Darin Strauss wrote of the book:
“Deanne Stillman’s American Confidential takes the familiar and makes it new – makes it thrilling. You won’t believe this story; it resonates with deep American echoes.”
I could not survive without music – of all kinds – and when it comes to writing, the same is true, which is to say that just as I am compelled to listen, I am compelled to write. When writing, this is an aspect of my life that doesn’t change, but becomes more specific insofar as certain choices are made, depending on what I’m working on and what the text may ask of me or where the characters themselves would like me to go. Also I would add that there are certain pieces of music that I turn to over and over again in my life, and this becomes heightened while writing – according to the nature of whatever story I’m telling and what I may need to get through it.
This may sound strange, but in the case of American Confidential, I often turned to “Journey in Satchidinanda” by Alice Coltrane for solace and return. The notes that Coltrane hits on the harp – jazz harp btw, though that doesn’t begin to explain it – are shattering in a spiritual sense; they can take you into a realm of healing and truth, and with this story, one that unfolds in minor chords although is a great American tragedy from which the country has yet to recover, I needed it and it was critical for a return to the heart. But it always is, and the same can be said for “A Love Supreme,” by John Coltrane of course (yes, he and Alice were married). This music is part of the soundtrack of my life – and my other books – and the need became more acute with this one.
Other music that I listened to included the following, in no particular order:
The theme song from “High Noon,” the classic western starring Gary Cooper as Sheriff Will Kane who faces down the outlaw Frank Miller, played by Ian McDonald, and his compadres including one played by Lee Van Cleef, at high noon on a dusty street in the center of town. Amazingly, Lee Harvey Oswald was whistling this on the night before he killed JFK – yes, I’m of the belief that he shot him, and I’m aware of the new book by a former Secret Service agent that may cast this story in a new light – and then on November 22, 1963, it was shortly after noon that he killed JFK. One of the lyrics in this song is “Do not forsake me, oh my darling,” and Lee’s wife Marina had rejected him on the eve of the murder.
As I see it, he was the Travis Bickle of his time, taking out the most famous and revered man on the planet in order to become famous himself. And of course Oswald entered the slipstream of history and there he resides as a mystery without end. I happen to love westerns, and I know this song well, and I also happen to love Frankie Laine, who sang this song in the movie. So listening to “High Noon” was not a chore; it was a pleasure and – in this case- a weird journey.
Then there was the theme song from “Exodus,” from the movie of the same name starring Paul Newman. It was co-written and thrillingly sung by Pat Boone in the movie. When it came to Oswald, he made use of it as a kind of joke. While on their way to Fort Worth to visit his brother for Thanksgiving, they had posed for a picture in a photobooth. His wife Marina told him that anyone could see he had run away from Russia by the look on his face. She was referring to his return to the US following his defection and the fact that he looked frightened. Lee laughed and then played the song on a jukebox in a Greyhound bus station where he and Marina were waiting to leave. I imagined him singing along to this popular tune and the couple actually having a good time – not something we think of when it comes to Oswald. Incidentally, there’s a surf version of “Exodus” by the Lively Ones, a surf band of the 60s. I’ve always loved surf music and so it was a pleasure to listen to this version as well as the other. I listen to it at Passover and/or whenever I’m making a change in my life, breaking the shackles of something and moving toward something else.
I also listened to “On the Banks of the Old Pontchartrain” by Hank Williams. Lake Pontchartrain is near New Orleans and Marguerite used to take her sons there on various sojourns and later, Lee would take Marina there on fishing trips. I was not familiar with this song before working on American Confidential but I always immerse myself in the music related to places I’m writing about and that’s how I came across this one. It perfectly characterized Marguerite Oswald’s life. She was a person who constantly moved, uprooting her sons over and over again, and while the toll that this took on Lee was quite clear, I wondered about how it effected her. The lyric about traveling from Texas to “Old Louisanne” and then “footsore and weary,” resting “awhile on the banks of the Old Pontchartrain” described her circuit and quite possibly her life, although it was a backbeat and not front and center.
In terms of her life, I also listened to “Every Man a King,” co-written by then-Louisiana governor Huey Long, about his policies and philosophy of life – at least the one that he publicly presented. Long was a Depression-era demagogue and many in New Orleans and across the country were devotees, kind of a pre-Trump figure but a lot smarter. Marguerite Oswald was in her twenties at this time and was most likely steeped in his ideas, as reflected in this song named after his most popular saying. Its lyrics – “Why weep or slumber America?/Land of brave and true/With castles, and clothing, and food for all/All belongs to you/Every man a king! Every man a king!” – encapsulated her life and quite possibly fueled her resentment of the upper classes which she passed on to Lee in this story of class warfare writ large. This song was first recorded in 1935 by the Louisiana Ramblers and then much later by Randy Newman on his album “Good Old Boys,” with of course a different flavor. In the end, Lee Harvey Oswald – essentially a serf – took down an American king.
Amazingly, the theme from “Dr. No,” the James Bond movie based on the novel of the same title was part of my playlist. Both Oswald and JFK were Ian Fleming fans and this movie, launching Sean Connery as Bond, James Bond, was the first film of the series, coming out in 1962. Oswald could have seen it but we know for a fact that he loved reading, and he checked out four of the Bond novels in the summer before the JFK assassination; this one was not among them but From Russia with Love was, a book that President Kennedy told reporters was one of his favorites. One of the differences between JFK and Oswald was that JFK met Ian Fleming, a former spy, who offered some cloak-and-dagger tips to then CIA chief Allen Dulles. I found myself listening to the “Dr. No” theme – the same one that’s in all of the Bond films – and was swept away as always, and I wondered about how it may have stirred Oswald, and JFK for that matter – both of whom led shadow lives, Oswald with his desire to be a star and JFK with his numerous affairs with beautiful women of the era. Did they both secretly fancy themselves as James Bond?
There are dozens of songs about the killing of JFK and Oswald himself, by everyone from Lou Reed (“The Day John Kennedy Died”) to Pearl Jam (“Brain of J,” about JFK’s missing brain – yes, it really is) to Homer Henderson (“Lee Harvey Oswald Was a Friend of Mine”). This latter song is featured on “Tragic Songs from the Grassy Knoll,” a CD released on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, which also includes the classic ballad “A Sunny Day in Dallas” by Honorable Bob Peters, kind of an American corrido about that moment. I listened to many of these while working on American Confidential, including those mentioned here. Of course I must mention the Dead Kennedys, the band formed in 1978 in San Francisco; its name invoked the killings of JFK and his brother Robert and by proximity Martin Luther King Jr as well. The name had plenty of shock value but as the band’s guitarist East Bay Ray told lithub in 2017, “The name is actually homage to the American Dream.”
On that note, I’ll conclude with “Murder Most Foul,” Bob Dylan’s epic 17-minute, latter-day assassination mash-up of pop culture, national myths, the Bible, and Shakespeare with references to westerns, Houdini, Charlie Parker, Wolfman Jack, Dickey Betts, Marilyn Monroe, the Old Rugged Cross, Scarlet O’Hara, and Air Force One, and describing Dealey Plaza as “the place where faith, hope, and charity died.” The arrangement of piano, drums and violin are an immaculate echo of Dylan’s haunting prose poem of latter-day America and its show-stopping lyrics such as “Riding in the backseat next to my wife/Heading straight on in to the afterlife” and the description of November 22 as “the day they blew the brains out of a king.”
Dylan offers a conspiratorial view of the assassination of JFK, and in my view there was indeed a conspiracy – “a conspiracy of one,” as I write in my book, that of Lee Harvey Oswald and his mother, in pursuit of fame and recognition. The conspiracy was not intentional but we all know what happened. Regardless of what you think happened on that day, I suggest listening to the songs on my list as a soundtrack for one of the most cataclysmic events of the 20th century and one with which American will always reckon.
NOTE: Deanne Stillman’s previous books include Twentynine Palms, an LA Times “best book of the year” which Hunter Thompson called “A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer”; the great singer-songwriter Tony Gilkyson (X, Dave Alvin) and Deanne have written several songs based on this book and they will soon be released. She also wrote Blood Brothers, which was named a “best of the year” in the millions and True West Magazine and was excerpted in Newsweek, for which she listened to pow-wow music and cowboy songs, and the same goes for her book Mustang, with hard rock and heavy metal and surf music part of the mix. Her book Desert Reckoning opens with the lyrics from “Renegade” by Styx, and they drive this story about a 21st century manhunt; the book is based on a Rolling Stone article and won the Spur and LA Press Club Awards.
Deanne Stillman is the author of Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History, Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, and Joshua Tree: Desolation Tango.