Mikal Gilmore Sums Up '60s as Decade of 'Discontents'
January 4, 2009
The innocence and subsequent turbulence of the 1960s serve as the
backdrop for "Stories Done: Writing on the 1960s and Its
Discontents," the anthology by journalist Mikal Gilmore. Culled
mostly from Gilmore's articles in Rolling Stone, it examines such
seminal figures as Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan,
the Grateful Dead, the Beatles and Leonard Cohen. "Stories" is
Gilmore's third book. His first, "Shot in the Heart," is a memoir
about growing up the younger brother of murderer Gary Gilmore, who
was executed by firing squad in Utah in 1977.
-- Melinda Newman
What made the 1960s so ripe for the characters you write about?
It was a time when things were flying so fast and definitions were up
for grabs in a way that they haven't been for some time. People had
to rise to their times. They always did it in risky ways. Sometimes
they did it in foolish ways. Sometimes they did it in remarkably
inspired ways. It may be what people had in common was the nature of
Many of the people you write about had substance abuse issues and
suffered from depression. How is that intertwined with their art?
I don't subscribe to the theory that depression is a necessary
component to making art, but I think sometimes when [people] suffer
some sense of loss or misplacement in the world or some fear, I think
that in especially [creative] people it brings out a need for
compensation, a place where they do the best in their lives that they
can. And these were clearly people who did that.
Timothy Leary embraced death in a positive way that was quite
remarkable. How did he change your perception of death?
Death is something on my mind a good deal of my life . . . it did
help me become more accepting of just that natural inevitability,
briefly . . . But I also think there are ways I was too easy on Leary
and Ken Kesey. There are aspects of them as people that were much
harder for those around them then I acknowledge. I think they could
both be terribly selfish and even damaging to some of the people
closer to them . . . there are artists all the time who are damaging
people close to them, but they manifest something good to the world.
Many of the people you write about in "Stories Done" you never met.
Whom do most wish you could have met?
I wish I could have met the Beatles. They were fascinating for their
personalities and how they grew to loathe the experience and fall
apart. Johnny Cash, also, just because he was so important to my
family and he seemed like a person you could sit down and have a
heart to heart with.
Johnny Cash's contact with Gary Gilmore is mentioned in your book
"Shot in the Heart," but your brief conversation with Cash [following
Gary's death] is not. Why did that phone call make it into this book?
When I wrote [the piece] initially I didn't want to go into that but
it drove my sense of [Cash] and [my Rolling Stone editor] asked me if
I would take a pass at it. I was a little reluctant. I did wonder if
I was violating something of Cash's privacy. But on the page, it
seemed to bring out something about him and the compassion he had for
people who made bad mistakes . . . there was something really
personal about his kindness in that moment that I always felt
Of the people in the book you interviewed, who touched you the most?
I think probably Leonard Cohen . . . because especially in this time
when publicity is so well managed and so controlled, he owned to up
his experiences and to this deep sheath of dark shadows that few do .
. . He's an extremely likeable and gentle man.
Many of the people in the book had horrific childhoods. Did the fact
that your childhood was often horrific give you some kind of psychic in?
Probably. I wasn't always conscious of that. A couple of things were
written before "Shot in the Heart" was done. But early on I think I
developed, for better or worse, a willingness to try to view these
people compassionately. I also think there's something in their flaws
that deepened, for me, their ability to create something that was not
In the last 8 years, there's been more upheaval in many ways than in
the '60s. How do you think that's going to inform the music we hear
over the next decade?
There's this theory I've heard from people that sometimes that
repression and cultural opposition brings out better art [but] the
last few years certainly presented cause and opportunity for art that
existed in opposition and we didn't see a lot of that . . . I have
hopes that Barack Obama will somewhat represent that same sense of
optimism and possibility that people felt in the early 1960s . . .
[those] symbols in the early '60s really had a lot to do with what
became of the 1960s. Whether that can happen now, we'll see. I
certainly think we're up for surprises.