“He realized he liked nighthawking and did not want to spend a lifetime teaching English.”

From a book review by Dwight Garner in the New York Times headlined “The Music Biographer Peter Guralnick’s New Book Covers Many Subjects—Including Himself”:

Peter Guralnick is a commanding figure in music biography; his lives of Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips are, as the Michelin guides used to say, worth the journey. His new book is a collection made up primarily of decades-old profiles and essays, some rewritten. It’s not so commanding. There’s something warmed-over about it. Reading it is like watching Merle Haggard perform in an uptight club with a quiet policy and a two-drink minimum.

Actually, that doesn’t sound so terrible.

Guralnick’s biographies work because he’s a peerless researcher with an unobtrusive style. He knows everything. He fits puzzle pieces into a seamless whole. . . .

“Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing” is a collection of profiles of figures such as Skip James and Howlin’ Wolf, Tammy Wynette and Bill Monroe, Ray Charles and Leiber and Stoller, Chuck Berry and Colonel Parker. There are visits with two of Guralnick’s favorite novelists, the Southerner Lee Smith and the enigmatic Englishman Henry Green. . . .

He worked in bookstores and wrote for The Boston Phoenix, the city’s late, lamented alternative weekly. He wanted to be a fiction writer and wrote many unpublished novels. He found himself teaching classics at Boston University and hanging around blues clubs.

He came to realize that he liked nighthawking and did not want to “spend a lifetime teaching English in a muted, well-bred academic setting. And so my fate was sealed. It involved an admission I had never wanted to make: that I was drawn not just to the music but to the life.”

Guralnick is a good quoter of other writers. Albert Murray, in a letter to his friend Ralph Ellison, lets fly, writing: “That goddamned Ray ass Charles absorbs everything and uses everything. Absorbs it and assimilates it with all that sanctified, stew meat smelling, mattress stirring,” guilt, violence, “jailhouse dodging,” secondhand American dream material, “and sometimes it comes out like a sermon” and sometimes it comes out like Count Basie but better. Whew!

Murray had a jitterbugging critic’s full-tilt mind; Guralnick is more pensive. He’s better on the details of the lives of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Monroe than he is on, let’s say, how they tapped into the collective hillbilly subconsciousness. . . .

It’s a cliché to remark that a book sent you running back to its subjects’ work with fresh eyes. But Guralnick’s book contains good endnotes, replete with savvy song recommendations.

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