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BOOK REVIEW / Non Fiction

Inside the Outlaws of Modern Music

NIGHT BEAT: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll by Mikal Gilmore. Doubleday, $24.95, 462 pages

April 15, 1998|SUSIE LINFIELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mikal Gilmore loves the outlaw sensibility of rock 'n' roll, and he's not slumming either. Gilmore knows something about outlaws--and the rage, riskiness and despair they often embody. His critically acclaimed 1994 memoir, "Shot in the Heart," was an almost unbearably unflinching account of the emotional and physical violence that had defined the Gilmore family's values for generations. Mikal Gilmore is the brother of Gary Gilmore, the convicted murderer who was executed in 1977 (and was the subject of Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song"). After reading "Shot in the Heart," one wondered not why Gary became a killer, but why Mikal and his other brothers didn't.

Not surprisingly, then, Gilmore--a longtime writer for Rolling Stone and former music critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner--connects easily with rock's raw, subversive tradition. (He approvingly quotes producer Sandy Pearlman: "Rock & roll shouldn't be cute and adorable; it should be violent and anarchic.") What moves Gilmore is rock's audacity, defiance and courage, its refusal of limits, its ecstatic vitality, its compassionate yearning for community and its fierce lust for freedom. Rock 'n' roll, he notes, is "perhaps the sole art form that most regularly forms an argument. That is, rock & roll is itself a disagreement with established power--a refutation of authority's unearned influence."

Most of all, Gilmore admires those who are willing to rupture history: to tear the social fabric, to break with the past, to open up new possibilities. In this category he includes not only musical artists like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and the Sex Pistols, but also political figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and cultural iconoclasts like William Burroughs, Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg. He praises the great disturbers, the beautiful violators; he loves rock most deeply when it possesses a "disruptive power . . . eloquent and inspiring and principled enough to change the world."

Given all this, it is not surprising that Gilmore's writing is strongest when his subject is punk, whose sense of tragic realism was so close to his own. He lauds Johnny Rotten for daring to "make sense of popular culture by making that culture suffer the world outside--its moral horror, its self-impelled violation, its social homicide," and the early Clash, which "stake[d] a larger claim on terror, revolution, and deliverance than any pop culture force before it."

He is also a great fan of several L.A. punk groups, including X, which played "as if they wanted to punish the structures of the songs in order to strengthen their meanings," and Dream Syndicate, for their "willingness to take their music anywhere it might go at any given moment, even if that moment resulted in chaos or decomposition." But Gilmore is no nihilist, and he is too intimately acquainted with pain to romanticize it. Some of his harshest words are reserved for the Clash's "Combat Rock," which he condemns as a "muddled album about artistic despair and personal dissolution that derives from those conditions rather than aims to illuminate them."

Alas, Gilmore's writing sometimes deteriorates into utterly pointless cliches. Inexcusably, he ends his long, loving profile of Dylan with the nonobservation that the songwriter "remains a vital American artist." He notes that when Frank Sinatra stops singing, "we will lose a giant." Similarly, of Allen Ginsberg's death, he writes: "We have seen a giant pass from our times."

Nonetheless, "Night Beat" is often fun to read, especially if you're a rock junkie, a criticism junkie or, best of all, a rock criticism junkie. And it contains some hilarious quotes, including those from Sinead O'Connor earnestly explaining why she lives near a graveyard, Mick Jagger blithely trying to remember what all that political fuss in the '60s was really about, and Bob Dylan disdainfully elucidating why happiness doesn't really interest him at all.

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