Monday, December 22, 2008

Rock & Roll Death Trip

Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and Its Discontents
by Mikal Gilmore.

There is not much to like about this book, which is unfortunate. I wanted to like it. I greatly enjoyed Gilmore’s earlier book Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll and would highly recommend it. Stories Done, though, is a let-down.

To start with, the book is a bit of a rip-off. Almost a quarter of it is composed of pieces already published in Night Beat but reprinted in this volume for reasons, Gilmore tells us, of “context.” Even though the “context” of writers recycling their old material is usually that they have nothing new to say. And actually, it’s an overall lack of freshness in either subject matter or ideas which is the overriding problem with this book.

Frankly, this book feels like a morgue. Most of the pieces were written as memoria for recently dead figures from the 60s: Ken Kesey, George Harrison, Johnny Cash, Hunter S. Thompson, Syd Barrett. Throw in some other pieces about the dead Jim Morrison, the dead Bob Marley and a commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon; then drag in the corpses from the earlier book (Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Gregg Allman, and Jerry Garcia) and you’ve basically got The Rock-n-Roll Book of The Dead, only without the optimism of the Egyptian original. It’s so bad that the last section of the book is actually entitled “The Living.” The living being, in this case, the 67-year-old Bob Dylan and the 74-year-old Leonard Cohen (perhaps that section should have been called “The Barely Living”).

On top of this, Gilmore doesn’t have anything very original or interesting to say about his figures; he merely dishes up the accepted narratives. When he does diverge from those tired (and tiresome) mythologies the book comes alive. For instance, he makes the strong argument that it was Paul McCartney rather than John Lennon who was the more intellectually profound and adventurous of the Beatles. It was McCartney, after all, who was the guiding force behind Sgt. Pepper as well as the suite of songs which ends Abbey Road. While Lennon was mired in personal problems, McCartney was soaking in the works of avant-garde composers like Stockhausen and John Cage, and attending concerts by bands like Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine. Writing about Jim Morrison’s singing on L.A. Woman (an album he rightly calls “a fascinating portrayal of dissolusion”), Gilmore observes:
Whereas The Doors and Strange Days were largely albums about fear and loss, L.A. Woman actually seemed to live within those states of mind…In songs like the title track, you hear Morrison’s voice push apart and fray and gain a new credibility as it actually struggles not to fall apart. Morrison had always claimed that his biggest vocal influence was Frank Sinatra, and L.A. Woman, for once, demonstrated that influence, in Morrison’s determination to sing as if it were the latest hours of the night and he was sharing a few final words with sympathetic friends.
Another problem with this book is that it completely ignores anything that has to do with Blacks, Women, or Gays. It’s purview is almost entirely white, male and heterosexual. Now, as a white, male heterosexual I don’t necessarily mind that, but since the 60s was about the struggles of non-whites, non-males and non-heterosexuals for greater freedom their invisibility in Gilmore’s narrative is a major problem. Certainly, instead of Night Beat’s retreads, Gilmore could have cranked out a few original pieces about, say, what Black Americans were doing in music during the 60s. And since many of these Blacks are now comfortably dead (Jimi, Marvin, Ray) that shouldn’t be a problem for Gilmore. And, surely, he could find a place for Janis’s casket in this cultural funeral parlor.

As if all these problems weren’t enough, yet another one pops its head up; namely, Gilmore’s assessments of his subjects. He likes to gush. He has a tendency to engage in the grossest overstatement about someone’s importance, but often completely misses that person’s true significance. For instance, he says of Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:
He was a considerable cultural force who helped transform modern history as much through how he lived his life as through the words that he wrote…Whether we like it or not, we are still living in Ken Kesey’s America. Chances are, it will be a long time before the effects of his life settle enough to be fully measured or easily forgotten.
What nonsense. First off, Kesey did not “transform modern history”; very few individuals do (currently only Mikhail Gorbachev and Osama bin Laden are on that list). Kesey did, though, help to change American society for the better but that was through his writings, not through his life, and certainly not through the ridiculous and embarrassing antics of the drug-addled Merry Pranksters which Gilmore so admires. Thanks to the writings of Ken Kesey – as well as the those of Thomas Szasz, R.D. Laing, and Michel Foucault (and many others) – laws were changed in this country and now people can no longer be forcibly incarcerated in mental institutions against their will. Thanks to Ken Kesey (at least in part), millions of American will live freer lives. And that’s quite an accomplishment. Gilmore, though, never mentions it.

It’s a shame that this book is so disappointing. Gilmore is one of the best writers about Rock & Roll that we have. He is, hands down, among the best interviewers in journalism. The interview with Leonard Cohen which ends Stories Done is masterful; he creates a portrait of the man. It’s a genuine work of art. (His interviews with Jagger and Reed in Night Beat were also exceptionally good.)

Despite its many flaws, there are some touching and beautiful moments in this book. Gilmore describes getting a call from Johnny Cash in 1976 after his brother, Gary Gilmore, had been put to death for murder. Cash had spoken to Gary the night of his execution and had called Mikal simply to offer support and some measure of comfort:
I don’t know that I ever found the peace Cash wished me that day, but I know that in those moments that he took the time to speak with me, I found something that made as much difference as anything might on that impossible day: I heard a voice – from a man who had always represented courage and dignity in my family’s mind – offer a stranger understanding and kindness, without any judgments. That was more grace than I expected or perhaps deserved from somebody who wasn’t a friend in those hours, and I have always been grateful for it.

Cash didn’t have to talk to me that day. He didn’t have to talk to any of us in America about those forces or impulses that hurt and bewildered us. But he chose to anyway, and he did it not because doing so made him a better person, but rather because he wasn’t always a better person, and he knew he had to understand the meaning of that truth at least as much as the meanings of faith or piety.
For me the most effecting part of the book was in the "Acknowledgements and Memoriam" section where Gilmore tells about the gradual disintegration and death of fellow music critic Paul Nelson. The brief portrait is very powerful, made more so by the fact that Gilmore can’t load Nelson and his death with a lot of overblown significance; it’s the stark and simple recollection about a friend who went into a downward spiral and never came out.

Gilmore has always understood that the best Rock & Roll, like the best Blues, comes out of personal confusion, pain and loss as well as from the transcendence and exhilaration of overcoming them through the act of creation. It’s only fitting that the best parts of Stories Done also come from that same place. Yet I can’t help but feel that by sticking to the conventional stories of the conventional figures told in the conventional ways he is, in some way, attempting to insulate himself from this truth.

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