There’s a mini-review of John Niven’s book in the UK’s Observer Music Monthly:
Billed as ‘faction’, this fine novella tells the story of the making of the Band’s classic album Music from Big Pink through the eyes of an invented character, aspirant musician Greg Keltner. Dylan et al take cameos. As evocative as it is gripping.
I’ve posted a couple of these already, but what the heck – here’s another extract. You really should read this book.
It took us about an hour to drive the fifteen minutes back to Woodstock – the road, night, and cars like a movie being shown on the windshield – and by the time we got to her place I was just beaming, totally content. Skye poured brandies and laid me down on the couch.
Warren’s folks had an incredible hi-fi, real top-of-the-line shit, and I watched as she threaded a reel through the tape machine. “You’ve got to hear this,” she said.
She laid down on the floor, there was silence, then tape hiss, then all at once there was piano, organ, drums, guitar, bass; then Rick’s voice, gentle, restrained.
“Bessie was more than just a friend of mine.
We shared the good times and the bad…”
A stately, graceful rhythm uncoiled, with Garth’s organ rippling through, bursting out to fill spaces and then falling away into the shadows of the track when the vocals came in. The chorus welled up and I realized the song was about the old blues singer Bessie Smith. It sounded to me like nothing on earth and, at the same time, like it’d been recorded a hundred years ago and dug up out of the ground. The mix was kind of muddy and rough and the vocals a little swamped, but you could catch the odd chunk of lyric and when I heard Rick sing “The best thing I ever had,” I shut my eyes and felt my skin scrunching and puckering up in all the places it did when music was this good.
There was this perfect chord rundown and it was finished, the last notes on the woody piano and organ hanging in the air, fading like glory. We both laid there breathing. After a moment I said, “How could I not have heard that song before?”
“They only just did it.”
“No, I mean the original version.”
“What original version?”
“I mean, who wrote it?”
“Rick and Robbie,” she laughed.
It took about thirty seconds for this to sink in.
“You are fuckin’ kidding me,” I whispered, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. But she didn’t hear me. She was already rewinding the tape, getting ready to play it again.
It blew my mind apart that these guys we knew – guys who lived down the road from us, who were much the same age as us, who were really a bunch of backing musicians – were capable of writing songs like that. I mean Dylan, you figure that’s just a different order of human, someone who falls from the fuckin’ stars once every thirty years. But the guys in The Hawks…eighteen months before they moved to Woodstock they’d been playing the same kind of shitholes around Toronto that me and my friends had played in, cranking out “High Heel Sneakers” and “Walkin’ the Dog” for drunken assholes on a Saturday night.
I’d heard bits and pieces of the music they’d been making with Dylan down in their basement all that summer. Up by the Revox next to Garth’s organ there were stacks of tapes – mostly cover versions, or twelve-bar jams with Dylan rambling over them, takes on songs by people like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Elmore James, all of them really badly recorded with a couple of shitty mikes. A lot of what I’d heard sounded like real stoner stuff. Like comedy music. The kind of shit guys with guitars do when they’re getting wrecked and giggly. So, that winter, when we finally started to hear some of their own songs, it was kind of a shock. It was as if you had this friend who said they were writing a book and you go, “Yeah, sure you are buddy,” and then they turn up with the great American fuckin’ novel under their arm. It was like that.
I got home around dawn, still pretty mangled from the acid, to find Alex sitting on the sofa drinking neat whiskey and smoking a big jay.
“Hey man,” I slurred, struggling out of my big winter coat.
“Uh, your dad called.”
Huh? “My fuckin’ dad called? Are you drunk, man?”
“It’s not cool, Greg.”
I saw now he was looking right at me.
That’s how you get dramatic news. That’s how you hear the big stuff. Not in some emergency room, or sitting down face-to-face with someone all serious. It’s when you’re pulling off a shoe, changing channels and lighting a cigarette, or reaching for a can of spaghetti in the kitchen cupboard. The phone rings, or someone comes through the door looking at you funny, and that’s when you get told. So I’ll always remember pulling my coat off that night, the night Skye spiked me, the night I really heard The Band – as opposed to The Hawks – for the first time. It was a real cold, blue December night, with the new snow all pearly outside and the stars way up in the sky and now my mother was dead.