A Writing Career Among Trailblazing Music Stars

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Peter Guralnick has written acclaimed full-length biographies of Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips. His new book, “Looking to Get Lost,” includes briefer but potent profiles, some new and some from throughout his career, of trailblazing stars like Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Tammy Wynette and about two dozen others. On this week’s podcast, he talks about the decades he’s spent around the music he loves.

“One of the things about writing about anybody is: You’re not owed a single thing. You’re there at the sufferance of the person you’re writing for,” Guralnick says. “And I feel this in every case. Writing about these subjects has so expanded my own world, and being welcomed by all these people — whether it’s Ernest Tubb or it’s Muddy Waters, or just all of the people I’ve written about; having them take me in, welcome me to their worlds, show me their worlds, in so many instances, is just an element of generosity for which I’ll be forever grateful. And I’m the beneficiary. I hope they’re the beneficiary in some way, but I’m the greatest beneficiary.”

Alex Ross visits the podcast to discuss his new book, “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music,” about the impact of the German composer Richard Wagner’s art on everyone from Nietzsche and George Eliot to Willa Cather and Philip K. Dick.

The book also addresses at length Wagner’s political legacy, from his own beliefs to his influence on later generations, most notably Hitler and the Nazis. Ross says that Wagner’s politics were “just too complicated” to be fully mapped onto an ideology. “However,” he says, “the Nazis were able to use Wagner so effectively because those elements of Wagner were in a sense waiting to be activated. And the formulation I go back to, which I think is so brilliant, is Thomas Mann saying that Wagner lent himself to his own misuse.”

Also on this week’s episode, Alexandra Alter has news from the publishing world; and Dwight Garner and Jennifer Szalai talk about books they’ve recently reviewed. John Williams, filling in this week for Pamela Paul, is the host.

Here are the books discussed by the Times’s critics this week:

“What Becomes a Legend Most: A Biography of Richard Avedon” by Philip Gefter

“Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork” by Reeves Wiedeman

We would love to hear your thoughts about this episode, and about the Book Review’s podcast in general. You can send them to [email protected].

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