The best pieces of criticism are a little like memoirs: They’re secret windows into the writer’s heart, a ray of light filtered through a book or a movie or a piece of music. Mikal Gilmore, who’s been a rock journalist and critic for more than 23 years, has already written his memoir. His 1994 “Shot in the Heart,” a chronicle of his family’s troubled, violent past (Mikal’s older brother was executed murderer Gary Gilmore), is one of the most haunting books of the last decade. But “Night Beat,” a selection of Gilmore’s writing on rock ‘n’ roll from publications such as Rolling Stone and the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner, feels almost like an extension of Gilmore’s memoir. Not all the pieces here are works of criticism: Many of them are built around interviews Gilmore conducted with the likes of Keith Jarrett, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis, as well as members of various bands including Van Halen and the Clash. These essays and profiles illuminate their subjects first and foremost — yet it’s Gilmore’s insight, and his willingness to face up to the desperate loneliness (as well as the elation) that marks some of the best rock ‘n’ roll, that makes “Night Beat” a personal book in the best sense of the word.
Gilmore covers a lot of territory, starting with Elvis Presley’s inescapable cry of freedom and hopscotching through a who’s who of artists who matter, from the loner brilliance of Randy Newman to the nearly private ruminations of Sinead O’Connor. His chapter on Kurt Cobain is one of the most perceptive elegies written about the singer. Gilmore visited Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen, Wash., and found his way to a bridge under which Cobain reportedly slept when he had nowhere else to go. He stares out at the Wishkah River, “stagnant and green,” trying to see it through Cobain’s eyes. “I hear a clatter behind me and I turn around. A rat? The wind? I sit there and I think what it would be like to hear that sound in the dead of a cold night, with only a small fire at best to illuminate the dark. I try to imagine what it was like to be a boy in this town and turn to this bridge as your haven. Who knows: Maybe the nights Cobain spent here were fun, drunken nights, or at least times of safety, when he was out of reach of the town that had already harmed him many times. But in the end I have to lapse into my own prejudices: It seems horrible that this was the kindest sanctuary a boy could find on a winter night in his own hometown.”
Passionate and knowledgeable, Gilmore writes about pop music like a fan: There’s never any doubt how deeply he loves it. But he also understands how freedom and terror play themselves out in rock ‘n’ roll, and how, sometimes, it’s impossible to distinguish one from the other. The book’s title is borrowed from a 1963 Sam Cooke album, “a record made for the 3 a.m. of your soul,” Gilmore writes. “Night Beat” is a 3 a.m. kind of book, but if it sometimes mines territory of loneliness and despair, it also reaffirms the solace and pleasure that can be found at the turntable or CD player.