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

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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 complicated writer/man/lover.

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 or impact.”

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.

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About Lisa Solod

  • 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.

    Lisa, look at the previous two paragraphs to this one quoted above that you wrote and ask yourself, “why the sterility since?”

    There is a message there, and it isn’t a pleasant one.