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Peter Guralnick’s ‘Looking to Get Lost’ Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing
Peter Guralnick
Little, Brown and Company
October 2020

There’s a passage in music historian Peter Guralnick‘s new anthology Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing that rings bells with me. It has nothing to do with music. In a profile of the English novelist Henry Green (an early literary idol of his), Guralnick notes that he learned of Green’s death, in relative obscurity, from an article by John Updike in the New York Review of Books a full five years after the fact. “It rekindled memories [of Green] which I had suppressed,” he tells us, “along with an admiration which had never wavered.” Reflecting on an audience he’d had with Green in the latter’s London home when Guralnick was a young buck of 19, he writes, “I am reminded of what I noted with such sad and passionate naïveté in my journal when we met: ‘The fucking bastards,’ I wrote in an angry, illegible hand that I scarcely recognize anymore as my own. ‘He deserves something more.'”

Now, consider: Around the turn of the Millennium, as a 19-year-old aspiring guitar player working by day behind the guitar accessories counter at New York City’s Manny’s Music, I helped a customer with a purchase and happened to spot his last name on the paperwork. “Guralnick, huh?” I said. “Any relation to Peter Guralnick?”

“He’s my dad,” the guy replied.

The words “I’m a big fan,” and probably half a sentence of further gushing escaped my lips before I regained my sense of New York aloofness. “I bet people tell you that a lot,” I chuckled.

His reply? “You’re the first.”

The fucking bastards.


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My adolescent indignation could hardly have been more misplaced. At that point, the elder Guralnick had won awards and acclaim for, among other things, a trilogy of surveys of American musical genres, and an epic two-volume biography of Elvis Presley that Bob Dylan declared “cancels all others”. He topped bestseller lists and seen his byline in Rolling Stone. In short, Guralnick planted his flag on nearly every peak in the music-literature realm. And yet in this one revelation from his son, I saw an injustice.

Reading this new volume, my inner teenager takes heart that at least some justice has been done. Here, at last, a writer dedicated to exploring the lives and works of others, whose own work I’ve admired for so long, has taken an overdue turn for putting himself under the spotlight. Unlike his previous biographies and music histories, Looking to Get Lost is, on its face, simply a collection of profiles and essays (plus one adapted commencement address), cultivated from across Guralnick’s half-century career.

Individual chapters feature a variety of musicians, record-business icons, and even a couple of literary figures, but the absence of an overarching genre theme creates a void at center-stage, into which the author is drawn time and again to insert personal opinions and anecdotes. Even in chapters which retread memorable narratives from previous books, Guralnick’s more pronounced presence in the retelling adds a welcome new layer that makes them worth reading again.

Bookended with essays that focus on his family and early life, and containing more than one heartfelt tribute to a subject who had become his friend, this book is as close as Guralnick is likely to get to writing his autobiography. (Be warned: the chapters on Solomon Burke, Doc Pomus, and Dick Curless just might squeeze tears out of you.)

Having arranged an email Q&A with the author prior to snagging my copy of the book, I’m delighted to see the questions I have prepared answered, one by one, in the first chapter. Delighted and dismayed: What am I going to ask him now?

In some ways it’s odd, in the book’s explicitly autobiographical sections, to read first-person memories from childhood and early adulthood, written in that familiar voice that has so often been used in the service of other’s memories. It’s a reminder of just how much of his life’s work has been focused outward, and it comes almost as a surprise when reading about, for example, how Guralnick and his grandfather’s shared love for reading books fueled his ambition to become a writer one day. The voice that narrated the lives of Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips come from someone with a touching back-story of his own.

It makes one wonder; if the guy taking notes from the side of the stage can tell such fascinating stories about himself, why not allow music journalists some of the glamour and mystique that they heap on the performers whose lives they document? (Sure, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous did a lot on that score, but that film was released 20 years ago.)

Having pursued careers in both the musical and literary fields, I’m keenly aware of a disparity in the level of reward inherent in each métier. I’m not talking about money; I’ll call it the glory gap. As a musician, when I have a good take in the studio, I’ll get a pat on the back from people listening. When I finish a song onstage, I get a round of applause. As a writer, though, I can set down the best, most powerful prose I’ve ever written, and I have only my own gut to tell me it’s worth anything. If I’m lucky, an editor or a friend will tell me that thing I wrote days or weeks ago was good.

There’s an immediacy to music, an instant give-and-take that isn’t built into writing as an art form. Add to that the almost masochistic job description of writing about music, in which the writer must take a song or performance, break it down into its component parts to find the sparks of inspiration that fuel it, and translate them somehow into written language, and create an inexplicable joy explained, an invisible set of vibrations rendered into the static visual of black ink on a white page.

Before I’ve finished Looking to Get Lost, I find myself fishing around the internet for writers and musicians to get some other perspectives on what music writing and music writers mean to them. How has this genre of writing has inspired people, independently of the artists it portrays? Which music journalists have moved people, and how? Most of all, though, I wanted to know if I’m alone in fretting over the glory gap between those who stand in the spotlight for an hour and those who retreat to the light of a writing desk for a day to write about that hour.

I cast a wide net, expecting just one or two replies to the dozen messages I sent. I’m pleased not just at the volume of the response (nearly everyone I contacted has something to say), but also about how eager almost every writer is to give an opinion on the subject, particularly those who are journalists themselves. Pat Thomas, drummer and author of Listen Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 (2012) points me to his departed friend and Crawdaddy founder, Paul Williams. (I spent far more time reading Williams’ Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles (1993) in my college library than I spent on my textbooks.) Novelist Dana Spiotta, who did a fine job capturing the spirit of rock journalism for the (fictional) articles that take up much of her novel Stone Arabia, praises the music-lit giant Greil Marcus for the knowledge and history he draws upon, for “[h]is feel for Dylan, obviously, and for ‘Old, Weird America’.

Spiotta’s other hero, rock-lit wildman Lester Bangs, gets mentioned repeatedly. Journalist Tom Junod speaks of him with the fervor of a cult disciple: “Lester taught me so much — how to overwrite entertainingly; how to love and hate your subject simultaneously; how to compete with the people you are writing about; […] and above all how to put music in your music writing.” Junod even offers Bangs up as a kind of Anti-Guralnick. “Guralnick is not Lester, because he cares about the music too much; and because Lester loved without reverence, which would strike Guralnick as unthinkable. What I remember about [Guralnick’s] Elvis books was how even-handed they were, like two Greek columns; he didn’t leer and he didn’t sneer and yet I finished all 1,400 pages. But I like Lester a lot more because Peter writes, like all of us, about sinners, but Lester committed his own sins, right there on the page. Sham 69 Is Innocent!

While there’s certainly a sliver of truth to Junod’s words, they almost hurt to read, and I feel like sneering back, “Oh yeah?” and offering up the words of my Team Peter colleagues, blues musician/novelist Brian Kramer (on Guralnick’s Searching for Robert Johnson: “A paltry 83 pages, yet packed with names and places and photos that would make the hairs on the back of your neck quiver with delight”). Music journalist Amanda Petrusich find’s [Guralnick’s] “…prose funny, engaging, and at times, breathtakingly beautiful”. But at the same time, I feel a little thrill: This urge to compare our idols, to argue their merits and faults, it’s as old as the worn-out Beatles vs. Stones debate. And Junod’s words highlight that among at least some substratum of the population, that level of devotion is in fact awarded to the typewriting class.

Of course it’s only natural that this music-lit fandom should be confined to a smaller subset of devotees. The work these writers are doing is designed to enrich our understanding of the artists, their historical (and contemporary) influences, and to enhance the experience of listening to their music. In the first chapter of Looking to Get Lost, Guralnick speaks of the impulse that drove his writing from early on: “What I was interested in was exhortatory writing, writing that would bring the reader to the same appreciation of Ray Charles, Skip James, and Charlie Rich that I felt, that would in a sense mimic the same emotions not just that I experienced but that I believed the musician had put into the music in the first place.”

The problem with exhortatory writing, from the writer’s perspective, is that if it succeeds, it funnels its glory into its subject. I’m reminded of Stanley Booth who, in the opening chapter of 1984’s The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, lists all the things he wasn’t prepared to go through in the course of that book’s creation: “[W]hile writing it I would be assaulted by Confederate soldiers and Hell’s Angels, would go to jail, be run over by a lumber truck on the Memphis-Arkansas bridge, fall off a Georgia waterfall and break my back, have epileptic seizures while withdrawing from drugs.” It’s no wonder that writers don’t get enough respect if, upon finishing Booth’s masterpiece as a teenager, my first thought wasn’t Man, Stanley Booth sure can write, but rather Man, Keith Richards is the coolest. It seems only fitting to ask Booth himself: Does all of this seem unfair?

Booth is gracious when I reach out to him, and generous with his time. He points to his career-spanning collection from 2019, Red Hot and Blue: Fifty Years of Writing About Music, Memphis, and Motherf**kers, but he seems utterly nonplussed at the question. “My work is about emotion,” is the only definitive statement I can draw from him at first. He follows with “I love writing because when it’s well done it moves people’s hearts.” When I ask for examples, he responds with a list of his biggest literary influences (Flannery O’Connor, Jane Austen, Raymond Chandler, Herman Melville, and more), which I enjoy scanning through but the list gives me nothing to draw from for the subject at hand. I try coming at the question from a few angles, but in his laconic answers Booth struggles to offer anything substantial. I get the impression that I’m not reaching him, that the man’s ego just doesn’t smart the way I think it should.

Booth appears to be the norm. Greil Marcus answers my initial email with a couple of links to reviews he’s done of Guralnick’s books (Lost Highway, Careless Love), but while he voices his admiration for Guralnick (“Think of Peter’s piece on Skip James–that is about a sensibility he found that rang a bell, and he was able to catch the echoes”), he’s firm in his refusal to discuss the art of music writing in general.

Which brings me back to a point in Looking to Get Lost, in which one half of the legendary songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller responds to a question from Guralnick about fame. “‘We never considered being celebrated or in the limelight,’ says Leiber, almost irritated at the naïveté of the question. ‘That was not what we did. Any more than a stage-rigger would figure to have his name up in lights on Broadway — that’s not what you did, that wasn’t your job. And that wasn’t what your goal was.'”

Such emphatic words, from such a master craftsman, got me to thinking: Maybe it’s the craft that’s the goal. Perhaps that’s where I should be looking for my answers. So, how does one write about music? Guralnick brings up the old “dancing about architecture” cliché in his first chapter, only long enough to dismiss it. But when I put the question to others, it’s clearly a real issue. As Petrusich tells me: “Music is incredibly difficult to write about – to a degree it’s ineffable, and so your only choices, as a critic, are to dissect its constituent parts in a clinical way, consider it only contextually, or smother it with adjectives and metaphors.”

Rachel Genn, author of the upcoming music-biz novel What You Could Have Won, gets at the same thing in her reply: “What I am most interested in thinking about are shapes, tones, drifts, lilts. I wonder at the spectacle of performance: knowing that what you are doing is having such a grand effect in real time, right in front of you, must be almost too much and unfortunately I am drawn back repeatedly to writing about [it] almost too much. It is ironic that I tend to write more about the reactions to music than the music itself because I feel that the landscape of emotional response can be just as quiet and that the language that is recruited to explain affect is only recruited because the emotions dying for attention are the loudest ones. The subtle blends, the continuous accompaniments to mental life are often undetected by language.”

It all sounds so daunting, from a writer’s perspective, and for such a small return. The guy behind the counter at Manny’s would have wondered who would follow that glory-less path by choice. But then, I’m not 19 anymore. Years–make that decades –of writing songs, and then stories and essays of my own, have altered my thinking about where the glory lies in making art. Now having felt it in solitude more times than I can count, I can’t ignore the thrill of accomplishment I get from completing a piece of music or prose, even before my work reaches another soul.

Surely I’m being immature if I let my decades-old preconceptions drive my current thinking. I can’t quite articulate this artistic glory though, so I start asking around my impromptu network of writers – and, as it happens, finally, to Guralnick himself: Can you describe how you feel when you finish writing a piece, when the main idea has made it from your head onto the page?

Genn talks of relief, “When I’ve finished a piece I feel healed, in writing it I am so sore.” Junod seems more geared toward the accomplishment, and his answer rings true: “[Y]ou finish a story […], you win the battle against yourself.” Comparing that kind of glory with that of winning a prize, he tells me, “You win an award, you win the battle against other writers. The thrill lasts for a day (though the disappointment of losing lasts much longer!). The thrill of writing a story which you had no business writing lasts the rest of your life.”

And as soon as I pose the question to him, Booth comes finally, fully, to life: “There is no feeling I know like the thrill of finishing a piece of writing. It’s better than any other sensation I know. If you do your best and write really well, at the end you sometimes seem to get a lift and you write better than yourself. There’s nothing like it, not drugs, not sex, nothing.”

And with that, I think I have it all figured out. To stare down at that newly created work, a piece devoted to another but unquestionably a work of art drawn from one’s own soul, that’s the glory we as music writers seek. The clap on the back from a band-mate, the cheer of a crowd, these are gratifying, but they’re just echoes, the glory of the musician’s creation vibrating out and being bounced back at them. The source is the same thing: the creative triumph, the battle won against the self, the sense of pride, the relief. My review is finished, inside my head, awaiting only Guralnick’s email reply, from which I’ll pluck a pithy quote or two to drive home my point.

It’s strange then, when Guralnick does get back to me, how friendly he seems, how casual his tone appears, as he torpedoes my thesis in a couple of short paragraphs. “How I feel when I finish?” he says. “Surprised!” Not relieved. Not proud. Surprised. And though he allows, “It is worth [the hard work of writing],” he won’t conform with the triumphalism that my other interviewees have largely fallen into when considering their finished work. He won’t even yield completely to the very concept of finished work.

“[T]he real gratification comes in the evolution from idea to – well, whatever. (I don’t want to call it the ‘finished product,’ because aside from the crassness of the term, nothing is ever finished.) I mean, I just wrote a short story which I’d been thinking about for the last couple of years, and it ended up entirely different from anything I might ever have imagined. Which doesn’t mean good or bad necessarily. It’s just the experience of constant discovery.”

I haven’t had room in my article for talk of the creative process, except as a means to an end. There’s no place for Guralnick’s words in the outline I have in my head. Perhaps I ought to be annoyed. But oddly, I have no time. Because the instant the author’s words enter my head, I find myself diving back into the book, to re-read my favorite passages under a new lens: Joe Tex coming up with his breakout hit ‘Hold What You’ve Got’ as he ponders a real-life lost love; Ray Charles and a band-mate joking around, messing with the lyrics of a gospel tune on the radio, coming up with ‘I Got a Woman’ and in the process creating, by accident, the R&B sound that would both define his early style and help to revolutionize American music.

“The experience of constant discovery.” I read anew about Tex, Charles, and others, and I realize, This is what Guralnick has been talking about all along! The epiphany, the revelation, before the adulation, before the creation. That‘s the glory that we all seek. In a delightful twist, it’s upon this realization that I get a dose of it for myself.

Musing on his departed hero Henry Green, Guralnick writes in Looking to Get Lost, “I am hopeful that [he] will someday receive his due in the literary pantheon, where in E. M. Forster’s conceit all the great writers from every age are seated together in a vast, illimitable space, all spinning their tales simultaneously.” I’m not sure I’d wish the same for Guralnick. Rather, I see this writer-hero of mine plunged into a wilderness of creativity, where artists of all kinds, driven by an insatiable desire for new and exciting modes of self-expression, bend over their instruments, their computer keyboards, their mixing boards, in a constant state of striving and discovery. I can see Chess Records’ resident pianist Lafayette Leake sitting alongside him, as Guralnick witnessed him in a frustrating 1990s Willie Dixon recording session, “absolutely imperturbable at the keyboard, fingering the keys even during playbacks as if he were imagining a counterpoint to his own lyrical solos, filling the big, high-ceilinged room with music at every break in the action.”

Dixon, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, I imagine their spirits all around Guralnick, seeking what the author feels is the “one common denominator for all great music, […] its capacity to bring a smile to your lips.” Quoting producer Sam Phillips, Guralnick refers to “throwing yourself into the music with ABANDON.” He goes on, “It’s the one quality that unites Thelonious Monk and Jerry Lee Lewis, the Master Musicians of Joujouka and Howlin’ Wolf. The sheer delight that they take in making music. The gratification that they suggest awaits us all, if we will only give ourselves over to what is going on around us, right now.” If this is what it means to get lost, it’s a wonder anyone would ever care to be found.