Undercover: Life Against Death—A Backward Glance (04/17/80)

What we have below is a conflict between history as a legacy that sustains and informs the present, and history as a field to be plundered for fun, profit and decomposing bodies. The choice is a hard one, but as the Clash sing on London Calling: “So Billy said, ‘Hey, Stagger/I’m gonna make my big attack/I’m gonna have to leave my knife… in your back.'”

Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians, by Peter Guralnick (Godine Press, 376 pp.: illustrated: $8.95 paperback). A companion volume to Guralnick’s classic Feel Like Going Home and, startlingly, far better.

The subject is music making, and the making of a decent life in the gap between success and failure. His technique is the interview, woven seamlessly into biography; reporting, musicology. Presented with affection and authority, as heroes and losers, are twenty performers, among them Ernest Tubb, Rufus Thomas, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Otis Spann, James Talky, Bobby Bland, Scotty Moore, Charlie Feathers and Howlin’ Wolf. There is a complex, finally shattering account of Charlie Rich taking on the crowd at Max’s Kansas City as the recognition he’s worked for all his life breaks over his head; a deadpan look into the abyss by way of a portrait of the indomitable black country singer Stoney Edwards, a major analysis of the career of Elvis Presley.

The book closes with a historic conversation with Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records and a founder of rock & roll, who, with satisfaction, rage and regret, sums up the past thirty years of American music and delivers himself of warnings about the American future. Guralnick has produced more than a tribute to the lost highway that carries the music he loves best: he has come through with a map of it.

Some Do, a novel by Jane De Lynn (Pocket Books, 372 pp., $2.50). Seven Berkeley women try to make sense of their lives as the Sixties turns into the Seventies, and feminism raises all questions anew. This is satire straight out of Vonnegut, condescending and ever-mistrustful of the reader; for the first 200 pages, De Lynn seems far more interested in letting you know how superior she is to her characters than in bringing them to life. That at least one woman—a strange, bitter, antisexual anti-heroine—comes into focus in the last chapters and takes a stand perhaps unprecedented in contemporary fiction, does not rescue a novel of almost willful triviality.

Fire in the Streets: America in the 1960’s, by Milton Viorst (Simon and Schuster. 591 pp., $14.95). Viorst establishes his bias on the contents page: the period from the sit-ins of ’60 to the Mississippi Summer of ’64 is “The Creation,” and that from the Free Speech Movement of fall ’64 to the Chicago Convention of ’68 (lots of hot, gerundial chapter titles here, like “Igniting Berkeley,” “Exploding Watts,” “Blackening Power”—get the fire metaphors?) is “The Disintegration.” He deepens his bias with a slickly reductionist format: each year of the decade is represented by some important event, which is in turn illuminated by an interview with a participant. With his choice of talking heads, Viorst’s bias collapses the book’s conceit. His subjects are all men; almost all are respectable, media-certified leaders, and most seem chosen for their current inability to threaten the present—or the future. Two of them are worse.

For the Mississippi Summer, Viorst speaks not to a black organizer, but to Joe Rauh, a white, liberal attorney; for Free Speech he chooses, of all people, Clark Kerr, in 1964 president of the University of California. Not only was Kerr the most uncomprehending target of that epochal revolt; for most of that fall he was conveniently out of town. Such selections suggest that Viorst has hedged his bets. I mean, why not go all the way? Why not Arthur Schlesinger on the March on Washington? William Styron on black power? Let’s not mess around.

Those Who Died Young: Cult Heroes of the Twentieth Century, by Marianne Sinclair (Penguin, 192 pp., illustrated, $9.95 paperback). An idea born dead.

Elvis: We Love You Tender, by Dee Presley, Billy Rick and David Stanley, as told to Martin Torgoff (Delacorte, 395 pp., illustrated, $14.95). One Who Died Young’s father’s second wife’s and her kids’ memories of their year with the Godhead—who, you know, had his problems, all of which his father’s second wife and her kids did their best to solve. The result is Elvis What Happened? with tears. Coming soon: I Only Wanted to Help, by Dr. George Nichopoulos; Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire, by Geraldo Rivera; and The Nichopoulos-Rivera Cover-up, by Sylvia Meagher. More news as it happens.

Rolling Stone, April 17, 1980


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