I guess I could say what many people of my age--or people who are younger or even older--might be able to say: I grew up with popular music encompassing my life. It played as a soundtrack for my youth. It enhanced (sometimes created) my memories. It articulated losses, angers, and horrible (as in unattainable
) hopes, and it emboldened me in many, many dark hours. It also, as much as anything else in my life, defined my convictions and my experience of what it meant (and still means) to be an American, and it gave me a moral (and of course immoral) guidance that nothing else in my life ever matched, short of dreams of sheer generous love or of sheer ruthless rapacity or destruction. I can remember my mother playing piano, singing to me her much-loved songs of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, or singing an old-timey Carter Family dirge, accompanying herself on harmonica. As I remember it, she wasn't half-bad, though of course I'm forming that judgment through a haze of long-ago memories and idealized longings.
It was my older brothers, though, who brought music into my house--and into my life--in the ways that would begin to matter most. I was the youngest of four boys; my oldest brother, Frank, was eleven years older than I, Gary was ten years older, and Gaylen, six years older. As a result, by the time I was four or five in the mid-1950s, my brothers were already (more or less) teenagers--which means that they were caught in the early thrall and explosion of rock & roll. As far back as I remember hearing anything, I remember hearing (either on one of the house's many radios, or on my brothers' portable phonographs) early songs by Bill Haley & His Comets, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Fats Domino, the Platters, Buddy Knox, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Sam Cooke, and Ricky Nelson, among others. But the biggest voice that hit my brothers' lives--the biggest voice that hit the nation--was, of course, Elvis Presley's. In the mid-1950s, every time Presley performed on nationwide TV (on the Milton Berle, Steve Allen, or Ed Sullivan shows) was an occasion for a family gathering--among the few times my family ever collected for any purpose other than to fight. Those times we sat watching Presley on our old Zenith were, in fact, among our few occasions of real shared joy. For some reason, the appearance I remember most was Elvis's 1956 performance on the Dorsey Brothers' "Stage Show" (which was also the singer's national debut, and was followed by six consecutive appearances). I remember sitting tucked next to my father in his big oversize brown leather chair. My father was not a man who was fond of youthful impudence or revolt (in fact, he was downright brutal in his efforts to shut down my brothers' rebellions). At the same time, my father was
a man who had spent the better part of his own youth working in show business, in films and onstage and in vaudeville and the circus, and something about rock & roll's early outlandishness appealed to his show-biz biases (though his own musical tastes leaned strongly to opera and Broadway musicals). After watching Presley on that first Dorsey show, my father said: "That young man's got real talent. He's going to be around for a long time. He's the real thing."
I never got to have my own period of rock & roll conflict with my father. He died in mid-1962, when I was eleven, when "The Twist" and "Duke of Earl" were my picks to click. Hardly songs or trends worth whipping a child until he bled.
A little over a year later, President John Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas, Texas. It was a startling event, and it froze the nation in shock, grief, and a lingering depression. Winter nights were long that season--long, and maybe darker than usual. I was just twelve, but I remember that sense of loss that was not merely my own--a loss that seemed to fill the room of the present and the space of the future. By this time, my brothers were hardly ever home. Gary and Gaylen were either out at night on criminal, drunken, carnal activity, or in jail. My mother had the habit of going to bed early, so I stayed up late watching old horror movies, talk shows, anything I could find. I remember--in January 1964--watching Jack Paar's late night show, when he began talking about a new sensation that was sweeping England: a strange pop group called the Beatles. He showed a clip of the group that night--the first time they had been seen in America. It's a ghostly memory to me now. I don't remember what I saw in the clip's moments, but I remember I was transfixed. Weeks later, the Beatles made their first official live U.S. television appearance, on February 9, 1964, on the "Ed Sullivan Show." The date happened also to be my thirteenth birthday, and I don't think I could ever have received a better, more meaningful, more transforming gift. I won't say much here about what that appearance did to us--as a people, a nation, an emerging generation--because I'll say something about it in the pages ahead, but I'll say this: As romantic as it may sound, I knew I was seeing something very big on that night, and I felt something in my life change. In fact, I was witnessing an opening up of endless possibilities. I have a video tape of those Sullivan appearances. I watch it often and show it to others--some who have never seen those appearances before, because those shows have never been rebroadcast or reissued in their entirety (there isn't much more than a glimpse of them in The Beatles Anthology
video series). To this day, they remain remarkable. You watch those moments and you see history opening up, from the simple (but not so simple) act of men playing their instruments and singing, and sharing a discovery with their audience of a new, youthful eminence. The long, dark Kennedy-death nights were over. There would be darker nights, for sure, to come, and rock & roll would be a part of that as well. But on that
night, a nightmare was momentarily broken, and a new world born. Its implications have never ended, even if they no longer mean exactly what they meant in that first season.
It was obviously a great time, though it would soon become (just as obviously) a complex and scary time. It was a time when almost every new song was shared, discussed, and sorted through for everything it might hold or deliver--every secret thrill or code, every new joyous twist of sonic texture. "The House of the Rising Sun." "Stop! In the Name Of Love." "Help Me Rhonda." "Mr. Tambourine Man." "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." "Positively 4th Street." "Help!" "California Dreamin'." "Good Lovin'." "When a Man Loves a Woman." "Summer in the City." "Sunshine Superman." "I Want You." "96 Tears." "Paint It, Black." "Over Under Sideways Down." "Respect." "Ode to Billy Joe." "Good Vibrations." "The Letter." It was also a time of many leaders or would-be leaders--some liberating, some deadly. Mario Savio. Lyndon Johnson. Robert Kennedy. Julian Bond. Richard Nixon. George Lincoln Rockwell. George Wallace. Martin Luther King, Jr. Malcolm X. Hubert Humphrey. Eldridge Cleaver. Shirley Chisolm. Jerry Rubin. Tom Hayden. Gloria Steinem. Abbie Hoffman. There were also the other leaders--some who led without desire or design, but who led as surely (and sometimes as liberatingly or as foolishly) as the political figures. The Beatles. Bob Dylan. Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, and Keith Richards. Timothy Leary. Jimi Hendrix. Jane Fonda. The Jefferson Airplane. Aretha Franklin. James Brown. Marvin Gaye. Sly Stone. Jim Morrison. Charles Manson.
As you can tell from those lists, the 1960s' ideals, events, and moods grew darker--and they did so earlier than many people would like to acknowledge. In the middle of 1967--the same season that bred what became known as the Summer of Love in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, and the same period when the Beatles summarized and apotheosized psychedelia with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band--
I came across an album I really loved (still perhaps my favorite of all time): The Velvet Underground and Nico.
It was a record full of songs about bad losses, cold hearts, hard narcotics, and rough, degrading sex. I took to it like a dog to water (or whatever dogs take to). It was the first subject--in a long list--of arguments that I would enter into with friends about rock & roll. In fact, it was my first rock & roll choice that actually cost me some fraternity. When I was a senior in high school, I was part of a Folk Song after-school group. We'd get together, under a teacher's auspices, and sing our favorite folk songs--everything from "Kum Ba Yah," "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" and "We Shall Overcome" to "Blowin' in the Wind" and (gulp) "Puff the Magic Dragon." At one meeting, each of us was invited to sing his or her favorite folk song. I sang Lou Reed's "Heroin." I was never welcome back in the group.
A year later I was out of high school, into college, not doing well. I was going through one of my periodic funks, following one of my periodic failed love affairs (the woman of this occasion became a born-again Christian and married the man who impregnated her; later, she became one of the most wildly game sexual people I've ever known or enjoyed, but that is
another story). In this period--the late winter of 1969 and the early winter of 1970--I was taking a lot of drugs, learning how to drink, and staying up all night until the sun rose, then I'd hit the bed (actually, the floor, which was
my bed at the time), and finally find sleep. (Interestingly, at least to me, I returned to this pattern--the staying-up-until-sunrise-then-running-to-hide part--for the entire month in which I wrote and revised this current volume.)
By this same period, something called the "rock press" had developed: magazines like Cheetah, Crawdaddy!,
and Rolling Stone,
where one could read passionate and informed opinions and arguments about current music and, better yet, could also learn about earlier musicians who had helped make the late 1960s' and early 1970s' innovations possible--everyone from Robert Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington to the Carter Family, Lotte Lenya, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman (some of whom were still alive, making vital music) and countless more. As a result, the journalism (that is, the essays, rants, profiles, interviews and historical perspectives) of such writers as Ralph Gleason, Paul Williams, Greil Marcus, Jon Landau, Dave Marsh, Langdon Winner, Jonathan Cott, Lester Bangs, Paul Nelson, Nick Tosches, Robert Christgau, and Ellen Willis came to seem as exciting and meaningful to me as much of the music they were writing about--though too damn few of them for my liking were willing to stand up for the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed (Willis, Nelson, and Christgau being notable and important exceptions).
It was not until 1974 that I began writing about popular music. What made this possible was Bob Dylan's "comeback" tour (his first such American trek in eight years) with the Band. This was also a time, I should note, when I spent my days working as a counselor at a Portland, Oregon, drug abuse clinic and my nights smoking as much marijuana as I could find--a contradictory (probably hypocritical) turn of affairs, but hardly an uninteresting one. Then I saw Dylan in early 1974 (again, on the occasion of my birthday, ten years after the Beatles' debut on Ed Sullivan), and an old girlfriend suggested I write about the event for a local underground newspaper. After doing so, I never looked back. The piece, of course, was awful (at least to my eyes today), but that hardly mattered. I'd managed to put together my two greatest dreams and pleasures: writing (as a result of a love of reading) and music criticism (as a result of listening to music). When I finished that article, I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to write about popular music--it was pretty much all I cared about as a vocation. Within a season I had quit my drug counseling job (also had cut way back on my drug intake--a connection?), and started writing for a number of local publications. I also began writing jazz reviews for Down Beat
(jazz, by this time, had come to mean as much to me as rock & roll--a passion that isn't evident enough in this present volume), and along with the help of some good friends, I was soon editing a Portland-based magazine, Musical Notes.
A few dreams were now active in my life.
Then those dreams turned to nightmare, to the worst horror I could imagine. I am sorry if you have already heard this story--perhaps you have--but there is no way I can finish this introduction without being honest about this particular passage in my life.
In 1976, when I was twenty-five, I began writing for Rolling Stone.
When the magazine came along in 1967, it announced itself as a voice that might prove as fervent and intelligent as the brave new music that it dared to champion. From the time I began reading the magazine, I held a dream of someday writing for its pages. To me, that would be a way of participating in the development of the music I had come to love so much.
In the autumn of 1976, I learned that Rolling Stone
had accepted an article of mine for publication. I was elated. Then, about a week later I learned something horrible, something that killed my elation: My older brother, Gary Gilmore, was going to be put to death by a firing squad in Utah. It didn't look like there was much that could stop it--and I didn't know if I could live with it.
Any hope for serenity in my life had been destroyed. Shortly after I heard about Gary's wish to be executed, I told my editor at Rolling Stone,
Ben Fong-Torres, about my relationship with Gary. By this time, Gary Gilmore was a daily name in nationwide headlines, and I felt that the magazine had a right to know that I was his brother. Fong-Torres, who had lost a brother of his own through violence, was extremely sympathetic and supportive during the period that followed, and eventually he gave me the opportunity to write about my experience of Gary's execution for the magazine.
In the season that followed Gary's death, I went to work for Rolling Stone
full-time in Los Angeles. It wasn't an easy period for me--I felt displaced, and (once again) was drinking too much and taking too many pills--but the magazine gave me plenty of slack; maybe more than I deserved. As time went along, I began to find some of my strength and purpose again as a music writer, and Rolling Stone
gave me the opportunity to meet and write about some of the people whose music and words had mattered most in my life. It was also a season in which I spent many nights lost in the dark and brilliant splendor of punk. I liked the way the music confronted its listeners with the reality of our merciless age. Punk, as much as anything, saved my soul in those years, and gave me cause for hope--which is perhaps a funny thing to say about a movement (or experiment) that's first premise was: there are no simple hopes that are not false or at least suspect.
IFrom the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Night Beat by Mikal Gilmore. . Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.