ONCE AN ALIENATED, overly creative teenage misfit, Lew Shiner has been a critically successful writer for more than thirty years. His novel Glimpses won the World Fantasy Award in 1994 for Best Novel. He has also been one of my favorite writers since I was turned on to his novels twenty-some years ago. Paul Williams told me that Glimpses was the best rock & roll novel he’d ever read.
And so I found a used paperback copy and dug right in. And Paul (who happened to be the founder of Crawdaddy magazine and the Father of Rock Journalism) was right! What he didn’t tell me was that Glimpses was also one of the best sixties novels ever! It’s one of the few books that made me think, “I wish I had written that!”
Paul did tell me that I should get in touch with Lew as we had a lot in common. It only took me twenty years to follow his advice and lo and behold, Lew Shiner is one of my writing partners here on Tell It Like It Was. For more on Lew, refer to the “Introduction to Tell It Like It Was” and read his stuff here (especially “Mystery Train”).
Now I want to talk a bit about his latest work, a 350,000-word novel titled Outside the Gates of Eden that takes place in the ’60s and revolves around rock music and the counterculture and other things once groovy that make conservatives cringe with envy just thinking about.
“This book’s vision is rooted in a retrieval of those gritty, egalitarian virtues that can make you willing to somehow get up in the morning and face it all.”
As I haven’t read the book—it’s not published yet—I have to make do with the advance promotional material that Lew’s publisher, Subterranean Press, sent out via email earlier today. But first thing’s first:
On January 1, 1965, Bob Dylan recorded “Gates of Eden” for his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home. The lyrics serve as the springboard for Lew’s novel. As much as I would like to post the complete lyrics of Gates of Eden here, if I do I might sidetrack a few of you into spending several years trying to decipher them. Instead, I am just going to post a few of the song’s refrains:
“And there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden.”
“And there are no trials inside the Gates of Eden.”
“And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.”
A studio version of Dylan doing Gates of Eden is not available on the internet, and the live versions by him are difficult to understand. So here is Arlo Guthrie doing a fine reading of “Gates of Eden” with intelligible lyrics from his equally fine 1973 album Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys.
Back to Lew’s book: the cover features a photograph by legendary ’60s chronicler Lisa Law. The first printing will be a limited edition of 1000 signed numbered hardcover copies and is to be published in May 2019. Preorders for this special printing are being taken now.
What follows is the teaser that Subterranean Press is using to get your attention, an excerpt from the novel, and the blurbs from prominent writers that is part of all modern promotion.
While the first side of electric rock & roll music of Bringing It All Back Home got all the attention back then, in hindsight I think the acoustic second side actually kicked off “The Sixties.”
“What happened to the idealism of the 1960s? This question has haunted a generation. Outside the Gates of Eden follows two men from their first meeting in high school to their final destination in the twenty-first century. Alex is torn between his father’s business empire and his own artistic yearnings. Cole finds his calling at a Bob Dylan concert in 1965.
“From the Summer of Love in San Francisco to Woodstock, from campus protests to the SoHo loft scene, from a commune in Virginia to the outlaw country music of Austin, the novel charts the rise and fall of the counterculture—and what came after.
“Using the music business as a window into half a century, Outside the Gates of Eden is both epic and intimate, starkly realistic and ultimately hopeful, a War and Peace for the Woodstock generation.”
This is the cover of Outside the Gates of Eden with a killer photo by Lisa Laws that sums up one aspect of “The Sixties.” When I first saw this photo, I thought the guy was me, but I was really blonde back then. And skinny.
Here is the 975-word excerpt from Outside the Gates of Eden that Lew chose as the teaser to get you to buy his book:
Friday morning, August 15, 1969, JFK airport. A guy in a beard and mirrored sunglasses met them when they got off the redeye from San Francisco, holding a sign that said QUIRQ. When Cole asked him if he was their limo driver, the guy laughed as if it was the funniest thing he’d heard in days. He hustled them into a golf cart and drove them to a helipad at the far end of the airport.
Once they were in the air, Cole got the joke. The main freeway headed north from New York City was a parking lot, and when they banked to the left and followed a smaller road, it was also at a standstill. Soon Cole saw cars abandoned by the side of the road and a continuous stream of human beings trudging northwest on foot.
The scene was eerily familiar, and Cole flashed on a nightmare from his childhood, refugees from a nuclear war lining the roads as they fled their irradiated cities. That thought, in turn, made him realize that everything he had assumed about the festival was wrong. Even the most wild-eyed predictions of a hundred thousand people were clearly and hopelessly low. Something that had been building since the Beatles set fire to the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 had reached critical mass, and if it wasn’t an atom bomb, it looked to be nearly as devastating.
At the Holiday Inn in Liberty, Cole slept for a few hours, then caught a ride to the festival site. Unlike the copter he’d ridden in that morning, this one had a spherical glass front, like the one in the WhirlybirdsTV show from Cole’s youth. The seat next to the pilot was open. Country Joe sat in back, wearing a sergeant’s green military fatigues, his dark, shoulder-length hair held by a headband.
The combination of Joe’s uniform and the sound of the idling rotors gave Cole a jolt of Vietnam terror at the base of his spine. He strapped in and set his guitar case on end in front of him. It blocked at least part of the disorienting view through the Plexiglas floor.
“Hey, Cole,” Country Joe said, and Cole reached through the gap between the seats to shake his hand, movement style. Most of the musicians that Cole knew were searching for something. Joe seemed to have found it and tired of it and given it away a long time ago. He’d been a red-diaper baby, had spent three years in the Navy, was highly literate and political and always kept a level head, even when he was tripping, which was a good deal of the time. He had the best deadpan comic delivery of anyone Cole had ever met, and as with so many truly funny people, the humor was fed by a wellspring of bitterness.
Joe gestured vaguely at their surroundings. “It’s like being in the fucking USO, isn’t it?”
“Luckily,” Cole said, “you’re already dressed for the part.”
The helicopter lurched and lifted off and Cole watched the motel and the city fall away, replaced by a landscape of rolling hills, lakes, and trees. Straight lines and pale olive colors where the land was cultivated, a darker, textured green for the woods. Narrow roads cut the abstract canvas into interlocking pieces. These were working farms with tractors that needed to be moved around and produce that needed to get to market. Even from hundreds of feet in the air, Cole sensed something peaceful that emanated from the countryside itself.
The helicopter banked downward and Cole felt a rush of excitement. In a matter of seconds they began to see barns and fences and abandoned cars and then, all at once, throngs of people. In the distance a half-finished stage, a giant framework of raw white pine and a flapping sail of white canvas strung above it. Everywhere else it was a pointillist painting in daubs of pink and white and tan that Cole understood to be a continuous sea of human flesh.
“Incredible,” Country Joe said. “They’re saying three hundred thousand by tonight.”
The number was meaningless to Cole. What he saw was an area the size of a small town that consisted of nothing but one person sitting or standing next to another, and another, and another, in all directions. When he thought there couldn’t be any more, thousands more rolled into view, and thousands after that.
The helicopter circled the site. Pale green canvas tents clustered at the far end of the field, next to a board fence that extended from both sides of the stage. Half a dozen towers of metal scaffolding held spotlights and speakers. A row of portable toilets, not nearly enough. Behind the stage, trailers and a giant tepee. Mostly he saw kids, mostly male, mostly white, mostly teenaged.
Cole remembered the crowds at the Haight two years before. At least three times that many kids had come for the fair, all at once instead of over a period of months. His earlier vision of refugees was wrong. They were here as an affirmation, not a denial. He thought of the way Dylan’s songs, more than anyone else’s, had created an “us” and a “them,” and that he was looking at the culmination of all the songs like them. Hundreds of thousands of kids who saw themselves as part of that “us” had answered the call that they read between the lines of the festival posters. The revolution had happened, invisibly and bloodlessly, in the endlessly repeated acts of packing a knapsack or grabbing a sleeping bag and hitting the road.
“Joe?” Cole said. “I think we just won.”
“You think? That would be nice. We’ve still got a war to end and a few details like that.”
“Look at all those people,” Cole said. “They can’t ignore us now.”
If you look Rude Awakening up on the internet, you’re going to see a lot of less than glowing reviews. I have to assume those 1- and 2-star reviews are from people who either didn’t live through 1965-1975 or did but didn’t grok any of it. There’s a scene where Eric Roberts confronts a touchy, condescending man at a party that I try to emulate in my everyday life (although I often fail).
I love blurbs! What a great job blurb-writing would be. Of course, part of the job would entail reading a book a day and while that might keep the doctor away it would also keep one’s private and social life at bay. Here are the blurbs for Outside the Gates of Eden from Subterranean Press, in alphabetical order by the blurber’s last name:
“A story of the sixties that is generous but unflinching, sweeping but intimate, fictional but true. For everyone who’s wondered how we got from there to here and also where we might go next. Hugely ambitious, simply beautiful.” (Karen Joy Fowler)
“In Outside the Gates of Eden Lewis Shiner displays the panoramic historical consciousness of a Pynchon or DeLillo, and yet every page is suffused with a humble and scrupulous humanity, scrubbed of abstractions or grandiosity—you simply live with his people and know them and love them. Shiner’s interest in the way the world actually works—how people write a song, or learn to dance, or play cards, or write a dissertation, or raise a kid—reminds me of Howard Hawks or John D. Macdonald; this book’s vision is similarly rooted in a retrieval of those gritty, egalitarian virtues that can make you (still) willing to somehow get up in the morning and face it all.” (Jonathan Lethem)
“Outside the Gates of Eden is a powerful piece of work. Shiner writes about music, and the making of music, better than anyone I know. He gets across the tremendous excitement of the early days of rock and roll, the peace movement, Woodstock and the Summer of Love—but also the heartbreak of failure, betrayal, and loss. The prose is terrific, and the sense of time and place is first rate. A brilliant requiem for our generation and all our dreams.” (George R. R. Martin)
“Lewis Shiner’s Glimpses made me a lifelong fan. His new novel, Outside the Gates of Eden, is a page-turning tour de force. Anyone with a passion for rock and roll storytelling at its very best must not deny themselves the opportunity to read this tale. A masterpiece.” (Iain Matthews)
“Few works of fiction are convincingly set in the world of rock music, and fewer still evoke coming of age in the 1960s with journalistic authenticity and painstakingly accurate detail. With Outside the Gates of Eden, Lewis Shiner not only pulls off these difficult feats, he also brings his characters forcefully into our present age, fearlessly probing their roads to blending their fiery idealism with the hard-gained wisdom of experience.” (Richie Unterberger)
Freewheelin’ Franklin was one of Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. I sued to wear a tee-shirt with this on the front to work as a bartender at the Crazy Horse Saloon in Kingston, Pennsylvania, in the early ’70s. I had a half dozen offers a night from people wanting to buy it off my back.
I told Lew that if someone compared my writing to Pynchon’s I’d be pissed off. Pynchon has the type of reputation that attracts me, but I pick up The Crying of Lot 49 every ten years and have yet to get past page 20.
In one of the few things we differ on, Lew is a fan of Pynchon. So now he’s got me reading Gravity’s Rainbow. If I get through it, I’ll write a book review for interested readers.
Finally, I preordered my copy of Outside the Gates of Eden a while ago. I expect to enjoy it as much as I have Lew’s other novels. If you want to try Shiner, read Glimpses and then Deserted Cities of the Heart.
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo—too poignant to comment on—at the top of this page was taken by Lisa Law in Truchas, New Mexico, in 1970. Lisa is one of the most famous photographers of the various facets of “the sixties” and the counterculture; a collection of her photos was published as Flashing on the Sixties by Chronicle Books in 1987. It’s a lovely and often inspiring chronicle of the attempts of people to forge an American life in an America that fights them at every turn. Fortunately, it has seen several editions and is readily found for sale on the internet.