I am not a student of biography, I admit. I guess I’m a student of rock and roll, or an acolyte in the monkish sense of the word, or just a person who breathes it like air. When you call rock a cultural stepchild, I know you speak truth in the eyes of the intellectual elite–witness the fact that barely any serious rock criticism makes it into any of our higher-brow general interest publications. Yet I wince at the assertion, because if anybody’s going to raise the standards, it’s people like you and me, who care enough to endure the condescension of other self-styled intellectuals and keep on listening, dancing, writing about our beloved noise.
I agree with you about Nick Tosches setting an almost unmatchable standard with Hellfire and his other books. I also urge readers to pick up England’s Dreaming Jon Savage’s perspicaciously detailed, acerbic and loving chronicle of the Sex Pistols and the dawn of English punk. Then there are the critics who incorporate biography into their work–my first inspiration as a writer, the oft-mentioned (by us) Mr. Marcus, and my friend and mentor, Robert Christgau, who has a new collection out called Grown Up All Wrong (from Harvard University Press) that passionately and wisely argues for rock as a source of inspiration for heart, mind, and body. Writers like this demand that readers view rock lives as something more than gossip fodder, and they help make careers like mine possible.
Peter Guralnick does too, with his Elvis book more than his others, I think, because for all his sympathy toward his subject–and I can’t argue with your examples proving that point–he never descends into the chatty or melodramatic tones that characterize the celebrity biography industry. He may love Elvis, he may believe in the man, but he does so with the utmost seriousness. I don’t agree that Guralnick’s dedication to seeing Elvis’ point of view simply translates into ass-kissing. To quibble a point, the paragraph you quote about the will does not assert that Elvis was right in making that choice, but that he was acting in accordance with the ultimately scared, mistrustful, insular personality he’d displayed all his life. At that point in his story, Guralnick has already demonstrated plenty of disgusting, immoral, outrageous actions and thoughts emanating from his subject. He has discussed how Elvis saw Stalin turn into Jesus in the clouds, how he justified his drug use by saying downers helped him meditate, how he essentially raped Priscilla when she told him she was leaving him, how he planned on taking a contract out on the life of her lover, Mike Stone. Guralnick relates all this within a perspective that is petulant at times, vulnerable at others, and ultimately, profoundly alienated–the perspective he believes Elvis occupied. To step away and make, or even imply, moral judgements would break from his approach. And as a writer, that approach is what he remains allied to, more than to Elvis, even.
That’s the most remarkable thing about the Guralnick books. They are so much more literary than I’d expected, more like novels, really, than conventional biography. The effect of reading them is hypnotic–that’s why, when I turned away from them and to Alice Echols’ very fine Janis bio, I was jarred and frustrated at first. I wanted more of Guralnick’s narrative drug. I wanted to be in Elvis World for just a while longer. Now, you might still think that Elvis world is a bad place to be, with all its delusions and questionable ethics, but it’s an enchanted domain nonetheless. Guralnick gives us that. I, for one, happily let it seduce me.
P.S. This has been quite the stimulating exchange–I hope we get a chance to do it again–and that everybody who cares about rock will think as hard as we’ve been encouraged to here.