Guralnick interview

Music Q&A with Peter Guralnick at Inside Vandy (Vanderbilt University):

I’ve never written a single piece about anybody or anything that I haven’t chosen myself and hasn’t been out of my admiration for their work. It would be inconceivable for me to write something about a subject that I wasn’t totally invested in.

6 thoughts on “Guralnick interview

  1. I’ve always enjoyed Guralnick’s writings. It would have been pretty interesting/humorous to see him in the Chicago blues clubs back in the day. As an academic and a white boy, I bet he raised a few eyebrows when he walked into those places.

  2. For the record, I’m still not sure how I feel about what I quoted here — I tend to not think it as admirable as it appears at first blush. Saying “It would be inconceivable for me to write something about a subject that I wasn’t totally invested in” implies a prior emotional investment in the subject but perhaps as well an unwillingness to explore uncharted or unfamiliar territory. Am I reading too much into that?

  3. Some of the best things I think I’ve written have been about subjects I wouldn’t have chosen myself. It would be nice to be able to write about whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, but being stretched every now and then does a body good.

  4. I just found this quote from Peter Guralnick and have to add my two cents. I have great respect for Guralnick’s work and have learned much from him about Elvis and Southern R&B and soul. His “Sweet Soul Music” was a big inspiration to me, and an important source while I was writing my own book.

    But I find this quote very anti-journalistic and a bit elitist, and I believe it may send the wrong message to younger music journalists. It would be inconceivable for *me* to write exclusively about artists whose work I totally admire. If I wrote only about topics that I have chosen, or that I’m interested in, or that I personally appreciate, I don’t think I would have discovered or learned or grown much as a writer or thinker, nor would I have the context to see important connections between different musics and cultures and points of view. I’ve had to challenge my preconceptions many times in my career, and I’m grateful for those challenges. I think this is part of being a journalist.

    Personally, I would have become bored long ago if, as a fledgling reporter, I had written only about topics I wanted to cover (R.E.M., Meat Puppets, Percy Sledge — or Abbie Hoffman) and not been assigned pieces I grudgingly went into because the editor assigned them (Reba McEntire, Amy Grant — or the Republican guy running for county commissioner). Twenty-five years later I’m still assigned topics I wouldn’t choose for myself, and I’m grateful to get the work and to continue being exposed to music and other topics I wouldn’t naturally gravitate to. I don’t always end up liking or admiring the artist or subject of a piece, but in covering it, I listen, study, learn and grow. And I believe this serves our readers.

    Not to question Guralnick’s honesty, but having read much of his work, I can’t imagine he hasn’t also spent time studying, listening to and writing about some artists whose music he didn’t totally admire. I do agree that it’s crucial to be totally *invested* in a topic, but writers can — and should, I think — become fully invested in pieces on artists or subjects they don’t totally admire. Perhaps I’m missing Guralnick’s point or taking this quote out of context. Or maybe he considers himself more of a music historian than a journalist and there are procedural differences among historians that I’m not as familiar with.

    I would love to hear others’ thoughts on this topic.

  5. I think Peter’s quote speaks to the question of engagement. It’s awful to write about things you don’t care about. I’ve had to do that, and it’s killed me every time. What comes to mind is the year I spent doing live reviews for the Times in 91-92. There were concerts that were great (Neil Young’s Harvest Moon acoustic show), and a few that were fascinatingly awful (Michael Bolton), but the 80% in between were just mediocre, and it was dispiriting to go out night after night and cover music that made me shrug. I think reviewing the Arc Angels was a lowpoint. They were so dull and capable. And Tracy Chapman. People around me were crying, and I just squirmed miserably.

    You can look at it as if Peter’s saying we should all live in an ivory tower and only write about the things that we already know we’re passionate about. Or you can read it as: If you don’t have something to say, don’t say anything. I realize that’s a hard rule for working writers to live by, because if someone offers us an assignment, we want to take it. I’ve had assignments come down the pike where I went in cynical and snobbish (Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow) and came out with my mind opened; and I’ve found myself vomiting something forward at 3 am because I couldn’t leave an editor with an empty page. But I don’t think it’s a bad to STRIVE toward the ideal of saying something when you have something to say (positive or negative; I’m all for vehement complaining).

    The opening lines of Lost Highway:

    “I never wanted to be a critic. Perhaps I should amend that to explain that my initial impulse to write about music and musicians stemmed solely from a personal enthusiasm, from a conviction that what I was writing about was important and could be important to others, too.”

    And it goes on beautifully from there.

  6. It *does* go on beautifully from there.

    Great points, Karen. I had forgotten about that beginning in Lost Highway. Just cracked open my old copy and there it was. I think it perfectly corroborates the consistency of his approach, and my comments on it now seem very myopic. Not everyone comes into music writing via journalism — something I just totally presumed.

    Also, I guess I never really reviewed a *huge* number of concerts when I was a reporter at my first newspaper, so I didn’t have to go to so many that it became a drudgery. But your remarks on your experiences at the Times jogged my suppressed memory of the mediocre shows I went to with an ex in Los Angeles who covered a lot of live music for the LA Times. It could be pretty draining.

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