Here’s how I know a book isn’t working for me: it takes forever to finish. Not as in reading it was an exercise in tedium but that it actually takes years. I’m blessed in that I can come back and wade right in where I left off at any time. I’m cursed in that if I start I feel compelled to finish.
Peter Guralnick wrote the definitive Elvis Presley biography. Anybody who could get several hundred pages out of jump suits, peanut butter sandwiches and popping pills, especially when you know how the story ends, can write, right? Well, no.
Writing about music is hard because you’re really writing about emotion. So it’s always personal. Too often you get obsequiousness, hagiography or the author’s emotional state. I read a lot about music because it’s a passion and when I write about it I always feel like what I wound up with was not what I intended to write.
Sweet Soul Music is one man’s story of black music in the 1960s. Before everybody gets their knickers in a twist black was what they taught us to say in the 1960s. No less a person than JB told his listeners to “Say it loud/I’m black and proud.” This book is about the music made by James Brown, Solomon Burke and a host of others.
While the two singers named above loom large, lots of the book deals with the folks who often go unnoticed–the studio bands and owners in Memphis (Stax, Ardent and others) and Muscle Shoals. It’s nice to know this fabulous music was made by bands that were integrated when the society they lived in shunned it. It’s nice to know there were craven, shallow personalities, especially on the business side.
But is that enough to sustain 400 pages? Sadly, no. Plus there is too much authorial intrusion. I get that he loves the music. I don’t need to know about running around Boston buying singles, seeing shows and otherwise feeling like an acolyte at a secret service for true believers.
That’s the book’s fatal flaw. Because Guralnick needs to make his personal love universal and important he creates this whole superstructure where the music is a signifier of the Civil Rights movement. Clearly the performers who made this music were immersed in that epochal struggle. But they were also working at their craft and taking care of their families (or in JBs case building a business empire).
I think Guralnick, in typical, Baby Boomer, “isn’t it neat that a white kid like me discovered and loved black music” fashion needs for the music to be about all this stuff that he’s larded on. Maybe my radar for generational solipsism is just too finely attuned.
So it’s not a total loss I should point out Guralnick’s most important point. Unlike pop, soul music is adult music. Like country music (until recently) the subject matter includes betrayal and loss and pain and sacrifice and facing hard facts. It’s a shame that the entire culture seems to favor the juvenile these days.