(dana) Wed 1 Apr 09 09:19
We're pleased to welcome Mikal Gilmore to the Inkwell. Mikal Gilmore is a journalist and music aficionado who has written for Rolling Stone magazine since the 1970s. His first book, Shot in the Heart, is a National Book Critics Circle and L.A. Times Book Prize-winning memoir about his older brother Gary, the first man to be executed in Utah after pleading guilty to murder. Leading our discussion is Ed Ward. Ed has been writing about music, among other things, since 1965. In the mid-1970s, as the supposed West Coast Editor of Creem Magazine, he received a portfolio of stories from young Mikal Gilmore, and successfully dissuaded him from submitting stuff to the magazine, since it was no place for people with taste. Since then, Ward has written a book or two, helped found SXSW, moved to Europe, and dissuaded many other young folk from becoming writers. He lives in poverty (the only mode for writers these days) in the south of France. Welcome, gentlemen.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 1 Apr 09 11:06
Hi, Mikal. Glad to see my putting you off of Creem drove you into the arms of our arch-rival Rolling Stone, thereby vastly improving the writing there. I guess the first thing might be to explain what this book is. I'm not clear, myself: it looks like a series of columns that Rolling Stone ran. Is that the case? If so, were all the columns on the general subject of what I'm sure Jann Wenner would like to think of as the rock canon?
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 1 Apr 09 11:30
Looking forward to this!
Mikal Gilmore (mikalgilmore) Wed 1 Apr 09 12:32
Hi, Ed -- it's an honor to be here with you. You're among those writers I've valued for years. Also, I can't tell you how much I envy you living in the south of France, my dream locale. Stories Done is a collection of pieces about music, culture, politics and issues centered around the 1960s, with parts that reflect the flow and changes from the 1950s to the 1970s (the subtitle is Writings on the 1960s and Its Discontents). And yes, it's mostly stuff that's appeared in Rolling Stone, though almost all those pieces were expanded or otherwise revised. There's one or two things I'd either omit or add at this point, but I'm basically okay with it. (A couple of articles overlap with the earlier collection, Night Beat.) Many of the subjects certainly concern what would be seen as the rock canon, though there are also chapters on Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Phil Ochs, Haight-Ashbury, Hunter Thompson and Leonard Cohen. Overall, I'd say it's about the convulsions and risks of those times, as well as the costs and rewards.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 1 Apr 09 12:45
So although someone looking at the table of contents can pretty easily grasp what's going on, was it you who decided on the list of subjects? If so, what were your criteria? The reason I ask is that "the 1960s" seem to be defined differently by everyone, and some of us might have added and subtracted subjects from the list you've got here. Also, I think any discussion of "rock" that leaves out Leary, Kesey, Thompson, and the Haight, at the very least, is narrowing itself into extinction.
Mikal Gilmore (mikalgilmore) Wed 1 Apr 09 16:34
The contents list came from me, though my editor at Free Press gave great insights into how to organize and sequence the articles. The criteria was, I guess, a couple of things -- pretty much the same I use in choosing or accepting assignments. The first is, simply, there has to a story I find interesting, that has some real time and history to it, that the writer can construct on the momentum of those events, without intruding too much. The second is, the subject matter has to be about somebody or something that's fucked-up, and whatever merit that the subject possesses must work despite, or maybe due to, that quality of fucked-upness. I'm not personally interested in narratives of transcendence, redemption or victory. I'm interested in what people do, for better and worse, with being fucked-up. I agree that the 1960s has pretty multifarious meanings; it's hardly monolithic. Stories about Barry Goldwater or the Twist or Buck Owens or Eldridge Cleaver or walking on the Moon, among a myriad other subjects, would have been every bit as vital and meaningful, not to mention just as much fun. In this case, however, since this was to be a compilation of stuff I'd already written, I went with what I had on hand. The vast majority of what I've written in recent years has been related to that time. My regained interest in the 1960s came in the mid 1990s. I've never felt that what happened in that decade mattered more than what has happened since, nor that the time was a matchless pinnacle in the arts. But it was a time when I came of age, a time that shaped me lastingly, and I'm more and more interested in looking at that period and its arguments, contradictions and characters. Also, I think that so much of what has happened politically in America since then has been in reaction to what the 1960s set loose, so perhaps it's useful to think about how and why it all happened. The permutations are endless, of course, which is lucky for me. However, I'm not a theorist. Maybe something closer to a synthesist.
(dana) Wed 1 Apr 09 16:39
(Note: Offsite readers with questions or comments may have them added to this conversation by emailing them to email@example.com -- please include "Stories Done" in the subject line.)
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Wed 1 Apr 09 19:18
Hi Mikal, and thanks for joining us here. I've just begun your collection, but am fascinated by your comment that you are not a theorist, but maybe something closer to a synthesist. My own theory I've written about is that the countercultural upheavals of the late 60s/ early 70s, including all those layers of spiritual/political/lifestyle conflict with the prevailing mainstream, created a profound new social synthesis that, for lack of worthier term, is mostly called "postmodernity." How we cope with all that's fucked up with our postmodern ennui certainly holds the potential for fascinating writing/reading, but if we're to embrace any larger hope for our sustainability as a species, do you see any ongoing synthesis where the ethos of the 60s continues to be especially relevant? For example, the last whole earth, our spiritual oneness as beings, the manner in which we consume, use of appropriate technology, a green awareness, and sustainability all seem to be resurfacing with renewed vigor these days as an emerging global consciousness holds out a glimmer hope of supplanting this jaded era of postmodernity where all is hopeless. This isn't unrelated to the consciousness revolution that Kesey espoused until he died.
Mikal Gilmore (mikalgilmore) Wed 1 Apr 09 21:35
Scott, thanks for your remarks. I should have better explained what I meant by synthesist: When I write something, I try to look at as many views about it as I can -- various histories, as well as source writing from the time the events occurred -- and form a synthesis from that. I do, of course, go into a story with my own views and biases, but to whatever degree possible, I like to lose those views and form an account and estimation from all that I've learned. That said, I certainly agree that there were major upheavals born from the 1950s and 1960s -- something equivalent to taking the Enlightenment age and subverting it, in ways both good and bad. In part, postmodernism is part of what emerged (or happened in parallel), though that's such a wicket of contentious definitions that we might even be past that. I also agree that change is afoot again, though I think it will take its own shape and meet its own concerns. If anything, I believe in history -- I believe that it's progressive, and I believe that it's a process of dialectics, though I also think it has starts and stops, that it takes steps ahead then backward, yet essentially moving forward. In short, I think we're in for maybe better times, but there will be big costs and convulsions. There are counter-progressive forces -- not just in this land -- that have their own vision of what history should be, and they will fight tooth and nail for it. For years I've thought that Marx remains relevant, in substantially reworked terms. Some of Marx's anticipation of history is perhaps being borne out now, but it can't resolve in the same discredited models it descended into in the past. In any event, I don't think the capitalist ideology is the end sum of dialectical history, nor do I think it will collapse. It will, though, I hope, have to transform, in major ways..
Gary Burnett (jera) Thu 2 Apr 09 07:04
I'm about half way through the book at this point (I spent a good deal of time reading it over the weekend while sitting in the woods at a music festival), and am enjoying it greatly. I'm particularly interested in the nature of "fucked-upness," as you call it, that really seems to tie these stories together. Obviously, such "fucked-upness" is not unique to the 60s, but I have a sense while I'm reading that there may be a particular sort of fucking up that is characteristic of these figures rooted in that time. In your intro, you mention drugs, which certainly seem to be part of it, but (as you also point out) drugs also brought something very special into the mix in many cases. I'd love to hear you talk a bit more about the commonalities between the stories you tell.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Thu 2 Apr 09 10:49
Thanks for the thoughtful response, Mikal. <I believe in history -- I believe that it's progressive, and I believe that it's a process of dialectics> <there will be big costs and convulsions.> <For years I've thought that Marx remains relevant, in substantially reworked terms. Some of Marx's anticipation of history is perhaps being borne out now> <I don't think the capitalist ideology is the end sum of dialectical history, nor do I think it will collapse. It will, though, I hope, have to transform, in major ways..> All well stated, but I do think that there is one key dialectic phenomenon missing from most cultural analyses of the '60s. Namely, the upheavals, fueled so significantly by powerful new hallucinogens, newly amplified rock music, and a passionate reaction to the excesses of the "City-State" (with Vietnam, especially), exemplified a "Dionysian" dialectical convulsion in North America and Britain. Again, the more authoritarian and more hip Postmodernity of the late 70s and beyond were the synthesis of those "antithetical" upheavals. Even at the time, the politicized vanguard of "The Movement" tried to understand and often force-fit a neo-Marxist dialectical worldview onto something more primal. There were certainly egalitarian thrusts and New Leftist convulsions during the Sixties, but the period is more noteworthy, in my mind, as the greatest Bacchanalian outburst in the history of humankind. That said, I'm off to cherry-pick your chapters on the primal tribal pranking of Kesey and that ultimate band for Dionysian musicking, the Grateful Dead.
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 2 Apr 09 10:57
Actually, Scott, reading the stuff that's *not* bouncing off your theses might give you a better idea of what Mikal's doing here.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Thu 2 Apr 09 11:49
Actually, Ed, I very much enjoyed the intro to Stories Done, and the Allen Ginsberg chapter, but wanted to mention these thoughts in response to terms like "theoretical", "synthesis", and "Marxist dialectic" being mentioned by Mikal. I appreciated his clarification and amplification and was hoping for a touch more. The Dead and Kesey chapters happen to be next up for me after the chapter on the great PR guru of the psychedelic Bacchanal himself, Mr. Leary. It may just be all the trippy "fucked-uppedness" of these people but, thus far, I'm actually enjoying "what Mikal's doing here."
Mikal Gilmore (mikalgilmore) Thu 2 Apr 09 12:43
The intro to the book was, well, I wouldn't say it was a struggle, but I never got it the way I should have. I was trying to avoid making arguments there or stating much in the way of ideas, and I now see that as a mistake. Why all that happened is another story, but it's my failing nonetheless. Scott, you've touched on something that many historians see as major, maybe fateful, schisms in the countercultural movements of the 1960s, which is that tension between the New Left and that more Dionysian element (which is generally referred to as the counterculture or as the hippie movement in most writings). This is an endlessly fascinating area to me, but I don't think I addressed it at all in the book. Some writers see these trends as fairly split, with overlaps to varying degrees. A simple summary of this runs along these lines: The hippies were about having fun, about changing how one saw society, about allowing for possibilities of new modes of consciousness, experience and lifestyle, and to some degree, about valuing all of this over political conflict or change. The New Left, meanwhile, was about action, faceoffs, and sweeping political and social change. There was also, some thought, a third faction -- which Ed will remember well -- that advocated the new rock & roll culture as the most effective means to change. This was the position that Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone took, and in the early years that stance kind of shifted between those other views I just mentioned. My own remembrance is that things were never this clearly demarcated. The hippies (and rock & roll youth) were hardly non-political -- I didn't know anybody who didn't oppose the War in Vietnam vocally and in the core of their bones. And the New Left made the round of the dances, smoked marijuana, and enjoyed and argued about the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones as much as the hippies or rock & rollers did. There's a complex multiplicity of reasons about why things didn't turn out gloriously, and it's stuff we're still figuring out. (I'm only going to speak here in very simple terms, because of the space we're in here.) Some hippies may have wanted to withdraw to the degree that it diluted concentrated action; many elements in the New Left moved toward both rhetoric and actions that alienated far too many; and rock & roll's means of distribution was, after all, rooted in capitalism, which eventually made plain that the audience and the performers didn't necessarily share the same realities and concerns after all. (Punk -- god bless it -- later went through this same loop.) There was good stuff in it all and there were limitations as well. Also, there was an unfortunate amount of wrongheaded thinking and rhetoric. But just as fatal, I think, was the opposition that it all faced: Power doesn't cede ground easily, and the ideologies of power in the late 1960s and 1970s were resourceful and fierce in a number of ways. It wasn't true to say that "They've got the guns and we've got the numbers." They had both those things, and more. They were far smarter and craftier than we gave them credit for. In any event, when I say that Marx might still be relevant, I should make plain that I'm not longing for the neo-Marxism of the New Left. There was much to like about those impulses, but also much not to like, and in the end, the movements drove it all off the map before it could mature usefully or transform itself in the U.S. Also, I have very mixed feelings about Marxist academics and theories of the last few decades; some of it is definitely an insightful way of looking at things, and some of it makes me want to grow my hair back just so I can tear it out. I was actually thinking more in terms of some of Marx's original views of history, his thinking about how Capitalism has to mature and then over-mature and collapse of its own weight. I think that process might still be at work. I certainly don't believe that the collapse of communism was also the end of history. But I also don't think capitalism is ever going to transmogrify into Marx's communist model (but then, what did?), except maybe in a few places. Perhaps something else will begin to emerge -- something that will still be called capitalism (because Power isn't about to let that terminology change), but that will have to recognize more limits and compromises, and that won't be as able to dictate to the world in the same irresponsible American methods of recent decades. Then again, I could be wrong. I guess I should also add that I think that popular culture is invariably political, even in unintended ways, and that it can still be a pretty effective tool of democracy.
Ed Ward (captward) Thu 2 Apr 09 15:42
Speaking of "fucked uppedness," there were a couple of '60s icons missing from the lineup here. One is Janis Joplin, although I'm not too surprised by her omission, because I think she's being re-evaluated, and found a bit wanting: good story, but the art a bit lacking. But the other is Jimi Hendrix, and it's really surprising to see him missing. Any reason for this?
Steve Silberman (digaman) Thu 2 Apr 09 16:23
Mikal, sorry I'm late getting here. I'm also not quite as prepared as I should be, because I'm on a hellacious deadline myself, and have only had time to read your Ginsberg piece. (Sadly, whenever I write a long reported feature these days, I wonder to myself if it's the last one I'll ever be paid to write, because of the convulsions of the industry. For now, once more into the breach!) Warning: This is going to be the longest post I have ever made on the Well, which is rude and a violation of Well custom. I hope y'all can forgive me. If you had only written "Shot in the Heart," you would be one of my favorite writers of all time. That sorrow and ugliness in that book were inhabited and polished to such a dark luster that the words were radiant. I thought the Ginsberg essay was brilliant and sweet, and as you probably know, I knew and loved Allen as a teacher, friend, and problematic mentor for 20 years. The paragraph that begins "But I also know this: Allen Ginsberg *won*..." is particularly wonderful. I also wept at the last lines: "Go in peace, brother. Your graceful, heavy, loving heart has earned it." Three adjectives, three bullseyes, you win! I will say more later -- and also read a few more essays as soon as I get one graf in my own story right -- but I do want to make a point about the couple of places in the Ginsberg essay where I disagreed with you, because that might be more interesting than me throwing words like "brilliant" at you all day. You wrote that Ginsberg "forswore" psychedelics later in his life. Well, I don't know about that. He was never a twice-a-week acidhead, even in his youth. Many of his early psychedelic experiences were horrific. But eventually he wrote a poem in a state of LSD-fueled bliss-connection to the natural world called "Wales Visitation," and he considered it one of his own somewhat neglected masterpieces because of the *precision* of his psychedelic reverie -- the Blakean/Willamsesque "minute particulars" he noticed and recorded in that poem: Fall on the ground, O great Wetness, O Mother, No harm on your body! Stare close, no imperfection in the grass, each flower Buddha-eye, repeating the story, myriad-formed-- Kneel before the foxglove raising green buds, mauve bells dropped doubled down the stem trembling antennae, & look in the eyes of the branded lambs that stare breathing stockstill under dripping hawthorn-- I lay down mixing my beard with the wet hair of the mountainside, smelling the brown vagina-moist ground, harmless, tasting the violet thistle-hair, sweetness-- One being so balanced, so vast, that its softest breath moves every floweret in the stillness on the valley floor, trembles lamb-hair hung gossamer rain-beaded in the grass... [http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=179386] Then in the late '80s, Allen took Ecstasy a couple of times with a younger friend or two, and made a hilarious very Ginsbergian point about it to me. "They should call it 'Empathy,'" he said. "Calling it 'Ecstasy' is like bad poetic hyperbole." In 1987, I asked Allen how he felt about acid at that point, and he said this: "I've changed my mind about the relationship between acid and neurosis -- it seems to me that acid can lead to some kind of breakdowns maybe. So that people should be prepared with meditation, before they take acid. There should be an educational program to cultivate meditative practice and techniques, so that when people get high on acid and get into bum trips they can switch their minds, easily -- and there are ways of doing it, very simple. But nobody is doing mass training in that, and it might be interesting for high school kids. It's like -- give junkies needles, give kids condoms if they're gonna screw so they don't get AIDS. If they're gonna try acid -- which is probably good for an intelligent kid -- they should also be prepared with some techniques in meditation, so that they can switch their attention from bum trips back to their breath, and to the current space around them." [http://www.stevesilberman.com/ginsberg/wer/index.html] So, not quite "forswore" -- more interesting and qualified, actually! And the other thing I disagree with is your assertion that, when he was near death, he wrote President Clinton asking for a medal for his life's work "in jest." I think he was absolutely, heartbreakingly serious. That was Allen's "heavy" heart [Gilmore] -- huge ego, huge ambition, little kid's hope and hunger for recognition. Thanks for being here, Mikal, and sorry to go on so.
Mikal Gilmore (mikalgilmore) Thu 2 Apr 09 16:52
Ed, I agree that they're both good stories, and they're both people I'd like to write about at length about but haven't. It's true that female artists and cultural figures get horribly short shrift. Since this was a compilation of finished pieces of writing, and since the deadline was short enough that it wouldn't allow for writing new stuff, I had to pick from what I had. The two you mentioned were two in particular I wished were there. I've had to go through my own re-evaluations about Joplin over the years, and I guess I've come down on the other side of the view you mentioned here: I'm much more persuaded by her art than I used to be. Also, for all their sloppiness, I still really dig Big Brother.
Mikal Gilmore (mikalgilmore) Thu 2 Apr 09 17:02
Hi, Steve. It's always great to speak with you. You're right about Ginsberg not totally forswearing psychedelics later in his life (I'm not sure how many who claimed so really did), but I wasn't aware of that until after the piece had been written in the immediacy of his death. That particular story was a really short and sleepless deadline stretch. I should have caught the part you mentioned while editing it this time, and I'm glad you bring it up here. I will say that I agree with Ginsberg's view that some sort of preparation before taking a psychedelic is a good idea. Leary had his own stated version of this -- "set and setting" -- though god know he violated it recklessly many times. I never liked the Kesey/Acid Tests approach of just giving people the drugs, throw them into an unsure setting, then see what happens. It was, at best, irresponsible, and also kind of cruel. I knew a couple of people who had horrible experiences at those events. Also, I'm sure you're right that Ginsberg didn't write that letter in jest. He definitely deserved a medal for life life body of work. He still does.
Steve Silberman (digaman) Thu 2 Apr 09 17:44
Wow, I just read the piece on Sgt. Pepper's. I've read a lot about that album -- 300 issues of Mojo, anyone? -- but you nailed it. Bonus points for your lovely and apt use of the words "sovereign" and "concord." The one thing I didn't get from the piece was where YOU were when the album came out. I don't know how old you are (I mean, I could look it up), but where were you at that point in space-time? What were you doing?
Mikal Gilmore (mikalgilmore) Thu 2 Apr 09 21:23
I was sixteen, living in Milwaukie, Oregon (a small town outside Portland) when Sergeant Pepper came out. I hadn't yet smoked marijuana or taken LSD, nor had I yet had sex. I was still in my transition from being an active Mormon, spending weekends at the Psychedelic Shop in downtown Portland. Drugs and sex would happen soon, though, and Sgt. Pepper was inarguably a catalyst; it changed my life more than any single work before since. No matter its merits or lack of them (in truth, it doesn't matter whether or not it was a great album), it was the right event in the right time.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Thu 2 Apr 09 23:21
Mikal, I just finished the Leary and Garcia chapters. After seventy plus pages into the book, I must say that this is some of the most crisp biographical journalism Ive read in some time. I once had a brilliant creative writing teacher (Jim Krusoe) from LA who pointed out that not all novels are driven by conflict, some are driven by dysfunction. So when you say that the subject matter [you write about] has to be about somebody or something that's fucked-up, I wonder if you might mean that the dysfunction you examine in your subjects creates the core impetus that drives both your journalistic interest and, ultimately, our engagement with the writing itself? There is one other quality in your writing that renders it powerful. Namely, you have a way of bringing an unrelenting, brute honesty to your work. For example, while I think your take on the lyrics to Uncle Johns Band was too constricted for a song intended to have many possible interpretations, the respectfulness with which you delve into Jerry Garcias life and his troubles with drugs was apparent. You have a way of making the reader trust your insights despite dealing with subject matter that is often contentious. In fact, without any sense that you are yourself a Deadhead, I think you mostly nailed how significant this musical phenomenon was as the only self-sustained, ongoing fellowship that pop music has ever produced. (The later Phish phenomenon was not dissimilar, though). I especially appreciate that you addressed how much darkness there was that made its way into Garcia and the Deads music, and how strong and interesting that darkness was. With this, you come close to the heart of the Dionysian impulse that made the Grateful Dead musicking phenomenon such a ritualized adventure through dark and light for the band and its followers. Viewed in this manner, cant you appreciate how the Dead/Deadhead phenomenon for nearly three plus decades after Psychedelia, served, in microcosm, as a regular revisiting of the core Dionysian upheaval of the counterculture itself? Also, that was a fun meta moment when I read about The Well in this chapter on the Dead. Even now, expect to get continued beams of forgiveness from Wellperns for your mild blasphemy!
Gary Burnett (jera) Fri 3 Apr 09 07:22
I also chuckled at the mention of "beams" on the WELL after Garcia's death. I see nothing at all wrong with such "beams," naive as they may be, but the point that there's been all-too-little attention paid to a darkness at the core of Garcia's life and the Dead's music is -- still -- right on target.
Gary Burnett (jera) Fri 3 Apr 09 07:27
I'm also, by the way, a big fan of the Bob Dylan chapter, and am particularly happy to see an acknowledgement that there are "instances of incomparable brilliance" even on albums like "Knocked Out Loaded," "Down In The Groove," and ""Under the Red Sky." They're all certainly problematic albums, but it would be a mistake to dismiss them entirely.
Andrew Alden (alden) Fri 3 Apr 09 16:27
(loving Steve's post of Ginsberg's Hopkin moment)
Steve Silberman (digaman) Fri 3 Apr 09 21:03
> I was still in my transition from being an active Mormon, spending weekends at the Psychedelic Shop in downtown Portland. Wow. That's great. I wonder how many folks' teenage sanity was saved by there being a head shop in town where you could find the other local freak self-exiles? More sanity than was destroyed by those shops, I bet. Mikal, as we all get older, what do you find most difficult about maintaining your craft over time? What do you find gets easier?
Ed Ward (captward) Sat 4 Apr 09 08:37
I have to admit, being the interviewer here, that because of travel and so on I'm only now finishing the book -- one more chapter to go, which'll go tonight. This means that last night I read the Pink Floyd chapter, which just reminded me of how much I detest them. Quotes like "You bloody well sit there. I hate audience participation" (Roger Waters) and Waters' favoring his (in my opinion not very telling, but often tendentious) lyrics over the musical content -- not to mention having saddled us with a song that goes "We don't need naouw ed-you-kye-shun," whose lyrics were almost certainly misunderstood by a healthy percentage of the band's audience -- all of this points towards the absolute worst tendencies of the '70s, which, while they were happening, I called "the nostalgia-proof decade." (Of course, I was wrong about that.) But this all brings up the question of "the Sixties." I'm comfortable with people who date "the Sixties" from about 1966 to about 1973 or so since cultural phenomena and the calendar rarely cleave into convenient slices, but just as some of "the Sixties" bled into the next decade, isn't it possible that some of the '70s began in the previous decade? After all, the Pink Floyd of the first decade was a psychedelic pop band, but the work which springs to most people's minds when you mention them is by the Very Important Message band of the '70s. So I guess the question I'm asking is, how do you define these decades? Or do you?
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