Two insightful new books explore the joy of deep music appreciation
“You listen to music for a living,” Peter Guralnick writes near the beginning of his new collection Looking to Get Lost, “and you no longer hear with the ears of the teenager who once discovered it. You pursue your curiosity, and it tends to carry you further and further afield, until the question arises: How do you get back to the place you once were?”
Since the mid-’60s, when he began writing about the blues for Crawdaddy!, Boston After Dark, and Rolling Stone, Guralnick has pursued a story that is quintessentially American: how one man (usually, the subject is male) comes from inauspicious beginnings, goes out into the world and asserts his place in it, and though sheer, undeniable will and presence, leaves a dramatic mark. Guralnick started out as a nervous teenager, approaching Skip James for an interview backstage at a club, wrote definitive books on what he calls “vernacular” American music (Feel Like Going Home, Lost Highway, Sweet Soul Music) and essential biographies of Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, and Sam Phillips. Where does creativity spring from, he is always asking. How does a musician reach the “state of abandon which all artists, whether knowingly or not, are searching for”?
The question he asks himself—how do you get back to the place you once were—he answers in Looking to Get Lost. These pieces, on legends like Ray Charles and Merle Haggard, less well-known figures like Dick Curless and Lonnie Mack, titans of blues and soul like Howlin’ Wolf and Solomon Burke, illuminate and celebrate; he’s a scholar, an inquisitor and a fan. The dilemma, and the joy, of making a living in the world that captivated you when you were young, the combination of accident and opportunity that allows you to stay close to your earliest passions, is that, as Guralick admits, you’re always trying to stay connected to why you got there to begin with. Can you live in both places? You read Guralnick on one evening when Howlin’ Wolf appeared on national television (I happened to be tuned in on that night as well) and his recollection is so vivid that it could have aired this week.
Guralnick calls it the greatest moment in television history when the Rolling Stones came on Shindig! in May 1965 and, after performing Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster”—the camera is extremely close-up on Jagger—Mick and a jumping-out-of-his-skin Brian Jones introduce Wolf, who does “How Many More Years.”
VIDEO: Howlin’ Wolf and The Rolling Stones on Shindig!
“He looked as though he were about to swallow the tiny harmonica in his mouth,” Guralnick recalls, “wiggled his hips in a wildly elephantine dance, then leapt up and down, with the Stones sitting at his feet, as if not just the stage but the entire world would shake.” It was a startling moment. The Stones, and the Animals, had been giving teenagers a basic education in U.S. blues, but chances to see the originators were rare, and there was the imposing Wolf, backed by Billy Preston, James Burton, and the Shindig! house band, prime time on ABC. Guralnick, it seems, has never recovered, and that’s part of what makes his writing so valuable: how he holds on, zeroes in, and then widens out to the bigger picture, to someone like Wolf’s, or Burke’s, place in his American pantheon of performers (where those two artists stand with James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis).
Guralnick is one of the vital “Listen to this!” voices. What is the point of keeping musical secrets? Why shouldn’t everyone be aware of country singer Dick Curless, or the albums guitarist Lonnie Mack made for Elektra, or the deep songwriting catalog of Doc Pomus? Reading Looking to Get Lost reminded me that I might never have become aware of jazz singer Mildred Bailey if John Hammond hadn’t walked past an office I was using at CBS Records and heard me playing a Maria Muldaur record; he asked if I knew about Bailey, and when I confessed that I hadn’t, he made sure I found out right away. Dion DiMucci has a similar Hammond story, about when Hammond introduced him to Robert Johnson’s music. We may think we know quite a bit, that we have been glued to music pretty obsessively, spent a lot of time down the alleys and dirt roads of blues, soul, jazz, country, but there have always been people like Hammond and Guralnick who say, Hold on, come down this street, here’s something you need to know about, and that’s how we stay in touch with the kids we were, who had to read label credits and liner notes to get to the bottom of every story: who are these people, who made this record possible?
There’s another new music book out, Mind Over Matter: The Myths and Mysteries of Detroit’s Fortune Records by Billy Miller and Michael Hurtt, and I promise, you have never held in your hands (you’ll need both to lift it) a more impassioned, comprehensive, and lavish examination of an independent record label. Over the course of more than 500 pages, Miller and Hurtt detail how owners Jack and Devora Brown—this was a mom-and-pop operation—put together a catalog of exceptional hillbilly, blues, rockabilly, raunchy instrumentals, and vocal group records, most of which you, I’d wager, have never heard. Maybe you know “Village of Love” by Nathaniel Mayer and the Fabulous Twilights, or “The Wind” by Nolan Strong and the Diablos (if you ever listened to Gus Gossert on the radio, you know a lot of Nolan Strong and the Diablos sides). Maybe you know “Bacon Fat” by Andre Williams, which Fortune leased to Epic Records. But most of the Fortune discography is obscure (I once bumped into Lenny Kaye, who wrote an introduction to Mind Over Matter, at a WFMU record fair, and he asked me to keep an eye out for any Fortune records I might come across in the crates).
Miller, who started Kicks magazine and Norton Records with his wife, Miriam Linna, had been working on this history of Fortune for a decade when he died in 2016, and Mind Over Matter is a monument not only to his dogged insistence on telling the story, but to all the hidden corners of American music, all the groups who put out a few singles, maybe made it to the Apollo, but never made the national pop charts. All the eccentrics like Andre Williams, who writes in a preface, “come on, rock ’n’ roll wasn’t built by superstars. It was built by strugglers.” Strugglers like The Gardenias (“I’m Laughing at You”), the Del Victors (“Acting Up”), the El Capris (“Girl of Mine”), the Five Dollars (“You Fool”), the wonderful Royal Jokers (“You Tickle Me Baby”). And of course, Nolan Strong, whose aching tenor was a big influence on another young singer from Detroit, Smokey Robinson. There are so many terrific records by Strong and the Diablos, including “Adios, My Desert Love,” “You’re the Only Girl, Dolores,” “Baby Be Mine,” and the exceedingly odd declaration, “(You’re Not Good Looking – But) You’re Presentable,” where Strong tells his girl – who he’s proposing to! – that while she may not be a cover girl, or a fashion plate, “I’m proud to introduce you to my friends.” You could segue from that into another less-than-effusive Fortune B-side, the Royal Jokers’ “I Don’t Like You That Much.”
Guides like Peter Guralnick and Billy Miller, writers and archivists devoted to unearthing, examining, and sharing the musical experiences that move them are, in a way, combining personal and cultural history. Guralnick is a character in his book, so the effect is something like a memoir through profiles (he writes that he considered calling the book Creativity: An Autobiography); the thread, he says, is “the imaginative impulse that drove” all his subjects, but it’s also about his own, about what drew him to these figures, why he was compelled to explore them. Miller and Hurtt are more invisible, but the result is similar; they make reading the history of a small, marginally successful record label feel like you’re at a friend’s house, digging through a meticulously organized stack of 45s, and he’s telling you about all these crazy, low-fi, inspired artifacts, why you ought to know about them, why they matter.
AUDIO: Nolan Strong & The Diablos “Mind Over Matter”