Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!
Fri February 7, 2014
Not My Job: An American Music Historian Gets Quizzed On K-Pop
Originally published on Sat February 8, 2014 11:17 am
If you want to know what Elvis' fur lampshade looks like, you can go to Graceland, but if you want to know what Elvis was really like, you have to read Peter Guralnick's classic two-volume biography of the King. We've invited Guralnick, the author of a number of books about American music, to play a game called "Heyyyyy, sexy ladies!" (That, of course, is a line from Gangnam Style by South Korean singer Psy.) Since Guralnick is a expert in American music, we'll ask him three questions about K-pop, the slickly produced videos and songs from Korea that are taking the world by storm.
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where we bring in experts to ask them about things they don't know anything about. It's really just a waste of their time, but they keep saying yes.
If you want to know what Elvis Presley's fur lamp looks like, you can go to Graceland. If you want to know what Elvis himself was really like, you have to read Peter Guralnick's magisterial two-volume biography of the King. Mr. Guralnick has written a number of books about American music. We are delighted to have him with us. Peter Guralnick, welcome to WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!
PETER GURALNICK: Oh, thanks very much.
SAGAL: So like I said, you've written a number of books about American music, soul music and Sam Cooke. But you're mainly known for this great two-volume biography, two books, "Last Train to Memphis" and "Careless Love," about Elvis. Did you ever meet Elvis?
GURALNICK: No, I never met him, but I did write him a letter.
SAGAL: You did?
GURALNICK: And I was able to validate the fact that I'd written him the letter when I did the research for my biography. We got into the archives of Graceland, and eventually we got into Vernon's office.
SAGAL: Vernon was Elvis' father, right?
GURALNICK: Vernon was Elvis' father. This was a big thrill, and we were there in our white gloves and stuff. Now I had written this letter to Elvis about 1967.
SAGAL: What did it say?
GURALNICK: Well, I told him that I was a big fan, that I loved the music, that I knew he got a lot of requests for interviews, I knew he didn't do any interviews but that if he ever were of a mind to do an interview that I was ready to travel to Memphis and do the interview, which thrilled him I'm sure.
GURALNICK: But it did - or it may not have thrilled him, but it did provoke a response. I got a Christmas card that year and for several years thereafter.
SAGAL: From Elvis?
GURALNICK: It was, you know, a printed Christmas card, but it was from Elvis.
SAGAL: So you're saying that when you were looking through the files, you found this letter?
GURALNICK: When I was looking through the files, they had to break the padlock. The file cabinets hadn't been opened since Vernon's death in about 1982. And we're going through the file cabinets, and we're finding all kinds of things, and there was my letter, you know, that Vernon had preserved in his archive. So I took that as a good stroke.
SAGAL: You shouldn't - you know what you should've done? You should've just taken them and said there, I've been looking for this, and walked right out.
SAGAL: Now how old were you when you wrote that letter to Elvis?
GURALNICK: I was I guess about 23, yeah.
SAGAL: Twenty-three, and weren't you supposed to - this is like 1967, you're 23 years old in 1967, weren't you supposed to be into, like, what, Jimi Hendrix or The Rolling Stones or like - or The Who or bands like that at that time, or The Beatles?
GURALNICK: No, I had just fallen into the blues when I was about 15. I mean, I was just totally (unintelligible)...
SAGAL: Well, so did I, but, you know, I just wrote really bad poetry and wore black turtlenecks.
GURALNICK: Well, you know, I was inclined to that, too. But really it was the blues that led me to everything, including to Elvis because it was around that time that RCA put out Elvis' blues sides from Sun. And I just thought oh my God, Elvis was a blues singer. He missed his calling. I was just thrilled to discover "Mystery Train" and "Good Rockin' Tonight" and all these songs. So blues led me everywhere.
It led me to soul, it led me to gospel, it led me to country. It led me to Elvis, too.
SAGAL: I have to say, like, like, this biography is so precise. It's like and then on this day, Elvis got up and had this for breakfast. It was his usual peanut butter and banana sandwich, but this time the toasting was only moderate. The toast was set to four.
GURALNICK: And Elvis threw a fit because he wanted it darker.
SAGAL: Yeah, exactly. I mean, did you ever, like, find yourself, like, having lunch and going what would Elvis Presley eat for lunch, what would? I mean, did you lose yourself in his life?
GURALNICK: Well, I think with all of the books I've written, I mean, with Sam Cooke, with Sam Phillips now, it's a process of total immersion. I hope it's not immersion in breakfast practices, although cereal is important.
GURALNICK: But I - no, I mean, the thing is it is total immersion, and you wind up in this dialogue, this imaginary dialogue where you're looking for the answer to questions that you'll never be able to pose.
SAGAL: Now this biography of Elvis, which I've read and enjoyed, and it completely changed my mind about Elvis because you make a case that he was this incredibly important American musician, but for most people when they think of Elvis, they think of the jumpsuit Elvis of Vegas, they think of, you know, the caricature and the sideburns.
And when you were telling people, they say, well, Peter Guralnick, you're a well-known author, you've, you know, you've got all these accolades, what are you working on. And you'd say I'm working on a two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, what do people say?
GURALNICK: I didn't tell them.
GURALNICK: I was concerned that when the book came out that it would just be dismissed. But, you know, as it turned out I was wrong, and I think that today people recognize the music, they recognize the art, and they recognize the conscious intent that was behind the music.
SAGAL: Now - there's a cliché, of course, of the older man, or woman I guess, saying the music you kids listen to these days is terrible, you should hear the music I listen to. Let me - you must be the worst person like that who's ever lived.
GURALNICK: No, I like all kinds of music. I mean, I'm drawn to what I'm drawn to. I'm interested in what I'm interested in, and it doesn't bother me that somebody else likes something else.
SAGAL: So you're going to write a two-volume biography of Kesha?
GURALNICK: I'm not going to guarantee that.
SAGAL: OK, well Peter Guralnick, we've asked you here to play a game we're calling...
CARL KASELL: Hey, sexy ladies.
SAGAL: Carl, pay attention to what we're doing here.
SAGAL: No that of course Carl was of course doing his best Psy. That's a line from his bit hit "Gangnam Style." You know, Peter Guralnick, you're probably the foremost authority on American popular music. We're going to talk to you, though, about K-pop, the slickly produced videos and songs from Korea that are taking the world by storm. Answer two questions correctly, you'll win our prize for one of our listeners, Carl's voice on their home answering machine. Carl, who is Peter Guralnick playing for?
KASELL: He is playing for Robbi Sherwin of Austin, Texas.
SAGAL: Ready to play?
GURALNICK: But do I get to choose Roxanne's version?
SAGAL: Yeah, another man falls under your spell, Roxanne. K-Pop is usually takes the form of bands, girl groups, boy groups. And they're always carefully groomed, and, like, they're manufactured by these agencies, with young kids training for years before being selected and formed into a group.
They have to obey strict rules during their training, such as which of these: A, never be seen in public not smiling; B, an only speak in song lyrics; C, cannot eat or drink anything after 7 p.m.
GURALNICK: I'm going to go for B.
SAGAL: You're going to go for B, they can only speak in song lyrics?
SAGAL: No, it's actually C. It was true of one agency. They didn't want their girls, of course, to get either chubby or hydrated, so no eating or drinking anything after 7 p.m. OK.
SAGAL: Now next question. Now K-Pop idols, once they form a band or are launched as a solo act, they become incredibly famous in Korea and all over Asia. They get recognized everywhere they go, even when they wear disguises sometimes. Why: A, fans can identify them just by their arms and legs; B, they are said to glow; C, even their body odor is famous, and fans recognize it?
GURALNICK: I'm going to go for the arms and legs, or the...
SAGAL: And that would be correct, the arms and legs is the answer.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
PAULA POUNDSTONE: All right.
SAGAL: They often appear wearing skimpy outfits, and thus their arms and legs can be - I mean, people say I know that arm, and they rush up to them in public.
All right, last question, you can get it all - you can win it all if you get this right. Now if you ever watch a K-Pop video, you'll notice the incredibly elaborate dance routines. I recommend people look for Girl Generation on YouTube if you want to see one of these. One band manager told the New York Times that the choreography in these videos and routines is inspired by what? A, Fred Astaire and Ginger Roberts - excuse me, Roberts, tribute to you, Roxanne. Sorry, I'll try that again.
A, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, if they were robots; B, Goose-stepping North Korean soldiers, but, quote, with an infectious sense of joy, unquote; or C, the panicked running mobs in Godzilla movies.
GURALNICK: These are tough choices.
SAGAL: They are.
GURALNICK: I'll go with Fred Astaire and Ginger Roberts.
SAGAL: Yes, wise choice. Ginger Roberts had to do everything Fred Asterisk did but backwards.
SAGAL: So you're going to do Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as robots as the inspiration?
SAGAL: I'm afraid is was B, goose-stepping North Korean soldiers.
SAGAL: Carl, how did Peter Guralnick do on our quiz?
KASELL: He needed at least two correct answers to win, but he had just one correct answer, Peter.
SAGAL: Oh, bummer.
TOM BODETT: But the man knows his Elvis.
SAGAL: He does, and that's what's important. And I think we should ask you this, since you are probably the foremost living expert on Elvis Presley. Is he alive?
GURALNICK: When we were in Vernon's office, there was a telephone that had been disconnected probably 30 years before, and they told us you can't call out on that because it was disconnected 30 years before. And about 11 o'clock on the second night we were there, the telephone rang. And when we picked up, there appeared to be no one there, but I think that may have been Elvis trying to tell us something.
POUNDSTONE: Wow, that's scary.
ROXANNE ROBERTS: I think that's cool.
GURALNICK: I would've thought I made it up except I was there.
SAGAL: Peter Guralnick is the author of the great biography of Elvis, two volumes, "Last Train to Memphis" and "Careless Love." There are now ebook re-issues of his books "Feel Like Going Home" and "Lost Highway." Peter Guralnick, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!
POUNDSTONE: Thanks, Peter.
GURALNICK: thank you.
SAGAL: Thank you, sir.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SAGAL: In just a minute Carl takes a bite of a tasty burger in our listener limerick challenge. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT, to join us on air.
Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Progressive Insurance, helping people shop for car insurance at 1-800-Progressive and Progressive.com; The Langeloth Foundation, supporting innovative health and mental health programs for underserved populations, at Langeloth.org; and Lumber Liquidators, offering a variety of sustainably harvested flooring, including pre-finished and stained at 1-800-HARDWOOD.
We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME! from NPR Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.