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Talking with Peter Guralnick 

click to enlarge Peter Guralnick
  • Peter Guralnick

I came to Elvis by way of the blues," said Peter Guralnick in a recent telephone interview with the Independent, "and when Elvis didn't sing the blues, I was seeing 'sellout' all over the place."

Gradually the music writer came to appreciate Elvis the crooner, the honky-tonker, the gospel harmonizer, as a singer who brought together almost every strand of the American musical tradition.

"Since the development of the folk instruments of mass dissemination -- the radio, the phonograph, the jukebox -- it is futile to look for purity in musical styles," said Guralnick, citing the highly interesting case of Sacred Steel, a musical hybrid that arose in black Pentecostal churches, adding the country steel guitar to the usual gospel ensemble. That a tradition "that nobody knew about, flourishing in isolation" can exist, says Guralnick, is a sign that in music "synthesis is inevitable."

Guralnick is the foremost authority on Elvis' importance as a musician, reminding us that because of the freewheeling way Elvis shuffled musical styles -- kick-starting a dreamy bluegrass waltz such as "Blue Moon Over Kentucky" into a jangling rockabilly number -- he was important not just in himself, but because he gave other musicians permission to do what he did. "In this way, he was a catalyst for rock 'n' roll," he said.

Another catalyst was Sam Phillips, Elvis' first producer and the subject of Guralnick's next project, a documentary for cable channel A&E, set to air in June. Phillips, said Guralnick, "was always pushing musicians to simplify, simplify. If you listen to the sessions for 'Mystery Train,' Scotty Moore (Elvis' guitarist) starts out playing a complicated Chet Atkins lead, and he ends up with a sort of proto-power chording. Sam Phillips was always pushing the rhythm right up front."

Guralnick laments Albert Goldman's 1981 biography, which calls Elvis "a masticator of Black-flavored bubblegum," "the biggest putz in the history of show business," and, in an unforgettably repugnant simile, describes late Elvis lying in his bed, "propped up like a big fat woman recovering from some operation to her reproductive organs."

In the introduction to Careless Love, Guralnick writes: "We live in pathological times ... moral judgments have no place in describing a life." Goldman's biography, in direct contradiction of that standard, presents a model of what you didn't want Elvis' life to be.

"You could find lots of models for that," Guralnick observes dryly. "Goldman's judgments have nothing to do with the people he's writing about. He's talking about himself -- there's a lot of self-revulsion there."

And Guralnick scoffs at Goldman's indiscreet speculations about Elvis' sexual habits. "You think Goldman was in the bedroom?" he said.

Guralnick believes in restraint, forbearance, empathy. In the same introduction, he quotes Milan Kundera: "Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel," suggesting by extension that it is not immorality of the biography as well. "Knowing as much as we can about somebody and still not rejecting them as a person is a real-life exercise in self-knowledge."

For Goldman, Elvis was, after his years with Sun records, a sellout and a fundamentally lazy artist who based his recorded performances on demo tapes that were sung in his style, in effect "pre-masticated."

"That shows that Goldman knew nothing about the way the music business works," said Guralnick. "This was standard practice in the industry. If you were a songwriter and you wanted to pitch a song to, say, Frank Sinatra, what you would do is make a demo with a singer who could reproduce some of Sinatra's mannerisms and then send it to Sinatra. So, of course, Sinatra's version is going to have some similarities to the demo."

Whom does Guralnick see carrying on Elvis' legacy today?

"The musical market has fragmented," he said. "Michael Jackson was probably the last performer to bring together the listening public in the way Elvis did."

And what does Guralnick think of Chris Issak, with his conked hair, his sleepwalking sexuality, and his voice, which, like young Elvis', easily alternates between hiccuping rockabilly and torch songs? "A remarkable singer, a soulful singer, and one who certainly knows every song Elvis ever recorded," said Guralnick.

Among current singer-songwriters he most admires are Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Doug Sahm, Elvis Costello (who used a few of Elvis' session musicians on King of America), musicians who, like Elvis, work at the busy crossroads of folk, blues, country and R&B. Guralnick mentions Nick Lowe's last few records, which Guralnick's son brought out on his label, Upstart Records.

Summing up his impressions of Elvis, the incomparable musician, Guralnick quotes Jake Hess, a white gospel singer who was one of Elvis' early idols: "There were certainly better singers than Elvis, but there was no one better at communicating a song."

-- John Broening

  • Peter Guralnick in a recent interview with the Independent.

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