Over and Out

Powers and Wyman

Over and Out

Powers and Wyman

Over and Out
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 28 1999 2:51 PM

Powers and Wyman

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Dear Ann:

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I think it's possible that Guralnick did not intend his work to be on the level of the Robert Caro LBJ biography--the one the silly guy in the Times book review compared it to. It's probably unfair to expect that sort of panorama, when in Guralnick's mind he's just trying to do justice to someone he views as a particularly dimly understood singer. Again, Guralnick is at root an appreciator, a noble spelunker in the unexplored caverns of American popular musicology who feels his subject was scarred by the Albert Goldman Elvis bio, which certainly gave Presley as good as he deserved and possible worse.

Sure there are two types of biography, but to me that's a tangential issue. The real test of books of this type--the one that animates for me many problems in criticism generally--is whether the writer takes the subject on his or her own terms. The biographer has to be on the reader's side, not the subject's. Bob Woodward's Wired was widely criticized for its flat tone, narrow perspective and lack of context--and it too did little but limn a descent, and not a pleasant one. It wasn't perfect, but Woodward has a rigid and trustworthy authorial ethos; Wired's bleakness unified the story and embodied the moral. As I think I said the first day of our dialogue, Guralnick has a weird filtering tic. He'll tell a story and then immediately start apologizing for it; as a reader you're brought up short by the rationalization. After it happens a few times you realize that--almost subconsciously--he's instinctively compensating for any negative impression he might leave.

Here's an example from the last pages of the book. Toward the end of a very long paragraph, we find that Presley's will stiffed his longtime "Memphis Mafia" buddies. Guralnick introduces this news with a curious abstraction ("There were no other individual bequests...") and then delivers this sentence: "The will, of course, did not address the reasons for these exclusions, but for all the generosity he had shown to the broadest circle of family and friends over the years, in the end it scarcely seems surprising that he should have returned to the small tight-knit, and set-apart group that had first nurtured him, when he and his mother and father occupied a lonely strip of safety in a hostile world." I find far too much special pleading in that sentence. In describing an act of first-class nincompoopery, Guralnick reflexively reminds the reader yet again of Presley's obsessive gift-giving. Then he pulls out the "poor lonely child" card. Worse, he leaves the reader with questions a good writer shouldn't leave: Wow, where did that resentment of his supposed friends come from? And what about Presley's famous concern about what people thought of him; was it just mortal weariness that left him unconcerned about what people would say when he was gone? What did his buddies say when the will was read?

For these reasons, while it's a decently researched decent read, I can't take it as serious biography. Rock and roll seems well established today, but it's still a cultural stepchild. With a few exceptions, standards for criticism, journalism, and biography are much lower in its milieu then they are in the political or high culture arenas. I'm not bemoaning that fact. Rock has a special purpose: It has to function as a secret language for succeeding generations of youth. Part of its continuing potency is based on the way this code or language changes. (Indeed, I think it's a defining characteristic of the music: The important thing, often, is not what's said, but the fact of its being said in a new code. It can be as easy as coming up with a sound that irritates your older brother.) Rock's supposed to exude an impenetrability. But both the passage of time and Presley's unique position in the music makes him actually an easier subject, to my mind. It's not even clear that he understood the code he helped create, and he certainly never allied himself with a youth revolt.

Our readers should know that there are many much better and more revelatory rock biographies. (Remember that Goldman got to much of the juicy Elvis stuff first.) I'd cite Nick Tosches' Jerry Lee Lewis bio, Hellfire, as the chief stylistic achievement of the genre; Robert Shelton's No Direction Home, on Dylan, as the best traditional literary biography; Tim White's deep Beach Boys saga, The Nearest Faraway Place, for fixing his subject's particular time and place; and Pete Brown and Stephen Gaines' The Love You Make, about the Beatles, as a model of clear-headed exposition of a confused story.

I've been feeling guilty about my formulation yesterday--Presley's story being something more, or less, than tragedy. It was a too-pat conundrum, and it was courteous of you not to call me on it. Rock exists in an odd space; ultimately it's defined by whatever its purveyors say it is. Presley is on one hand the music's universal icon, on the other, as I mentioned the other day, he's general-purpose whoopee cushion, both item of kitsch and uncertain god. The broken heart he died of seems an outsized source of pain, much different, for example, than the one that killed Kurt Cobain. His life, I think, was more than a tragedy; given his ambitions, and his status, for me it stands almost as an act of generational--societal--self-immolation. And archetype resonates as the right word: His story seems almost hardwired in the music and our minds. (Caught in a trap; can't walk out.) I confess I understand it less now than the day I first thought about it.

Bill

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Ann Powers is a pop critic for the
New York Times. She is writing a book about the emotional life of modern day bohemia, to be published in fall 1999. Bill Wyman is a critic and editor. He was formerly a staff writer at the Chicago Reader and arts editor of the SF Weekly. This week they discuss Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley,by Peter Guralnick, and Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin,by Alice Echols.