Very exciting news: the following review of John Niven’s Music From Big Pink novella will appear in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday. The review is by Gary Kamiya, Executive Editor at salon.com.
This novella set in the 60s imagines life with the Band.
Music From Big Pink: A Novella
By John Niven
160pp. Continuum. Paper, $9.95
By Gary Kamiya
It was only a matter of time before a clever publisher realized that there is an audience for whom Exile on Main Street or Electric Ladyland are as significant and worthy of study as The Catcher in the Rye or Middlemarch. And so we have Continuum’s “33 1/3” books, a series of little paperbacks each dedicated to a seminal rock album, from James Brown’s Live at the Apollo to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. The series, which now comprises 29 titles with more in the works, is freewheeling and eclectic, ranging from minute rock-geek analysis to idiosyncratic personal celebration. John Niven’s Music From Big Pink, based on the classic 1968 LP by the Band, takes things a step further: it’s fiction.
How do you write a novel about an album? A literal approach, focusing on the recording of the album itself or the stories of band members, faces the too-many-facts problem: what can a novelist add to the enormous amount that has already been written about, say, Bob Dylan’s relationship to the Band? There are also taste and legal restraints, which cannot be ignored even in the age of A Million Little Pieces. Finally, if the book isn’t just going to be a rehash of the group’s bio, where’s the story going to come from? The fact that Levon Helm tweaked the lug nuts on him tom-toms to give them a melodic sound is not exactly the stuff of Dickens.
Wisely, Niven chooses to write a novel first and foremost, one that happens to be set in the milieu of 1968 Woodstock, where the Band’s members created their first album in the basement of the pink house of the title. And he pulls it off. 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.
Niven, a Scot, takes a kind of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead approach to his subject, letting us see big events through the eyes of an extra. His protagonist, Greg Keltner, is a small-time drug dealer, college dropout and musician manque who is a hanger-out in the Band’s circle. Greg listens to the early recordings of “Big Pink”, parties with the band members and groans when a girl he’s fallen for ends up in their clutches. Niven has obviously researched his subject deeply, and the settings, people and events seem to be more or less accurately depicted. But that isn’t really the point. Even the Band’s members do not play a particularly central role, with the exception of Richard Manuel, the group’s piano player and singer who hanged himself in 1986. A memorable scene late in the book in which Greg and Manuel, now both severely battered by life, talk about why Manuel never wrote any more songs evokes not just the pathos of their personal stories but something deeper and darker. “It’s hard,” Manuel sadly replies.
Band fans searching for fictionalized gossip about their musical heroes, or even much about the music itself, may be disappointed by Music From Big Pink. Niven writes well about this extraordinary album, but his story takes him elsewhere. What Music From Big Pink is really about is loss. As the book opens, in a flash-forward scene set in 1986, Greg, who has become an overweight drug addict, shoots up after learning of Manuel’s death. As he floats off, he remembers “a time when we were all living, not just waiting. Life is all just waiting after a while.” This well-written first novel captures not just some of the dreams of that bygone era, but the way those dreams died.