Death and Violence in Rock 'n' Roll

Cynthia Joyce interviews Mikal Gilmore on his new book 'Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock 'n' Roll,' the golden age of old rock stars and rock's redemptive force in American culture.

By Cynthia Joyce

Published March 20, 1998 2:10PM (EST)

If, as the rave generation has proclaimed, rock 'n' roll is indeed dead, then Mikal Gilmore has written a fitting eulogy with his "Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock 'n' Roll." In this collection of profiles, interviews and essays written for Rolling Stone, the L.A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner during the past 20 years, Gilmore probes the dark side of rock history with a searing passion. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Gilmore doesn't lament that rock 'n' roll has seen its best days: "I am thankful that I was allowed to come of age in an historical moment -- that is, to 'grow up' -- when rock 'n' roll made some bold and upsetting advances," he writes in his introduction. "And I am thrilled with the realization that I will 'grow old' with music that will continue to do the same."

Those familiar with "Shot in the Heart," Gilmore's moving memoir about his family's violent history and the eventual execution of his brother, convicted serial killer Gary Gilmore, might assume that a collection of musings about music and culture would make for considerably lighter reading. But whether he's deciphering Lou Reed's inner demons, keeping vigil by Timothy Leary's deathbed or visiting the ghost town of Aberdeen, Wash., that Kurt Cobain left behind, Gilmore bores deep into rock 'n' roll's dark core, revealing how the violence and desperation of American culture are redeemed by its music. But perhaps more important, Gilmore's book stands as a reminder that there was a time when talking about how the Beatles' appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Feb. 9, 1964, "changed my life, man" wasn't a clichi -- it was simply true.

Recently, Gilmore spoke to Salon about Dylan, death and how life changed his rock 'n' roll.

In reading "Night Beat," it's clear how the experiences you wrote about in "Shot in the Heart" informed your musical sensibilities.

Well, actually, the vast majority of these essays were written before "Shot in the Heart" -- only a few were written after. So in a weird way, it may be that the sensibility in this book informed what's in "Shot in the Heart" more so than vice versa. For one thing, this book is every bit as personal, maybe even more personal in some ways.

But darkness and death are recurring themes in "Night Beat" -- they form the prism through which you interpret a lot of the music. Do you think you would you have been writing about these artists had you not grown up in such a violent environment?

Good question. I admit that I respond to that, that I'm a sucker for it. Even Portishead, or Tim Buckley -- that kind of mood can pull me right in. But probably the more hidden part, and the more consequential part, is that now when I look back, I see my tendency is to find the darkest shadow and bury my nose in it. I can see now that came from my family experience. It was a Gothic and dark place to grow up in. Actually, I don't think I could have done this book without having first done "Shot in the Heart": I had to come to some kind of understanding first.

Many of the artists you've profiled, among them Lou Reed, Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, opened up to you in surprising ways, especially given their reputations. One notable exception is Keith Jarrett, who comes across as completely contentious. Did that experience make you question your profession?

It did -- I wanted to walk out on that piece. I found him exasperating and difficult, and in short, a real prick. But I was torn, because I realized that there are a lot of other people I like who are not nice people but who made great music, and just because I was having a bad experience with this person myself, I shouldn't let that get in the way. But Jarrett was remarkably good at not letting you have any other experience.

The truth is, I've dealt with a lot of people who were intelligent and interesting, and who were also generous. A lot of people had reputations or images they could wield and didn't -- people like Lou Reed or Bob Dylan or Mick Jagger -- all of whom know that their presence is foreshadowed by their history and myth. I saw moments of that with all of them, but any of those people could have been -- and I'm sure have been -- every bit as notorious as Keith Jarrett was on that instance.

It's never been my interest to write pieces that humiliate or attack people or portray them in some kind of unfavorable fashion. The Keith Jarrett piece is really the exception to that rule. The horrible truth is that jazz musicians have been disregarded and devalued in this culture and by the media for two or three generations at least. And it has to be frustrating to go through that, or to see your colleagues go through it, when you know those people are working from the heart. I have found some of the most difficult people I've interviewed to be jazz musicians. And yet, I understand. For a lot of those people, too many years of not being paid attention to has taken its toll.

In your profiles of people, did you report on everything that was revealed to you?

No. It was never my intention to invade someone's life. There are times when you have to ask questions, hard questions, and I realized that it was my obligation to deal with whatever was happening in that person's story at that moment. But I didn't feel it my obligation to offer every vulnerable moment, or every foolish moment, that they may have displayed.

I've interviewed people who would reveal something really painful or desperate about their life, and they would be crying while they were talking about it. And I would choose later not to reveal that stuff, because it really was their own matter. I haven't had people ask me not to include things -- it was usually my choice.

Can you give me an example?

One of the pieces I cared about most was a piece on Lou Reed -- it was interviews taken from over a year. Rolling Stone was mishandling the story, to my great frustration -- they kept holding the story, and holding it to the point that Lou Reed had put out a new album, "Take No Prisoners," by the time it came out, and the story was written for when "Street Hassle" came out. "Take No Prisoners" was an OK record, but it didn't have the merit or weight "Street Hassle" had. That whole thing was frustrating for me, and I'm sure it was frustrating for him.

But I think I got Lou Reed at a certain point in his life, a transitional point where he was tired of being seen as the poet of the underbelly. His literary aspirations went beyond that. And I think he was also tired of the paths he had taken in his own life, and he was making a lot of changes. His music went on to a new kind of depth, and by the time the story published, in some ways it was outdated. People forget now, but Lou Reed was reviled -- for years and years the Velvet Underground was hated and Reed was despised. Now, I think he's respected as an elder figure in rock 'n' roll, but that was not the case until the 1980s. And I spent time with him at the end of the time he was doing music that people felt distance from. It was a time I had to ask myself, What do you say about a person's life?

It's so easy for people who read or write profiles to think that in that moment you're defining someone's life, and you're not. You can't. There's so much more to any person's life, to any person's day. All you can show is your own interpretation of the person's history and the exchange you had with them. The Lou Reed experience taught me that lesson -- you can't define someone.

But of all the people you deal with in this collection, Reed seems to have been the most estranged from his own image. Who would you say had the healthiest relationship to their rock 'n' roll image?

Most people are conscious of themselves being famous or being stars, and they will keep you at a certain distance. But then there are moments when they will turn it off -- Mick Jagger and Lou Reed are examples of that, and Madonna. In conversation with her, I never found Madonna to be star-struck with herself at all.

The person who's the strongest example of someone who really is distant from the demands of celebrity would be Dylan. I think he's a person who grew disabused of that. Again, he knew he could use it or wield it when he had to, but over time, even that became exhausting to him. He cannot escape being Bob Dylan -- that was associated with him in everything he did. But I suspect at times he would like to.

He was a guy who turned the world upside down -- he changed American arts and even in some ways American life. And almost as quickly as he did that, he recoiled from it -- he went into seclusion after his motorcycle accident, and his music took a different tone. And he tried to tell people he didn't want to be accountable for their impressions of him. And when people recoiled from him somewhat, it had to be difficult for him to figure out what his relationship to them was. I think now he's made up his mind about it. It took these long periods in the '80s where people just didn't care about him, but that may have been one of the best things to have happened to him.

For longtime Dylan loyalists, the critical success of "Time Out of Mind" must come as somewhat of a victory.

The first time I heard the album, I was completely floored by it. I was almost close to tears. I think it might be his best work, at least of this decade. And certainly it is among his best work.
It really is an end-of-the-century work from one of the few artists who would have the voice to give us that.

Clearly, there was a period where he was wayward and momentum was slow and he seemed confused about who his audience was. And I think the tail end of that, or the transitional part, was when he toured with the Grateful Dead. He realized playing with them that he could not lead -- that band had played together for years, and for all that band's failings, they were still a band, and they knew each other. And in some ways they overpowered him. But they also taught him a very valuable lesson.

I, along with a lot of other people, thought that his best work would always be behind him. "Time Out of Mind" is not going to change the world -- there are other records that will do that -- but that's not his role now.

Who do you think plays that role now?

In recent terms, I would pick Notorious B.I.G.'s album as one of the great works of the last few years. And he did not have a lot of work that preceded it, and unfortunately had no history that followed it, so it's a case of measuring against a moment, and also measuring against what hip-hop produces. Hip-hop has been a great music of culture and great producer of singles, but as a producer of sustained works it has been much more elusive. But in the case of Big's album, that was a momentous example.

As music editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in the '80s, you wrote a lot about the Dream Syndicate, a band that was pretty quickly dismissed by the rest of the music establishment. When you found your tastes running totally counter to the Zeitgeist, did it make you feel as if your judgments were suspect?

I never questioned my ability to make bold judgments. But there have been times when I wondered if I still wanted to do what I was doing. In the past few years, I haven't had the same kind of connection to the flow of pop music that I had 10 years ago, when I was writing on a daily basis. I still listen to new music now, but not as diligently. And I'm glad for that, because in some ways it allows me to enjoy music more, to just hear it on its own terms and accept it. That's one of the reasons I suspect I won't ever return to active criticism, because the further I am away from it the more I enjoy music. Lately, it's been more fun for me to go back to a fan's role.

In the last few years, rock 'n' roll's "elder statesmen" have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts -- but they've also been harshly criticized by some for continuing to cash in on faded glory. Do you think such criticism is deserved?

People forget that music is a way of life -- I'm sure the Rolling Stones love the extra money, but I suspect people who keep on doing it must love it. If somebody keeps doing it that much there must be something more about it.

Frank Sinatra's a good person to go back to. Here's a guy who sang his way across most of the century. He certainly didn't have to do it -- he had No. 1 hits in every single decade, including the '90s, retired once and came back, and performed up to the point where he just could not physically perform anymore -- but he had nothing left to prove. He had already established himself as one of the great entertainers of the century, and certainly one of the great singers, and yet, he was out there night after night almost until he was 80. The closest I come to figuring out why he's still there is that those moments on stage offered him the chance to transcend the stuff that he couldn't transcend in his life. He could put into song the sensitivity and perspective that he couldn't incorporate into his life. Maybe that's what music was for him -- a daily work of redemption.

Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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