December 18, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Kris Saknussem has been one of my favorite novelists since I read his novel Zanesville over six years ago. Since then his fiction has consistently impressed me.
Sea Monkeys is his nonfiction debut, a book that brims with the vision, dark humor, and immediacy that make his writing unforgettable.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"It's immediately evident that we’re dealing with a poet who's operating in a sublimely blurred space between poetry and prose…The autobiographical sketches that cover the author’s early adult years are full of the sort of boozing, drugging and sexcapades one would naturally expect from an alcoholic preacher's son. Highlights from these years include the author's stint as a soul radio DJ ("Mr. Very Late Night") and a Henry Miller–esque romp through Saknussemm's many sexual conquests as a randy college professor. A wonderfully warped grab bag of memories from a wilder and weirder time."
Sea Monkeys is my first book-length work of creative nonfiction and brings together some of my best journal published works into a new unified whole. It's a kaleidoscopic memory machine journey into my childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area, and my coming of age in Central California. There are many stories still to tell.
I was baptized in a water hazard of a golf course. I survived not only a rape, but a full-on murder attempt by a psychotic who went on to kill two other boys before taking his own life. My sister is a genius and a leader in her field. My stepbrother was a premier car thief and went missing. My father died dreaming of the Pacific Islands I would later spend a lot of time in. My mother still practices her scales and sings well. Been a lot of places. Still here.
Words Wouldn't Come in an Easy Way
Like D.H. Lawrence and Rainier Maria Rilke, one of my very earliest childhood memories is of my mother at the piano, me crawling around on the floor, hypnotized by her bare feet working the pedals. But even more important than her fingers on the keys or the resonating hammers striking the strings, was her wishbone crystal soprano voice, slicing through the late afternoon stream of sunlit dust that seemed like a slow explosion of our living room window that looked out over Berkeley and the San Francisco Bay, to Angel Island, Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. She'd rehearse for Sundays (she was the choir director at the First Congregational Church where my father was the minister). She'd sing arias, like the haunting "O mio babbino caro" ("Oh My Beloved Father") from the opera Gianni Schicchi by Puccini and Giovacchino Forzano. She'd sing light opera like Gilbert and Sullivan. But what I enjoyed the most was when she moved to show tunes, and one of her finest moments in the repertoire was the keynote song IF I LOVED YOU from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, made famous by Gordon McRae and Shirley Jones. A lifetime after my on-the-floor-at-her-feet days, after eight solid years of not speaking to one another, my mother would fly 12,000 miles, put on a pale blue summer dress, and sing this song at my wedding.
Remember, the Sound of the Bubbles Means to Turn the Page
My older sister was the Master of Entertainment in my growing up years. She had a white vinyl suitcase record player that opened up many worlds to me, particularly story records. I memorized The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, The Tales of King Arthur, and Hal Holbrook reading Huckleberry Finn. But I especially loved Bozo the Clown Under the Sea, which I still find magical today (orchestrated and produced by Alan Livingston, with Pinto Colvig as Bozo, music by Billy May). It was recorded in 1948, and so was old when we discovered it. I think that's part of the reason we loved it so much. That and the fact that my sister did exceptional renditions of all the fish voices. In a nod to the Chipmunks, she also proved herself to be an early mixmaster DJ, varying the speed of the record manually to make me laugh.
The Color of the Sun and His Eyes Were Green
My father had a rich, powerful baritone and on Sundays was easily the most heard person in our church (which is saying a lot given my mother's Eastman School of Music and Oberlin Conservatory trained voice). Some people said you could hear him all the way up on Telegraph Avenue. He'd learned to yodel in Europe during the war, and wrote fondly of the echo effect in Mussolini's Palace of Physical Culture. Often times in the midst of a well-intentioned straight sermon, when he got excited or particularly moved by the message he was trying to impart, he'd simply stop preaching and start singing or yodeling—or both.
He had a great devotion to primitive gospel music and the early Methodist hymns, and would often carry with him a Methodist hymnal (despite the fact that he was a Congregationalist minister), along with the iron covered chest pocket sized Bible he'd been issued in the Army, which soldiers carried then to protect their heart from bullets. But he loved cowboy music especially and had a curious fixation on Lorne Greene's character of Ben Cartwright in Bonanza. His favorite singer was Eddy Arnold, who was Colonel Parker's first big success before finding Elvis. Arnold lived to be 89 and sold 85 million records. My dad died at 60, and barely made that. But I still hear him singing "The Tenessee Stud," one of Arnold's biggest hits, his right hand on the wheel of our blue Impala in a deep twilight over the copper fields of central California, heading east to the mountain streams of the Sierras to fish, his left arm always out the open window, permanently tanned a color all its own. (The song was written by Jimmie Driftwood and great versions have also been done by Johnny Cash and Doc Watson, among others.)
I Know She Got Off in Baltimore
One of the biggest acts going during my very early years was Roger Miller, who had a string of major hits that dominated the country charts and crossed over solidly into mainstream pop success. He was in fact so successful, he created a lot of resentment and envy in Nashville, while greatly expanding the envelope for performers from that world and that genre ever after. (Pioneers may be admired but not always appreciated by their peers.) He had all of Jimmy Webb's songwriting ability, but with also the gift of delivery, and the infectiously likeable personality of a good comedian. He mixed a knack for gently satirical lyrics with melodies that were both catchy and sometimes wistful, with a highly individual turn on the "novelty song" concept, which later performers like Ray Stevens, Jim Stafford, and to some extent Jim Croce, would turn to great advantage. What my mother liked about him was that many of his songs were set to a fox trot rhythm, and she liked to dance. "Engine, Engine #9" remains one of my favorites, and although it's in a different tempo, I think you can hear in it some of the same legato poignancy of another family favorite, Glenn Campbell's signature tune "Gentle on My Mind," which was written by John Hartford.
Before the Generation Gap
Times were changing fast when I was growing up, and I try to capture some sense of that cultural explosion in Sea Monkeys. To me, the book is as much about the amazing societal transformation that took hold in America as it is about my family and me. I really use my family as microcosm and metaphor for the larger phenomenon. There was a very fragile moment, very early on in my life before the great splintering happened. We watched TV as a family, and we listened to music as a family—and because of the nature of our family—we sang along. The folk scene in the Bay Area was very big still, and two songs that had a lot of currency with us were "Baby the Rain Must Fall," which features the peculiarly distinctive voice of Glenn Yarbrough, who'd been the lead singer for the Limeliters (so unusual was his voice that he gets referenced in a South Park episode called "The Death Camp of Tolerance"). The song is the theme to a Steve McQueen movie.
Another tune we paid a lot of attention to was "Lemon Tree" by Trini Lopez, who came from the Little Mexico neighborhood of Dallas. He got discovered singing at PJ's nightclub in LA and became a huge star, blending Latin rhythms with popular folk hits like "If I Had a Hammer." For a couple of fleeting summers it seemed like there was always someone with a guitar in our house, or around a campfire.
You Started Something, Oh Can't You See
"I Only Want to Be With You" by Dusty Springfield was my sister's first favorite pop song—and so it was mine too. She'd dance to it while I climbed onto my squeaky rocking horse in my pajamas and enjoyed a kind of controlled epileptic swoon. It was a very bizarre sensation that overcame me then. A rise of adrenalin and probably a release of endorphins. Like the rush of possibility kids get on big ion days when it's windy and warm—that sweet, sharp hint of ozone. I was intensely susceptible to this from my earliest memories, and music could simulate it. My first sense of being high. And I think the first hint of the sexual buzz. We'd rock out and I'd ride like the little boy in "The Rocking Horse Winner," forever gaining on some longed-for destination I had no idea about, only certain it was a kind of victory and deep knowing.
So You Better Get Ready, We May be Coming to Your Town
Don Kirshner had the Big Idea with the Monkees, and I love how pop cultural mythology has it that both Steven Stills and Charles Manson auditioned for the group (the latter is certainly not true but makes a nice story). Many years later I'd find myself sharing a green room with them at the civic center in Newcastle, NSW, Australia (sans Michael Nesmith) and we chatted about the influence they'd had on a generation. The chief songwriting talents and genuine musical depth behind them at the start was the high profile team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart (although David Gates, later of Bread, and of course Neil Diamond, who penned their biggest hit "I'm a Believer" also played key roles). But they wanted to be taken seriously as musicians in their own right, and worked hard at it. Their hit TV show created a whole new format. They had some heavy chart topping singles—and they starred in Head, one of the strangest of the counterculture movies, which can be mentioned in the same breath as The Trip and Easy Rider. A very interesting career. I was sorry when Davy Jones passed away this last year. Although their first album had been out for some years by the time I got my own copy, it was the first record I bought with my own money, at a Rexall Drugstore—the money coming from my first job, vacuuming and cleaning the toilets at one of the first 24-Hour Martinizing Dry Cleaners after school. Boyce and Hart provide most of the lead vocals on this their first album, but they let the drummer Micky Dolenz take the lead on "The Last Train to Clarksville."
Right Around the Corner, Just Across the Track
The two final tunes I will leave you with signaled an enormous and irrevocable listening change in my life, and I think are emblematic of the cultural schism that all of a sudden one day became undeniable. A new message was in the air, on the air waves—and on the street. Overnight, I became addicted to soul music. While many, many artists (from the Beatles to Dylan, to the Doors, CSNY, Jimi and Janis) captured something of the tumult and upheaval of the times, it was this song, written by Norm Whitfield and Barrett Strong, and performed by the Temptations that really got my attention. "Psychedelic Shack" set up my fascination for the evolution experienced by a childhood gospel singer from Denton, TX, who'd moved to Vallejo, CA with his musical family, sung doo-wop and become one of the most flamboyant and lateral radio DJ's the Bay Area has ever heard. He had a very Big Idea indeed, and for a gunpowder fuse brief moment of color and chaos, he brought about a profound change in pop music and pop culture, far more significant in many neighborhoods than anything the Beatles ever did. Mine was one of those neighborhoods. I've since heard "Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin" all over the world—in Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur, and downtown Las Vegas. It still packs the dance floor over 40 years later. The Bay Area brought us The Grateful Dead, Santana, and Tower of Power, just to name a few—but nobody anywhere had heard anything like this. As James Brown and Bootsy Collins have said of them, "The funkiest people ever made."
Kris Saknussemm and Sea Monkeys: A Memory Book links:
ArtsVegas profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Enigmatic Pilot
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Private Midnight
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Zanesville
Lisa Thatcher interview with the author
The Rumpus contributions by the author
Spontaneous Combustion interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
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