Music from Big Pink
by John Niven (2005)
I know about recency bias, that it’s to be avoided, etc. But when I read something like this I can’t help thinking, This is one of the most inventive biographies I’ve ever read. . . wait, I think it’s actually THE most inventive ever. And even trying to temper the superlatives I can’t come up with a more original way to tell a history than what Niven has provided here.
Probably the best compliment I can give Niven is that the book feels totally authentic, so much that I was shocked when halfway through I realized that Niven was born the same year the album came out, so there’s no way he could actually know first-hand what it must have been like to be there. But his natural style, the casual narrator and all of the pop-culture details he provides — really an ingenious way of contextualizing the album when you think about it — create a totally immersive experience. You feel like you’re a part of the Woodstock scene.
The writing ain’t too shabby either. Niven employs almost a Beat sensibility with poetic word choice and dynamic rhythms that keep dialogues snappy and build momentum through the frequent action scenes. He has a natural ability with chapter endings, for example on p.48:
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.
Or how about when he describes his first time shooting up heroin, when his own father tied him off and stuck him? p.76:
. . .We looked at each other for a long time before he got up and came and sat on the edge of the tub. He tied me off and tenderly stroked a vein up, the whole scene a crazy parody of a father bathing his child. . . He slipped the needle efficiently, medically, into the thick vein that ran straight into the center of my elbow and pushed her home, shooting me up for the first time.
I saw fireworks in a warm summer sky.
Celluloid burning through in a projector.
If you could fault this book with something it’s maybe that the musicians and album are too peripheral to the general debauchery perpetrated by the fictitious protagonist. There’s not so much biography as there is compelling tragedy. But despite this casual treatment of the should-be protagonists, you come away not only with a decent idea of the album’s creative process but also of each individual band member. You get to know Manuel, Danko and Levon as if they were brothers. And through the narrator you understand how Garth and Robbie didn’t quite fit in with the rest of them. Even the Dylan stuff feels totally natural, almost voyeuristic.
What it comes down to for me is that I’ve now read two of these 33 1/3 books, this and Marquee Moon, which discusses one of my Top 5 favorite albums ever. Big Pink doesn’t crack my Top 5 (though The Band’s self-titled follow-up does!), but this book is a much more interesting story about the album.
The Television book is a more traditional biography but gets bogged down in tiresome minutiae. I much prefer this innovative, counterintuitive, and incredibly organic telling that Niven gives us. . . after all, the biography’s freakish style encapsulates its subject matter far better than a traditional narrative could have. I strongly recommend it for fans of The Band, Dylan, Woodstock, or literary fiction.