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

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The revolution -- the one that took place in the 1960s -- was in fact televised. The music, the antiwar movement, the drug culture and the social upheaval of the era became major benefactors of the first wave of saturation media coverage. To the straight world, the events that defined "the '60s" were jarring anomalies that shook the status quo. Moms and dads across America recoiled in front of their sets, fingers crossed that their kids weren't getting their heads busted by the cops.

It was a brave new world, at least while it lasted. "We no longer had to ask permission for our choices and convictions," Mikal Gilmore writes in the introduction to "Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and Its Discontents," a collection of cultural eulogies of the era and its most important figures.

Those who were the bravest -- the poets and novelists, academics and musicians -- became, for better or worse, counterculture superheroes. They were cast as visionaries leading the charge for change.

As the era melted away, they lingered as mythic figures. Johnny Cash was the Man in Black, famously flipping the bird in a 1969 photo. Jim Morrison was the wild shaman -- hot, sexy and dead. Jerry Garcia was the fuzzy Captain Trips.

But in "Stories Done," Gilmore reveals deeper connections. From Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey to Gregg Allman and Bob Marley, he finds a through line that binds these disparate characters together -- darkness and pain. These are people who embraced the darkness and used it for creative means. Many came out the other side, but some, such as Garcia and Morrison, paid the ultimate price.

Darkness and death is a subject with which Gilmore is intimately familiar. In addition to his work as a music writer (he was the pop music critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in the late 1970s), he himself has stared into the abyss. His superb 1995 memoir "Shot Through the Heart" details his relationship with his brother Gary, a convicted murderer whose desire to be put to death turned him into a cause célèbre.

Though written for a variety of periodicals over decades, the pieces in "Stories Done" make for a cohesive whole. It's clear Gilmore has a great affection for the 1960s, even to the point of occasionally falling into the boomer trap of "your generation can't possibly be better than mine": "It was intense, it was fast and it seemed in its moment that it could lead to a transfigured world."

Fortunately, such moments are tempered by the timbre of his prose. The writing here is admiring but unabashedly honest, stripping away the artifice that's grown around his subjects over the years.

Ginsberg, a hip Yoda

Appropriately, Gilmore begins with Ginsberg, through whom all hip roads seem to have led. The beat poet, author of the revolutionary "Howl," later became a kind of Yoda of the counterculture -- hanging out with Bob Dylan in 1965; chanting at the Human Be-In, held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in January 1967; getting arrested at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; recording with the Clash in 1982.

Ginsberg was a pioneer not only as an artist but also as a generational entrepreneur. "Between us . . . we have the nucleus of a totally new historically important generation," he once told Jack Kerouac.

Throughout "Stories Done," Gilmore uses the stories of his subjects to get at his own experiences and fears. In a piece on Timothy Leary's final days, he recalls an unhappy experience with LSD 20 years earlier, then uses his front-row seat at the acid guru's death party to try the psychedelic drug again and confront the deathly visions that haunted him two decades before.

Leary, the acid guru

"I had always been terrified of death -- even to be near it. . . ." Gilmore writes. "Sitting with Leary, I realized something had changed and maybe it had been a gift on his part. His greatest achievement I believe was to ask people he knew to face the darkest part of themselves, and to be willing to be there with them -- when they reached that place."

Gilmore's piece on the demise of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury evokes a similar heart of darkness, albeit in more collective terms. He postulates that the rightful summer of love took place not in 1967 but in 1966, when LSD was legal and nascent Bay Area bands like the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company were providing the psychedelic soundtrack at weekly public acid tests, many of them shepherded by Kesey.

Gilmore suggests that the Human Be-In was the beginning of the end of the Haight. The event got the attention of the international press, and kids around the globe made plans to spend their summers on the streets of San Francisco. Before long, the Haight was overcrowded and the scene faded to black in a haze of speed and smack.

Even George Harrison, Gilmore recounts, was repulsed when he visited Haight-Ashbury in August 1967, freaked out by the swarm of "hideous, spotty little teenagers." Already, the battle lines had been drawn between rock aristocracy and the great unwashed.

All in all, Gilmore taps into the heart and humanity of the 1960s, reminding us why a moment nearly (gulp) a half-century ago nearly changed everything -- and why it can never happen again.

The 1960s, he notes, were remarkable because no one saw them coming. Now, the powers that be are prepared.

"There is now a social and political mind-set that never again wants to see youth culture and its arts empowered as they were in recent generations."

At least we have the power of the ballot box.

Himmelsbach is a Los Angeles writer and producer.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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