Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie follows You Send Me, Daniel Wolff’s serious and authoritative Sam Cooke biography, by ten years. It’s nearly twice as long–too long, like so many doorstops before it, including Careless Love, the second volume of Guralnick’s life of Elvis. But it draws on research that would have justified an even more monumental book. Guralnick doesn’t add much to Wolff’s thesis. Both argue that though the soul singer who predated soul music made many records that fell short of his artistic potential, he was nevertheless a heroic figure, topping a voice that for those who loved it was liquid magic–cool, relaxed, infinitely inviting–with a questing intelligence and cultural ambition startling in a teen idol whose most important compositions included “You Send Me” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.” As Cooke strove for pop success, he funded one of the most resolutely black labels the record business has known. He supported the civil rights movement in word and deed. He studied black history. At the time of his death in December 1964, he really was a hero, cut down in his prime at 33, and Guralnick’s sense of this man, and of the lesser men and women who surrounded him, is vastly more complex and vivid than his predecessor’s.
That Wolff is no hack hardly puts him in a league with Guralnick, who alongside the more eccentric and intellectually ambitious Greil Marcus is the prestige brand in rock authordom. By 1986 Guralnick had published two major profile collections and Sweet Soul Music, which remains the go-to history of the style. Yet only with the 1994 publication of Elvis I, Last Train to Memphis, did many outside the specialist audience recognize his gift. Even in the intermittently clumsy 1971 Feel Like Going Home, where five of the eight subjects are bluesmen, Guralnick’s self-effacing eye lent a cinéma vérité authority lacking in, for instance, Michael Lydon’s hipper and slicker collection Rock Folk. By 1979’s Lost Highway, which focuses on country and rockabilly, he was a master of the journalistic portrait. Yet for Guralnick, who until the 1990s made his living running a summer camp he’d inherited, journalism was only a means to literature. Despite a few shortcomings, Last Train to Memphis justified his ambitions–it is a book that grows in the mind. I can’t see how any reader could come away unmoved by Elvis Presley’s intelligence, musicality and sense of spiritual adventure, or still crediting the character assassinations of Albert Goldman’s Elvis, which Marcus once predicted would be conventional wisdom in perpetuity.
Formally, Last Train to Memphis represented a major change. In the profiles, Guralnick aimed for the intensive reporting of New Journalism, but he also exploited the freewheeling first person of sixties rock criticism. While he was most often the nerd in the corner, jotting down details as his subjects lived their lives and, occasionally, answered his questions, at moments–in introductions, conclusions, afterwords, interjections and sometimes whole essays–he became the A student dazzled by meeting one of his highly unsuburban heroes, or explaining what makes that hero tick, or figuring out how rock and roll changed his life. From the first he had confidence in opinions he adjusted as he learned more. Over the years, however, he grew more discreet about revealing them as such–where in Sweet Soul Music the narrative he was compelled to impose on a welter of secondhand evidence also proved a story of personal discovery, in Last Train to Memphis Guralnick disappeared entirely, avoiding the “I” and limiting psychological interpretation and critical judgment.
The book tells Presley’s story you-are-there fashion, with he-said-she-said at a minimum, and dazzles anyway because Guralnick’s interviewing persona–where he presumably maintains his admirer-not-expert pose–induces people to tell him the damnedest things. Arcing up toward infinity before crashing to the death of Gladys Presley and Elvis’s induction into the Army, Last Train to Memphis is an unflinchingly affectionate argument for democratic genius. But Guralnick found it harder to extract tragedy from Presley’s decline into drugged isolation, and though Careless Love was praised profusely, even gratefully–rock and roll’s challenge to the reading classes exposed as a sham–its accreted detail becomes as boring as the second half of the King’s life. Because Cooke’s life didn’t divide down the middle, Dream Boogie fuses the moods of the two Presley volumes. But in the end it’s diminished–not drastically but markedly–by Guralnick’s reluctance to say what he thinks, an MO in which formal principle and professional convenience are difficult to distinguish.