The Book Club

Philosophizing on Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll

Dear Bill,

I admire Courtney and her artistic efforts greatly. I don’t always agree with her, but she would be boring if I did.

Your comments about the real effects of rock stars’ actions made me think a bit about the nature of biography, and now seems as good a time as any to get back to the books we’re supposed to be assessing.

(For any anxious consumer-guide-oriented readers eavesdropping out there, here’s my opinion: The Guralnick books are great in tone, perspicacious in research, sleazy enough for the prurient, and smart enough for those who ennoble the King. The second volume is more of a page-turner than the first, not only because the dirt lies thicker but because there’s more of Elvis, more of his voice and his thoughts and his life, in it. The first, however, gave me more revelations, both about his personal life and about the artistic process that made him the King. The Janis book didn’t teach me much, but that’s because I’d done a lot of research into Joplin already, and Alice Echols does a stellar job of resurrecting the world in which Janis lived, portraying its attitudes about all the things that are important in life–sex, drugs, rock and roll–in evenhanded, nuanced detail. It does read a bit like a book by someone who’s not primarily a music critic, but then most readers aren’t music critics, so who cares? I don’t attach grades, points, or stars to record reviews if I can help it, so I won’t do it here. In either case, readers will get their money’s worth.)

Now, back to the high-minded philosophizing about the nature of sex, drugs, and rock and roll that people like me specialize in. And of biography. The way old-fashioned notion of the genre had it presenting exemplary lives; the first truly popular biographies, after all, were lives of the saints. I think by now, however, our culture is sufficiently secularized that we don’t equate the elevation of fame with moral perfection. We do have a lust for fame, as a culture, and we want to know what qualities single out the people who attain it. Readers live vicariously through celebrities, and a book like Guralnick’s certainly makes that possible to an almost ridiculous degree. But I sincerely believe that anyone who puts down Careless Love, or Sweet Scars of Paradise, and thinks, “I want to be like that” should make an appointment with a shrink.

Of course, there’s another way that lives are exemplary: They represent aspects of our history, they tell the common tale through the individual. Echols makes this the purpose of her book, in many ways. She even calls it a story of the 1960s at one point. Guralnick, dealing with one of the world’s great freaks, has a harder time finding universals and basically chooses not to try. Maybe his use of words like “tragedy” feels wrong to you because a tragedy is also traditionally exemplary, from Oedipus on. Myself, I was equally intrigued by the disconnections between Elvis’s personality and life and the common man’s. He really wasn’t like most people. He was bizarre, from childhood on. Given that, it’s amazing that he became an archetype.

Or is it?