an extended piece on Solomon Burke, and there will be video stuff—a conversation with William Bell, for example, and some footage we shot at Stax. For Sam Cooke, I think we’re going to include a talk I have about the origins of “I Got a Woman” and some footage of driving around with L.C. Cooke and seeing all these landmarks from Sam’s past. These are things that exist on a certain level as artifacts, but they’ve been hidden away in the attic.