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MUSIC

In his new anthology, rock historian Peter Guralnick chooses his own adventures

An acclaimed biographer, Peter Guralnick's new book is an anthology of essays.
An acclaimed biographer, Peter Guralnick's new book is an anthology of essays.Mike Leahy

Then there was the time when Solomon Burke tried to get his journalist friend to set up a temporary bank account, to help him arrange a shady real estate deal.

Peter Guralnick, the writer, told Burke, the R&B preacher, that he “didn’t play” like that.

“That’s what I love about you, Pete,” Burke replied, a big grin stretching across his big face. “You always take the long view.”

Since his beginnings in the late 1960s at Crawdaddy!, the first real rock magazine, and Boston After Dark, the precursor to the Boston Phoenix, Guralnick has established himself as the cultural historian who, when it comes to the roots of American rock ‘n’ roll, always takes the long view. His early books compiled unforgettable portraits of blues, soul, and country paragons (some of whom were on the verge of being forgotten), and his two-volume biography of Elvis Presley (“Last Train to Memphis,” “Careless Love”) is an undisputed benchmark.

After finishing his acclaimed biographies of Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips (“The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll”), Guralnick has spent the last few years revisiting the shorter pieces of his early career. “Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing,” available Tuesday, features essays written from inside some of popular music’s longest shadows — Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton. But it also tells a subtle story of Guralnick’s own long journey.

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“Looking to Get Lost” is a kind of sequel to his 1979 collection “Lost Highway,” Guralnick says, with one notable exception: "The through-line really is the personal perspective.

“In some ways, this is as close as I’ll ever get to writing a memoir.”

Author Peter Guralnick (left) with Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry.
Author Peter Guralnick (left) with Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry.Ultan Guilfoyle

And so readers will learn about Guralnick’s long, unlikely Mutt and Jeff friendship with Burke, the heavyset “Bishop of Soul” who was also a trained mortician; his first encounter with Chuck Berry, at a long-vanished Kenmore Square club in 1967, when the young writer shyly handed the rock ‘n’ roll architect a stapled copy of his short story collection, named after Berry’s song “Almost Grown” (“ ‘Cool,’ he said, or the equivalent, and flashed me what I took to be an encouraging, if inescapably sardonic, smile” ); and the life lessons Guralnick learned from his father, a highly regarded oral surgeon, and his grandfather, whose summer camp on Lake Winnipesaukee the writer and his wife, Alexandra, ran for two decades.

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For the pieces collected in “Looking to Get Lost” — some written years ago but significantly revised here, many others new work — Guralnick says he set himself a goal.

“I let myself go more, more of a conversational style,” he says, speaking on the phone from his home in West Newbury. “I don’t want to call it ‘swinging,’ but I mean that in the sense that it’s free from some of the formal constraints I might’ve put on myself when I was 27 years old.”

Though he was always known for the thorough details of his writing, “my interests have deepened,” he says. “I’m as interested in Muddy Waters today as I was when I first wrote about him. None of these things are passing fancies for me.”

While so many of his peers in the 1970s were writing about music in the “gonzo” style, unabashedly fueled by booze and drugs, Guralnick stayed sober on the page. He set out to recognize the dignity in his subjects and their art, he says.

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“I [didn’t] want to go ‘me, me, me.’ Nor [did] I want to use language or tropes that were confined to a particular time.

“I didn’t want to be uncool — nobody does,” he adds with a laugh. “But at the same time, I didn’t want to ever use the word ‘groovy,’ or ‘outtasight.’”

In hindsight, he says, he has come to realize he was probably influenced by the late Whitney Balliett’s decades of writing for the New Yorker about jazz masters like Monk and Coltrane.

“He assumed the significance and importance of their work,” Guralnick says. “I don’t know that I achieved that, but he thought they were worthy of that kind of consideration, giving his very best language and style to bring out who they were.”

Despite his modesty, Guralnick long ago established his own bona fides. His archives are now located in the Southern Folklife Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A few years ago, he sold almost all of his 5,000 albums to the Record Exchange in Salem. He’s been making time to listen to the Spotify playlists his granddaughters compile for him. He’s been listening to Lil Baby and Kendrick Lamar, he says.

“I really liked [Beyonce’s] ‘Black Parade,’ ” he says.

But he still keeps hard copies of the music he considers timeless: “I have probably the equivalent of 10 CDs of Charley Patton.”

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Guralnick, who is 76, still plays competitive tennis; he played baseball — not softball — until he was 48, with mostly much younger men. One of his biggest regrets, he says, is the story he never got to do on Satchel Paige, which he pitched to Rolling Stone, to no avail.

In late 1994, Guralnick met Dick Curless for the first time. Curless, who had just a few months to live, was in a Western Massachusetts studio, cutting his final album, with Guralnick’s son, Jake, producing.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been more taken with anyone on first acquaintance than I was by Dick Curless,” he writes to open one of the new book’s centerpieces, a “non-fiction novella,” as the author calls it, about the ups and downs of Curless, the biggest country music star ever to emerge from the state of Maine.

Terry Chinnock is Curless’s daughter and the wife of the late Bill Chinnock, another songwriter. A few days ago she was eagerly awaiting her copy of Guralnick’s new book. Told that the section on her father runs to 70 pages, she said, “Oh, sweet.”

“Dad was pretty open,” she said. “It’s a tough business, and Peter captures all that, I think. Artists are so creative and emotional — they’re not business people.”

Chinnock has remained in touch with Guralnick for more than two decades, since he interviewed her father at length, shortly before his death. Recently, she says, she traveled to Nashville to make arrangements for the Country Music Hall of Fame to take possession of her father’s massive archive — “1,899 pounds of memorabilia,” she says.

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“It’s probably the largest collection they’ve ever had on a single artist,” she says.

Peter Guralnick (left) with Dick Curless (in hat), whom he met months before the singer's death.
Peter Guralnick (left) with Dick Curless (in hat), whom he met months before the singer's death.Nina Guralnick

The chapter on the singer, famous for his association with Buck Owens and for his signature eyepatch — “The Return of the Tumbleweed Kid,” Guralnick titled it — ended up “altogether different than the way I might’ve imagined it back in 1995,” he says.

“In a way, I would have liked to airbrush all the things he told me, but his commitment was to tell me the truth,” Guralnick says. “The picture-postcard view, he just had no use for it.”

He worked hard on the piece, he says.

“To my point of view, everything is the process,” he says. Years ago, he might have assumed the writing would get easier as he got older: “If anything, it’s gotten harder — you set higher standards. I think if it did get easier, I’d feel I was falling into a formulaic pattern.”

During one of his many adventures with Solomon Burke, the singer posed a question that has stuck with Guralnick ever since.

“Tell me,” Burke asked, “when you’re alone in your room at night, who is it that’s Pete the Writer?”

All these years later, Guralnick says, he still has no answer. Characteristically, however, his own reaction isn’t really what matters.

“Isn’t that an amazing question?” he says. “Honestly, that’s one of the most profound things anyone ever said to me.”

Peter Guralnick discusses “Looking to Get Lost” with Elvis Costello, Oct. 26 at 7 p.m., presented by the Strand Bookstore, New York, www.strandbooks.com/events; Guralnick also appears in conversation with Rosanne Cash, Nov. 12 at 8 p.m., presented by Politics and Prose, www.politics-prose.com/events

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.