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March 5, 2009

Book Notes - Kris Saknussemm ("Private Midnight")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.

A worthy successor to Saknussemm's previous novel Zanesville, Private Midnight joins John Wray's Lowboy and Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection as one of my favorite novels of the young year. Part erotic thriller, part speculative fiction, Private Midnight is a showcase for Kris Saknussemm's talents for crafting a well-told tale with surprising twists and turns.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book, "James Ellroy meets David Lynch in this addictive mix of noir and supernatural horror from Saknussemm."

Kris Saknussemm will be reading from Private Midnight in Seattle at Elliott Bay Book Co on March 24, Village Books Fairhaven (Bellingham) on March 29, Powell's in Portland on April 2, Borderlands Books in San Francisco on April 4, then in Phoenix, Austin and New York before returning to Book Soup in West Hollywood for a major event and party on April 30.

In his own words, here is Kris Saknussemm's Book Notes essay for his novel, Private Midnight:

Jazz, Junkies and Shadows Out of Time
The Music Behind Private Midnight

Keith Richards once said a song starts with a stick and something you've heard in a bar. For me it began with the neon of a taxi sign reflected in an oily pool of rainwater beside the skeleton of a claptrap roller coaster down in a part of town where people pass little white bags and folded money back and forth. The colors swept me back in time to a DeSoto Cab sign I'd seen one rainy night on Geary Street in San Francisco light and dark years ago.

Then I heard a fragment of a street corner saxophone over by the adult bookstore, and a melody line came into my head. Hearing simultaneously that inner and outer music and the night sirens along the Esplanade—staring down at my reflection in the glimmering pool, the key elements of the story that would become Private Midnight began to take strange shape.

The song that came to mind haunted me in the same way it haunts my lead character, a homicide detective who's been able to track down every quarry but himself. The lyrics came quickly and I went on to flesh out a basic melody, but it was too theatrical on the one hand and not substantial enough on the other. My co-composers Paul Nunns and Nel Staite, two friends and part of my art collective Clamon remedied that. They're really fine musicians and the more expertly crafted melody that emerged from them is both much subtler and more intricate than what I first heard, and yet also still true to the simplicity of that haunted feeling of lost love that you can never really regain and never quite escape. The song is called "Wayward Heart" and our recording of it features co-writers Nel Staite on lead vocal and John Davey on alto sax. The Blonde Alley Reprise features Nel and Paul Nunns on a Spanish guitar. (Paul has become one of my favorite guitarists—beautifully intuitive).

This song inspired us to develop a whole soundtrack, like a film score for the book. There are text reads to music, pure songs in a jazz or adult alternative format, and some quite bizarre and eerie filmic music created by our other partners in Clamon, Evil Steve, the mad genius of Houston and the enigmatic Tortoiseshell Male, who's based in the UK. I find some of Steve's pieces to be astonishing and disturbing worlds unto themselves—and that's exactly what Private Midnight is all about—the hidden realms that lie in wait when you take the dark way home. As one of the key lyrics in the title track puts it, "When the forbidden calls you, you know because it calls your name."

The music of the CD echoes the diversity of music that permeates the novel. Cool West Coast jazz, a pinch of mariachi, Mexican pop, hints of Bernard Herrmann and Trevor Jones, Kerouac, Waits—we listened to a wide range of stuff while composing and recording—from Vikki Carr to Portishead.

The novel makes specific mentions of many tunes and songs, like Sinatra's version of "People Will Say We're in Love." But here is the playlist of music that I listened to obsessively while writing it. These pieces form an interesting counterpoint to the book and to the music that Clamon and I ended up making based on the story.

Ophelia – Art Pepper

With the greatest respect to the genius of Charlie Parker, Art Pepper is my favorite alto sax player, and the alto my favorite instrument. The sorrow and horror of Pepper's life, harrowingly rendered with intense poignancy in his autobiography Straight Life tells too much of what he endured. And yet, he always managed to make beautiful music—and always essentially West Coast music, despite his great international appeal. This is the first track on the Living Legend album and my number one favorite of all his stuff. Sweet, sharp, crisp, yet caring…to me it's his whole body of work in one tune. There's a lovely hook, an aggressive improv bridge, then a softening back to the melody line. If it gets better, tell me—I want to hear it.

Goodbye Porkpie Hat – Charles Mingus

The version I'm thinking of comes on the Three or Four Shades of Blues album and what I obsess on is Larry Coryell's simply hair-raising guitar work. Like Art Pepper, Coryell is a white jazz genius that had a major drug problem. Phenomenally fluent and fluid in his fast, clean Latin-influenced playing, his attack here is perfectly measured yet just on the edge of breaking away. I always feel his part of the tune is about to escape the sound system. Long ago this track kept me from doing something very stupid that would've changed my life in a less than ideal way. That kind of feeling is a big part of the mood of Private Midnight.

Easy Street – Sarah Vaughan

There's a creeping sense of menace and paranoia to the novel, which anyone who's suffered amphetamine psychosis will understand all too clearly. To get back into the mindset, at least imaginatively, I needed to have some softening fast-acting analgesics handy—and this tune heads the list. I count Sarah Vaughan the best female vocalist in any genre. My affection runs to worship. This is one of the smoothest I've ever heard anyone do. Highly recommended in any moment of stress or aggravation. It will cut the nerve edge like a very heady mint julep. There's also some nice organ work supporting Sassy's luxuriant vocal striptease.

Stormy – The Meters

After the alto my next favorite instrument is the organ. I like it punchy and funky à la Archie Bell and the Drells and Sly Stone, or big, weepy and muddy. This song gets the smear gorgeously. Actually a take on two very similar Denny Yost and the Classic IV songs "Stormy" and "Spooky," with an infectious play on the famous sax groove from the latter. Despite living 12,000 miles away, I try to never get too far away from New Orleans musically. These were some of the best session musicians of all time and two of them went on to have a major career as the Neville Brothers. Very funky folk from a city made of music that even George Bush and co. couldn't drown.

All Day Music – War

If you grew up in California, particularly at a certain period, there's something about the music of these people that captures the essence of the black-Latino-urban vibe. And it's still winning new listeners in hundreds of hip-hop samples. Eric Burdon was involved in the formation of the group and had a monster hit with them in "Spill the Wine" in 1970. But this is my favorite of all their great music. Their trademark blend of rich vocals, smooth groove and deep instrumentation comes together to create one of the finest summer songs of all time—that sense of summer that you're always trying to recapture and maybe only can in memory. Lee Oskar's sweet reverbed harmonica always gets me. One listen and you'll get why they say, "Music is what we like to play." It's because they're so damn good at it.

Finally, I can't write about music and especially jazz without mentioning my favorite living saxophone player, Eric Wyatt. I first heard him live on a bitter cold night in swarming, lonely Shanghai—but I instantly heard the Brooklyn in him. This Sonny Rollins protégé is a straight ahead up-tempo New York player of the old school, but when he slows it down he can take you anywhere. His version of "You Don't Know What Love Is" I find chilling and inspiring in the extreme. A cool cat and a fine artist with a unique voice on the reed.

Kris Saknussemm and Private Midnight links:

MySpace page for the book
the author's band
Wikipedia entry for the author
Wikipedia entry for the book
publisher's page for the book
video trailer for the book

Publishers Weekly review
Reading with a Bite review

Goodreads page for the book
Goodreads page for the author
Largehearted Boy music playlist by the author for his novel, Zanesville

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Largehearted Boy Favorite Novels of 2008
Largehearted Boy Favorite Graphic Novels of 2008
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2009 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)

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