Written by Lisa Solod Warren
Published November 24, 2008
When cartoonist Walt Kelly said, in 1952, "We have met the enemy and
he is us," he probably had no idea how applicable it would become
throughout the years to follow. Yet for the people who shaped the
1960s and for whom by the 1970s "most of the significant components
of the 1960s dream had come apart or had been subsumed, from both
internal and external pressures," (Mikal Gilmore, in Stories Done:
Writing on the 1960s and its Discontents) the enemy, in a very real
way, had become themselves.
As Gilmore adds, "Illumination, defeat, genius, madness, joy, death
and misspent permission all exacted their toll." And that toll rang
the bell that spelled the end of an era.
But what an era it was.
In Stories Done, Gilmore chronicles the lives of, among others, Allen
Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Johnny Cash, Ken Kesey, The Beatles, Hunter
S. Thompson, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen - a litany of
names which indicate the broken brilliance of those involved in the
dream that was the 1960s.
As Gilmore states, "Most of the people I've chronicled here produced
something remarkable despite themselves, despite whatever broke or
finished them or perhaps made them ignoble. The merits that came from
their fucked-upness are, I believe, what made them great; it's what
made their names and their works lasting, no matter how much they
were failing themselves or others. We still save whatever blessings
they left us."
One can disagree with that thesis, but Gilmore, with his
straightforward prose and meticulous reporting, gets us as close as
he can to the people he profiles and interviews, and as nearly inside
Haight-Ashbury during the summer of love and loss, as well as beside
Leary's actual deathbed, as is humanly possible - so that we can make
up our own minds.
We also go inside the recording studios with the Allman Brothers
before and after Duane dies, and we're with George Harrison during
many of his crises of confidence as he learns to write and perform
without the Beatles. In perhaps my favorite piece in the book, he
gets almost as close to Leonard Cohen as I would like to be,
introducing us to Cohen the cook, the host, the depressive, and the
As Gilmore notes, "It is sometimes overlooked that Cohen possesses
one of the longest-running careers of any serious artist working in
popular music--a career that, in vital ways, predates those of the
Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and even Ray Charles, Johnny Cash and
Elvis Presley. Which isn't to say that Cohen recorded music before
any of those other artists did, but that he was certainly creating a
major body of enduring work before most of them became known (and for
the record, he was indeed playing guitar in a country-western band
well before Elvis Presley ever wandered into Sam Phillips's Sun Studios)."
Cohen was also the author of two poetry collections and a very
successful novel entitled Beautiful Losers (for all of you Cohen
fans). According to Gilmore: "Just as Allen Ginsburg's Howl opened up
new territory and new courage in American literature in 1955, Leonard
Cohen's Beautiful Losers opened up new perspectives about form and
time in modern fiction--and many writers and critics still cite it as
a major event in postwar literature,"
But, says Gilmore, Cohen later told the New York Times, that "All my
writing has guitars behind it," and Cohen went on to write some of
the most profound and stirring popular music of our time, music that
to this day is being covered by new artists, and he continues to
record. Yet, even as late as 1984, his records sold modestly in the
U.S., and legend has it that a Columbia record producer told him
"Leonard, we know you're great, but we just don't know if you're any good."
In fact, it seems that that epigram might apply to many of the people
Gilmore profiles. Duane Allman and his brother came from nowhere,
taught themselves the guitar, and talked their way into a band, which
achieved an amazing amount of fame until Allman drove into the back
of a truck and a fellow band member died a year later. While the
Allman Brothers Band would rise again, people tend to forget what an
amazing guitarist Duane was in those brief shining moments. In fact,
rock and roll music would never be the same after the 1960s. Hunter
S. Thompson changed journalism forever, and Timothy Leary did the
same for psychology.
The common threads that caused both the highs and the crash were
rebellion, drugs, and the general intoxication that goes with the
possibility that the possibility exists that one can change
everything. As Gilmore points out, "In the 1950s and 1960s...our
ambition then was to dispute mores and intimidate ideology: We meant
to be a threat, though we weren't always judicious about our purposes
In his introduction Gilmore states, "One of the Sixties' most
defining shifts in attitude was a growing sense, among great numbers
of young people and others (including politicos), that the existing
value system was not necessarily trustworthy, and that we no longer
had to defer to dominant social conventions and ideologies. To put it
more pointedly, we no longer had to ask permission for our choices
and convictions. This shift changed everything and led to much that
was remarkable. But because it happened so swiftly--within two or
three years really--and opened up so many chances in so much
uncertain territory, this hands-off creed conjured risks."
The risks and rewards have been endlessly debated, but the change has
stayed with us and it has been profound. Nothing that has come since
could have happened without those years.
Teenagers of today are tired of hearing about our generation. Hell,
even the generation behind us doesn't want to hear about it, but the
truth is that nothing they take for granted could have come without
what went before. They are still reading Hunter S. Thompson, and many
are still listening to Leonard Cohen and Led Zeppelin among so many
others. Ginsberg's Howl still can't be played on the radio (but it is
being taught in college classrooms).
Johnny Cash was the subject of a recent biopic and won an academy
award, but we all know his music is still subversive. Hip hop artists
are overlaying Sixties music with rap lyrics, and our
great-grandchildren will continue to listen to the Beatles. Finally,
look at the recent presidential election. What happened in the 1960s
has permeated our culture so much that we can't even begin to separate it out.
Although much of what's in Stories Done has been published over the
years in Rolling Stone, I suspect few readers will have caught all
the pieces, and Gilmore has done some careful editing and
transitioning of the stories, in addition to adding the two new
pieces on Dylan and Cohen.
Altogether the book serves as both a history and an elegy for a
pivotal time in American history: beautifully documented, beautifully
written, beautifully compiled from Gilmore's own sources and others.
Reading it is a bittersweet journey back in time. It's also an
education for anyone who wasn't there even on the fringes and a
reminder for some of us who were.