By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Published: December 29, 2008
Mikal Gilmore's devastating 1994 memoir, "Shot in the Heart," was
part "Brothers Karamazov," part Johnny Cash ballad, and it was a
remarkable bookend to Norman Mailer's "true life novel" "The
Executioner's Song." In recounting the story of how his brother,
Gary, in a senseless act of anger murdered two men and in 1977 became
the first American in a decade to be executed after a Supreme Court
decision restored the death penalty, the author created a wrenching
portrait of their family and its sad, violent history of "dark
secrets and failed hopes," which became part of his brother's
"impetus to murder."
Mr. Gilmore's experiences left him with a keen sense of the dark
undertow of the American dream and a sympathy for the lost, the
dispossessed and the dislocated, and this outlook informs both "Night
Beat," his 1998 collection of essays about rock 'n' roll, and his new
book of writings about the 1960s, "Stories Done."
In this book (parts of which appeared as articles in Rolling Stone
magazine) Mr. Gilmore writes about stars from that decade like the
Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Pink Floyd and Ken Kesey. But while
the outlines of his arguments are hardly new i.e., that the
idealism of the '60s soon morphed into the discontents of the '70s
he brings to these much-dissected subjects uncommon abilities: a gift
for reconjuring the mood of that period in rich, visceral prose, and
a knack for limning the connections between the social upheaval
abroad in those years and artists' efforts to explore the
possibilities of the newly influential medium of rock 'n' roll.
Over the years, lots of people have argued that 1968 (the year Martin
Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, the year of
the Tet offensive) was the year that '60s dreams turned dark, while
others have nominated 1969 (the year Neil Armstrong walked on the
moon, the year the feel-good vibes of Woodstock gave way to the
horror of Altamont) as the era's hinge moment in time. In these pages
Mr. Gilmore suggests that a foreboding sense of "hard limits and bad
faith" came earlier, in 1967.
He writes that that year's so-called Summer of Love never came to San
Francisco, then the red-hot center of the counterculture; that
runaways and tourists had already begun to flood Haight-Ashbury,
turning the neighborhood into a dangerous place where bad drugs,
street beatings and confrontations with the police were commonplace
and a harbinger of worse things to come.
In another chapter, Mr. Gilmore argues that the Beatles' "Sgt.
Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," released in June of that year,
embodied both a generation's sense of possibilities its dreams of
freedom, community and creative experimentation and, in its last
song, the incomparable "Day in the Life," an elegy for those hopes.
The song tells of a man who "blew his mind out in a car" and closes
with "the most famous moment in 1960s music: a single chord played by
John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Martin and assistant
Mal Evans across several pianos at once, reverberating on and on,
like a possibility without resolution."
As that "chord lingered and then decayed," Mr. Gilmore goes on, "it
bound up an entire culture in its mysteries, its implications, its
sense of providence found and lost. In some ways, it was the most
stirring moment that culture would ever share, and the last gesture
of genuine unity that we would ever hear from the Beatles."
The confluence between an artist's private emotions and larger,
public events; the ways in which certain musicians or writers, making
art out of their own fears or longings, can come to articulate a
generation's experiences this is a leitmotif in Mr. Gilmore's
profiles in this volume. Of Bob Marley, he notes that "music is what
saved" him, preceding his faith and his worldview and in time
becoming "one with both of those elements." And of Allen Ginsberg,
who overcame the legacy of neediness and uncertainty that his
unstable mother bequeathed him, he writes that the poet's "entire
life was a process of opening himself" up to possibilities and that
in doing so he "helped set loose something wonderful, risky and
unyielding in the psyche and dreams of our times."
As for the Grateful Dead, Mr. Gilmore notes how pointedly the 1970
albums "Workingman's Dead" and "American Beauty" reflected the band's
own struggles to stay together through a difficult period, while
mirroring the dark turn the Bay Area counterculture took in the late
'60s, as the peace movement gave way to violent rhetoric.
" 'Workingman's Dead' was a statement about the changing and badly
frayed sense of community in both America and its counterculture," he
writes, "and as such, it was a work by and about a group of men being
tested and pressured at a time when they could have easily splintered
from all the madness and stress and disappointment. The music
reflected that struggle particularly in songs like 'Uncle John's
Band,' a parable about America that was also the band's confession of
how it nearly fell apart and 'New Speedway Boogie,' about Altamont."
Anxiety, dread, disillusion, a metastasizing war in Vietnam, the
fallout of the violent confrontations between police and protesters
at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the
presidential election of Richard M. Nixon, and a snowballing sense of
anarchy and confusion this darkening mood, Mr. Gilmore reminds us,
was reflected in the work of artists as disparate as Hunter Thompson,
Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin.
Often, Mr. Gilmore notes, the zeitgeist resonated with an artist's
own deep-seated sense of angst. In fact many of the people profiled
in this book seem to have suffered from serious bouts of depression,
from George Harrison, whom Mr. Gilmore describes as a bluesman who
learned "to live alone in the world, not necessarily in a happy way,
but with few illusions," to Phil Ochs, the folk singer who committed
suicide in 1976 and whose early songs of hope gave way to harrowing
tales of American ruin.
In one of his many interviews with Mr. Gilmore, the songwriter
Leonard Cohen says that virtually everything he's done in his life
"you know, wine, women, song, religion, meditation" was part of his
struggle to penetrate "this relentless depression" he'd suffered from
his entire life, and that his 2001 album "Ten New Songs," written
after six years' residency at a Zen monastery, was his first piece of
work not written against that gloomy emotional backdrop.
There are passages in these pages where Mr. Gilmore slips into
hyperbole and melodrama. Writing of Mr. Dylan (who seems to bring out
portentousness in music critics), he says, "Had Dylan kept up that
pace that pace of indulgence, that pace of making music that
challenged almost every aspect of the world, music that outraged his
old fans and caused his new fans to want him to push even harder he
might well have been dead within a season or two."
Happily, such passages are rare in a book that leaves the reader with
a powerful portrait of the cultural and social tumult of the '60s and
'70s. The one thing that makes this volume much of which was
written "in the period during which the George W. Bush administration
has controlled the helm of American power" feel somewhat dated is
its nostalgic depiction of the '60s as a long-vanished era of
idealism when young people felt "a kinship brimming with expectation"
and embraced the possibility of effecting political change.
But a reader's protest that Mr. Gilmore's requiem for such a sense of
possibilities is premature that we are hardly beset today by "a
social and political mindset that never again wants to see youth
culture and its arts empowered" as they were in the '60s is
probably more a measure of how the 2008 election signaled a shift in
the national mood than a judgment on these essays written in the
earlier years of the '00s.