Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and Its Discontents by Mikal Gilmore
Stories Done is a collection of music journalist Mikal Gilmore’s work from Rolling Stone about people and events that had a great cultural impact during the 1960s and into the 1970s. While all decades are filled with moments of notoriety, infamy, and significance — illuminated by the passage of time and the work of historians — the 1960s (especially in the United States) stands out as a decade of great change and upheaval. It was an era of seemingly limitless human potential bound by imagination and consciousness, both expanded by external sources.
Gilmore states in his introduction the subjects of his articles, which include eulogies for recently departed icons and commemorations of anniversaries, “were part of a major historical shift that not only challenged the cultural and social values of that age, but also, for an astonishing term, almost preempted the real power of the era.”
The accomplishments of the Beats were a great influence on the 1960s so it’s fitting the book opens with a feature on Allan Ginsberg, who had the most direct involvement with those who followed in their footsteps off the beaten path. What Ginsberg did with his art to affect the status quo, Timothy Leary did with science in his promotion of LSD, a drug taken by many of the people included herein.
Some articles make the case for artists who had an impact on the decade though they don’t come to mind immediately when referring to the ‘60s. Johnny Cash usually evokes the 1950s, but he certainly made his stamp on the decade with “Ring of Fire” coming out in ‘63, At Folsom Prison in ’68, At San Quentin in '69, his recording with Dylan, and his own television variety show. Comparatively, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin dominated the 1970s, but each got their start in the ‘60s. Led by Syd Barrett, the psychedelically inclined Floyd released their first album in 1967. Zepp, dubbed “the last band of the 1960s and the first of the 1970s” by RS’s Steve Pond, got their start in 1969 with the release of two albums that altered the rock landscape.
Gilmore reveals himself throughout to be a brilliant, enlightening, and engaging writer. Even in stories I have memorized from countless times of exposure, from those on Jim Morrison and The Doors to his fellow RS writer Hunter S. Thompson, Gilmore’s prose captivates because of the high quality of his writing. He also reveals himself at opportune moments, sharing his experiences of an LSD trip he took one night shortly before Leary’s death as well as an intimate phone call thanking Cash for calling his notorious brother, Gary Gilmore, the night before his execution.
The book is not always best when read in the order presented or in a short time frame. Understandably, the chapters are comprised of articles sharing a theme, but in some instances there’s too much repetition because of the crisscrossing of people and places and the focus Gilmore gives key events. The lives of Beatles George Harrison and John Lennon, and even their creation Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, obviously couldn’t be told without crossover. However, there is a little too much redundancy in the stories about author Ken Kesey, Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia who played at Kesey’s Acid Tests, and the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood where Garcia lived as well as other residents who took part in the Acid Tests. To be fair, the latter articles were printed over the course of 12 years so the overlap is warranted since they were intended as individual pieces.
Another critique is something Gilmore mentions in the book’s introduction as “obvious shortcomings.” While acknowledging there are no women or R&B and jazz musicians featured, it’s still a surprise the only person of color featured is Bob Marley, whose impact occurred in the ‘70s. Although an argument could be made about his cultural influence outside of music, Jimi Hendrix’s omission from a book that mainly focuses on musicians from the ‘60s is rather stunning regardless of his skin color.
Those minor points aside, Stories Done serves equally as a great introduction to the era and the individuals and as wonderful remembrances to counterculture heroes. The stories provide great insight and occasional revelations to a bygone time, offering inspiration and lessons learned, though too late for some. Mikal Gilmore proves to be an inspiration also and is well worth reading no matter the subject.