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)."