Last night, I went to a book reading at Book Soup, one of Los Angeles’ few remaining independently owned book stores, to hear Mikal Gilmore read from his new book, “Stories Done: Writing on the 1960s and Its Discontents.”
Gilmore is one of the best music journalists out there. I’ve been reading him since I was a kid, primarily in Rolling Stone. In “Stories Done,” Gilmore filters the music of such legendary artists as Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin through the turbulence of the ’60s: How that decade’s awakening influenced their art and how they, in turn, influenced the times. For anyone too young to have lived through the ’60s, it’s a strong anthology that puts the music into the context of its time and shows how these artists affected virtually every musician that came after them. Sometimes, Gilmore lapses into hyperbole and I don’t necessarily agree with some of his assessments, but his writing illuminates his subjects in an educational and entertaining way.
I interviewed Gilmore for the Washington Post a few weeks ago about the book and found him as interesting as I’d hoped.
In addition to the content in the Washington Post piece, we also talked about if today’s music industry machinery, which operates like a mini-industrial complex full of twists and turns as it continues to spiral downward, could spawn artists who brought out the same passions as the artists he writes about in “Stories Done.” Gilmore’s simple answer is no: “At this point the industry is such a large, brutal and clumsy machine, it has ways of wearing down the best instincts of the best artists. It demands a certain kind of style and certain voice with certain intervals. Whoever the great artists are today if they’re on a major label, they’d never be allowed to put out two or three albums a year, like some of these artists did. That kind of growth, change and experimentation is less possible now.”
While Gilmore is best known for his music writings, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about his non-music work, “Shot in the Heart.” It is his wrenching, unsentimental memoir about growing up the brother of convicted killer Gary Gilmore, who was the first person executed in the U.S. in 10 years when he was killed by firing squad in the ’70s. Norman Mailer also wrote about Gary Gilmore in “The Executioner’s Song,” which was turned into a movie with Tommy Lee Jones. “Shot in the Heart” was chilling to read and I was amazed by Gilmore’s ability to write so honestly about the house of horrors that spawned his brother and what it meant to have the same DNA as someone who could commit such crimes. I can’t recommend it enough. I’ve been raving about it since I first read it more than a dozen years ago and see no reason to stop now.
Bringing it full circle, in the Cash essay in “Stories Done,” he writes about the Man in Black’s compassionate phone conversations with both Gary, immediately prior to his death, and with him the day after his brother’s execution. It’s a stirring reminder, and obviously a more dramatic one than more of us will ever face, of the comfort and joy the music we surround ourselves with provides us.