"To at least one visitor, the singer insisted that a spirit sat in that chair - and that he knew that spirit well. In fact, he said, he and the ghost were brothers." Mikal Gilmore wrote these words about an early 90s reunion tour of The Allman Brothers. The singer was Gregg Allman; the ghost his brother Duane. Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1971, which was the beginning of the band's derailment. A "dark legacy of death and bad news" hung over Gregg ever since, leaving him with the unanswerable question of "Why big brother, why?"
This intimate portrait of a pop band giving it yet another try was titled "Brothers," and appeared in the October 1990 edition of Rolling Stone. It was written by Mikal Gilmore, who besides being one of the best writers in the field, brought an understanding to the Gregg Allman story no other writer ever could. Gilmore's work is marked with thoughtfulness, compassion, and what one critic called his "openness and generosity of spirit." The New York Times calls Gilmore "a tireless romantic" who writes "with his heart as much as his head."
His books reflect his heart as well. "Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll" appeared in 1999, with many feeling it was the most articulate and passionate writing about music ever published. He followed this with "Shot in the Heart," a book which started a heated bidding war between publishers, earning Gilmore a $700,000 advance. His latest book, "Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and Its Discontents," is a bittersweet and emotive look at that explosive decade.
Gilmore was born in 1951 to one of the most abusive families on record. His mother was raised in a household of horrific physical abuse, which she in turn rained down on her own children. His father Frank was a vagrant and a conman, one who already had seven wives by the time he married his mother. Frank savagely beat both his wife and their children viscously and repeatedly. His mother unsuccessfully tried countless times to stab Frank while he slept. Gilmore refers to his childhood as "a background of ruin."
Yet he also feels he was the lucky one. The youngest of four brothers, his father was 60 by the time Gilmore was born. His mother and older brothers shared "a heartsickening bond" of cruel violence which he would never be a part of. What they did share with Gilmore was Elvis, Fats Domino, Bob Dylan and the Beatles. His intense love of music led him to discover Rolling Stone magazine, and Gilmore spent his teen years dreaming of writing for it someday.
That day came in 1976, when Rolling Stone accepted one of his articles. "Beyond question," Gilmore wrote in "Shot in the Heart." "It was the proudest accomplishment of my life."
Sadly, Gilmore's euphoria was short lived. About a week after his life's dream had come true, he was told his older brother Gary was going to be put to death by a firing squad in Utah.
Gary Gilmore had received the death penalty after killing two young men in one night. Gilmore would be the first person put to death after the United States lifted a decade-long moratorium on executions. This became a seminal moment issue in 70s, helped along by Norman Mailer's Pulitzer Prizewinning book "The Executioner's Song."
Gilmore could do nothing about this unrelenting nightmare but write about it, but even this took 15 years, costing him a marriage, broken book contracts, and crippling bouts of depression. "Shot in the Heart" - more about Mikal than his brother Gary - won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award when it was published. The book was healing more than Gilmore ever expected, restoring his lost "sanity and hope."
And this is why he was the only person who could have written the Gregg Allman piece; Gilmore knew that ghost all too well. "Why big brother, why?"