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Band's Music From Big Pink Paperback – Nov 16 2005
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Music from Big Pink is a book to awaken a deeper appreciation of The Band's sweet poetry. The book has a powerful style of its own and a story that might illuminate an entire period. It is a piece of writing that will be admired by anyone who's interested in the era that made our own, and those who read it are unlikely to forget its cool Updikean temperament.--Andrew O'Hagan, author of Our Fathers and Personality
'...Like the album itself, Niven's story accupies that 60s fault line where hedonism and optimism turn to failure and melancholy...Niven's beautifu lly tragic mini-novel crawls inside the lonesome core of this one-off album, penning a heart-broken postcard from a past he never knew.'--Andrew Male "Mojo "
."..fans of the Bandshould grab a copy of John Niven's new "Musicfrom Big Pink, "part of Continuum's 33-1/3 series, to see how evocativelyfact and fiction can be married."- "ProvidencePhoenix, "January 2006
"Niven... delivers one of the more ambitious and lengthy books in the series, writing about The Band's extraordinary first album in the form of a novella.... Through his eyes we see a fictionalized but historically-rooted account of what it was like to be in or around The Band in 1968. The novella describes the circumstances of the album's creation and its sound, but is more than an oblique work of criticism. It is itself, like its subject, a grand work of art." -Ukula Magazine, "Spring 2006
Quote from Mark Gould, Sound Waves Magazine, 'This series is an absolutely brilliant idea'
."..fans of the Band should grab a copy of John Niven's new "Music from Big Pink, "part of Continuum's 33-1/3 series, to see how evocatively fact and fiction can be married."- "Providence Phoenix, "January 2006
The Band's 1968 debut album Music From Big Pink is the veritable Ur-text of Rock Snobbery, an artefact so definitive only the brave and deluded would even approach it (and they did). It inspired Greil Marcus - if not the Dean of Rock certainly a man with a wood-panelled office - to write Mystery Train, his first and maybe finest tome. This set of songs, cooked up in a rented house in bucolic Woodstock, New York, during breaks from their regular employer Bob Dylan, landed in the Swinging Sixties like a time capsule unearthed from the previous century. It was taupe in a Technicolor age, organic not synthetic, inhabited by the ghosts of an America which predated sound recording.
It was also fake, a work of smart artifice. Drummer Levon Helm apart, the Band were Canadian lads healthily fixated on songs previously presumed lost, and unearthed by archivists like Harry Smith and Alan Lomax. Although they toyed with names like the Crackers (way off the mark) or the more accurate Honkies, their drab monicker captured perfectly their undeniable precision. Dylan's first movie might have been called Don't Look Back, but his backing musicians started the trend for nostalgia. There's an argument that American rock music has yet to recover from 1968. Its dress sense certainly hasn't.
But writing anything new about this lovable cultural millstone is problematic. So as his contribution to Continuum's well-received 33 1/3 series of little books on big albums, John Niven has penned a novella inspired by the era's events. The narrator, Greg Keltner, a none-too-bright Canadian drug-dealer, moves in high and low places. He scores in the city then services the musicians of Woodstock, as the anonymous town chosen by Dylan as a bolthole rapidly becomes a hippy mecca. The temporarily connected Greg sneers at the rubes and hangs out with a cast of characters that includes an entire line-up of Sixties stars, a few of them still with us.
It's a great gimmick. Passing celebs such as
Music From Big Pink is a moving book that succeeds not just in vividly evoking its time and place but in distilling one young man's cliched and minor destiny into something approaching tragedy.... This well-written first novel captures not just some of the dreams of that bygone era, but the way those dreams died.--Sanford Lakoff "The New York Times Book Review "
'This identically-titled novella, or smaller novel, part of an imaginative, unique series called "33 3/1," from Continuum Books, is just as solid, thought provoking and interesting as the album that inspired it.' Mark Gould, Sound Waves Magazine--Sanford Lakoff
About the Author
John Niven graduated from Glasgow University in 1991 with a First Class Honours MA in English Literature. He toured and recorded as guitarist in The Wishing Stones - their sole LP Wildwood (Heavenly Records 1992) owes more a passing debt to the music of The Band - before becoming an A&R man and working with acts like Travis, Mogwai, and Sigur Ros. Over the years he has written about music, film and sport for publications like Word, FHM, Socialism, The Herb Garden and Mixmag. In 2003 he sold his first screenplay and co-wrote and directed the award winning short film 'Tethered' (British Film Council/Frozen Tundra Films.)
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Author John Niven takes a unique strategy in writing about the Band's classic debut, "Music From Big Pink."
He writes a short novel that follows a character through key events in the history of the Band during the late 60s and in rock music in general.
Anybody who loves this group is bound to have, at some point, looked at Elliott Landy's photographs of the guys hanging out at their country house in Woodstock, or read Levon Helm's biographical account of the time, and thought it must've been great to have been there.
The guys were making great music in the basement, spending their new money on booze and fast cars, playing pick-up gigs, hanging out with hippie chicks and frequently cranking out a tune with a post-crash Bob Dylan. Sign me up, I'm down for exactly all of that.
And so is Niven's fictional main character, Greg Keltner, a young dope dealer who befriends Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm (and -- ha ha -- gets a cool brush-off from Robbie Robertson).
Through Keltner, we get an enthusiastic (almost stalkerish) witness to the band's rise and its eventual stagnation.
But there are problems:
Keltner has an almost "Forrest Gump"-ian ability to be in the right place at the right time. He's there when Manuel offers up an early solo version of "I Shall Be Released" (at Robert Ryan's apartment in the Dakota, no less); he's there when they read their first "Rolling Stone" rave; he's there the very day the guys pack up and move out of Big Pink (which happens to be the exact same day Andy Warhol gets shot). Granted, Niven wants to hit the high notes, but after a while Keltner's timing begins to feel a bit on the nose. History dictates the story's narrative flow and so dictates where Keltner will be, which makes him seem even more synthetic.
More troubling, however, are the sections were Keltner's *not* dropping in on the Band, when he is in fact taking a chapter to attend his mother's funeral and go on a bender, or checking out a new film called "The Graduate" while ripped to the gills on LSD, or visiting his downtown smack connection (who just happens to be hanging out with Lou Reed and listening to an early pressing of "The Velvet Underground & Nico") or spending a few pages writing a song.
I realize Niven largely wants to illustrate how "Music From Big Pink" soothed the hungover heads and hearts of a lot of burnt-out hippies in 1968 and 69, but since Keltner's a fiction ... do we care about his sad and extensive family history or his floundering romantic life? I didn't so much.
In fact, Keltner's a pretty hapless contradiction -- a heroin dealer with a heart of gold.
He deals hard drugs (and, in one scene, actually gives Bob Neuwirth's snarky entourage a dose he knows is too potent), but also vomits with despair when the girl of his dreams reveals she's actually in love with Richard Manuel. Fortunately for him -- but not for the reader -- he later gets her on the rebound and it just feels icky.
Here's one of their encounters:
"She was eating fried chicken, her perfect teeth tearing meat off the bone, her fingers getting greasy and slippery while she talked and laughed. I ordered some too. She looked like she'd gotten some sun. 'You look like you've gotten some sun,' I said."
Which is to say that the writing ... could be a little tighter and a lot better. If the style and syntax were as good as the research, this would be an excellent little book for fans.
But even if it were better, I still don't think this is the appropriate venue for "faction," or the right place for some characterizations of real people that are, frankly, uniformly undercooked.
I can't help it. I want actual *information* about this great album -- I want the secrets, the liner notes, the science of John Simon (who gets two brief mentions in the current context), the genuine schematics of Albert Grossman's plotting, a deeper look at the songwriting process. Yes, I'll admit it, I want the standard, boring music book info. Music books tend to be steak and eggs. And when you order steak and eggs, you don't want a cake that looks uncannily like steak and eggs.
"Big Pink: A Novella," alas, is kind of that cake.
What really struck me about this book was the Niven's use of evocative language. The way he described the Band songs, especially when he was hearing them for the first time, was poignant, rich, and insightful. Hearing the narrator talk about the songs really made me want to listen to the tracks; and when I did, I certainly had an enhanced experience.
Overall it was pretty good. I say buy it!
The great thing about the album Songs From Big Pink is that the times in which it came into being were times when the unthinkable could be a reality, both the good and the tragic. That's what holds the author's narrative together, the possibility that the main character, an average slub, could have rubbed elbows with such a talented and ultimatley famous group of artists. Even the passages that veer completely away from The Band and their music and focus on character development only deepen the profound emotional connection the author conjures up between artist and audience, hitting on just how intimate The Band's music was and still is.
I would have probably preferred a more conventional analysis of this album, but as a fan of this music I can say that much of Niven's prose do resonante with me and the way he translates his character's emotions and reactions to witnessing first hand the evolution of a milestone record is certainly commendable and worth the read.
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