Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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All we need know about Mikal Gilmore's Night Beat (Doubleday, 461 pp.) is that there are too many rock books and not enough books of rock journalism, which is where the best rock writing occurs--where editors know the subject and writers earn a decent word rate. Sure most of it is disposable, but not when the scribe at hand is as serious, knowledgeable, and passionate as Mikal Gilmore, who after collecting essays about some 45 musicians apologizes by listing 210 he omitted, from Aphex Twin to Helen Humes.

Honorably, Gilmore addresses the formal dilemma of the collection form, its formlessness, by constructing from over two decades of work, mostly for Rolling Stone and The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, what he subtitles "A Shadow History of Rock & Roll." In some cases, most spectactularly an essay collaged from 23 years worth of Dylan coverage, his refusal to leave well enough alone is the path of wisdom. But elsewhere, as when he roots a comprehensive Beatles chapter in a long review of Anthology 3, he should have stood in bed. Because Gilmore's great gift is the humane sympathy of the interviewer--his critical rhetoric can be bland, and his historical insights are rarely acute--he's often most memorable here just reprinting pieces that came out good, on such nonrockers as Keith Jarrett, Allen Ginsberg, and Timothy Leary as well as the Allman Brothers, the Doors, and Tupac Shakur.

In all of these the writing takes on the 4 a.m. intensity of responses forced out with an obsessiveness that would fry most book writers, who learn to pace themselves. Which isn't to say I don't look forward to a Dylan book that delves further into the dark-side secrets he often adduces without exploring in his deadline work--or a Sinatra book either.

Village Voice, Feb. 10, 1998