by Robyn Kaiser
In the 1960s and 1970s, several rock artists died at the age of 27: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Peter Hamm, Al Wilson, Janis Joplin, Ron McKernan and Brian Jones. While all were attributed to living lives of “excess,” what if their deaths were not due to overdoses or suicides? What if they were planned murders, ordered like hits by a mafia don?
In Bright Midnight, author Chris Formant explores this theory. Weaving a colorful, intriguing murder mystery thriller with rock and roll history and a peppering of yet-to-be-invented forensic analytics, Formant takes the reader back to the times when Jimi, Jim, Peter, Al, Janis, Ron and Brian were at the top of their game, household names. Using information culled from the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame archives, research with top-ranked neurosurgeons, interviews with members of several police departments and the FBI, and his own knowledge of technology, Formant spins a tale reminiscent of The DaVinci Code (admittedly a huge influence) which keeps readers turning the pages and unable to put the book down, right to the very end.
Sonic Sound Magazine was fortunate to speak with Chris Formant to discuss Bright Midnight, his penchant for music history and memorabilia, and where these artists would be if they were alive today.
Sonic Sound Magazine: First off, I thoroughly enjoyed your book. To be honest, I brought it with me to read on my honeymoon, and lounged in the pool reading it one day. I couldn’t put it down.
Chris Formant: [laughs] I probably could have suggested better reading material for your honeymoon, but thank you.
SSM: How did you dream up this conspiracy theory idea for the book?
CF: To be honest, I was walking down the hallway in my home. I have a lot of rock memorabilia. I had just gotten my recent addition to my collection, a 2-page pullout from The Record Mirror [former music magazine]. February 1964. It was announcing this hot new group called The Rolling Stones. It came with the promotional EP and liner notes. I was looking at it and couldn’t believe how young they were. A young pimply-faced Mick Jagger. Keith Richards without lines all over his face. Brian Jones, the founder, he hand-picked the guys, was the creative director and manager. I thought “he was so young, and what a creative genius he was.” Then down the hall was Jimi and Jim memorabilia. I started thinking that, around that time, the record labels and management were very controlling. What if they had their artists killed or taken out?
SSM: How did you develop the characters? There is something very familiar about several of them.
CF: Gantry Elliott [the protagonist], I saw him physically as Jeff Bridges’ character in Crazy Heart, with the personality of Jerry Hopkins [early writer for Rolling Stone]. I’ve always been a fan of Hopkins and wanted to put his personality in there. I also wanted to make Gantry from Texas, because Janis was from Texas, and that would lead to their relationship, how they met, and add another dimension to the story.
SSM: Any feedback or backlash from Rolling Stone about Gantry being a writer for the magazine, or about Alex Jaeger [Publisher in the book]?
CF: [laughs] I was up in Cleveland for the 50th Anniversary of Rolling Stone, and at a private party before the grand opening, I spoke with Jann Wenner and told him “there’s a character in my book that’s a bit like you.” He just smiled.
SSM: How did you handle clearing the usage of all of the dead artists? Were there any issues?
CF: You can mention dead artists. They can’t complain because… they’re dead. Working with their estates was fairly easy. The difficulties we [Formant and his legal team at the publisher] had were clearing journal entries and song lyrics for inclusion in the book. In print, there’s a very limited amount of words you can use. Something like for every 100 words, if you use more than 10, it’s considered plagiarism. So a lot of the personal journals I read through, I had to summarize or paraphrase. Most could be conveniently changed. I really wanted to use a song by The Doors, but it was impossible. They were a pain in the ass. I was disappointed because I love The Doors. But then a friend introduced me to Bob Dylan’s manager, and spoke with Bob. For $100, I was able to print the lyrics from “All Along The Watchtower.”
SSM: There was a lot of music history in Bright Midnight, including a lot of obscure references and mentions. What was true? What was fake?
CF: The history part of this book is for real music geeks. This was my “High Fidelity.” For example, J.K. and Co. was a real group that Jim Morrison listened to. The Thingamajig Club, that was real. The weird coincidence that all of these artists died at 27 years old, that was real. Jim Morrison was cerebral, had an almost genius IQ. There were a few things I made up, obviously. The relationship between Gantry and Janis. The ending [redacted for spoiler alert]. I even invented two pieces of technology for the murder investigations – the ability to digitally decompose and dissect clothing threads and analyze them, and recreating a crime scene using holograms which can then print out a 3-D body part. Those pieces of technology and forensics should be invented. They could be useful. I needed them in my story, so I spoke with some tech guys I know and made it happen.
SSM: You’re obviously a huge music lover. You’ve sat on the Board of the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. Your memorabilia collection is widely-known. Your son is a musician. What drew you to these artists in particular?
CF: You know, I started thinking “they were so young. They had so much talent. Where would they be now?” And I’ve thought hard about this. Blind Al Wilson, he’d be playing in dive bars, roadhouses, anywhere. Jim Morrison, he would be a writer and a poet, because he never saw himself as a musician. He was a writer and poet. Jimi Hendrix, I could see him maybe inventing a new genre of rock jazz. Towards the end of his life, he was really getting into jazz. [SSM interrupts: Maybe him and Nile Rogers in the studio together. That would be some amazing sessions.] Yeah, I could see that. Lots of creativity. Janis Joplin, her voice would be gone. Her voice was going just before she died. Peter Hamm would be like a Randy Newman type, scoring musicals. Ron McKernan, well, he always wanted to be a biker. He hung out in Haight-Ashbury but those weren’t his type of people [hippies]. He was an honorary Hells Angel. And Brian Jones… the only known writing credit of his was for a Rice Krispies commercial that The Rolling Stones recorded anonymously. Maybe he would be writing jingles.
SSM: Any thoughts for a sequel or next book?
CF: I have a book about the Revolutionary War coming out next year. It takes place in Maryland and Brooklyn, right after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Historical fiction. As for a sequel for Bright Midnight, we’ll see. I built something into the book that would reveal itself in the sequel, and be the key to solving the sequel if there was one. I have an outline for a sequel, it’s about 10 pages long. I think it would focus more around one person than a group. And I was thinking about Kurt Cobain. He died at 27 as well. There’s so much speculation and unknowns still surrounding his death. Like how the shotgun was laying parallel to his body. How does that happen in a suicide?… I would have a lot of fun with that storyline. The obvious villain would be Courtney Love…
SSM: But nobody wants to open that can of worms.
CF: [laughs] Exactly.
Bright Midnight (Astor + Blue) is out now and available at bookstores and online.