I came to John Niven’s novella with only a vague awareness of his work (plenty of people have recommended reading his best-known work Kill your friends, which I intend to do) and of the main protagonists in the story, The Band (a distant variation of whom – as a ‘greatest hits’ Bob Dylan fan – I saw in concert many moons ago – despite being a group in their own right they were as famous for backing him).
I say a variation of The Band because the line-up I saw featured few, if any, of the originals. The journey of a rock band is rarely smooth and there are always casualties – Music from Big Pink actually starts with the suicide of one of the band members (Richard Manuel) in 1986. The narrator, Greg – a 300lb, middle-aged junky with rotting teeth – reads about the musician’s death in the paper and breaks down in despair, despite having not seen him for years. And so we travel back in time to 1967 to see how it all unravelled via a series of chronological episodes. We know it doesn’t end well.
Early Greg is a restless wannabe musician and aborted law student whose path takes him from sleepy Canada to New York City, where he starts to earn decent money by dealing drugs – but after getting into trouble he ends up holing up with a friend in Woodstock, in the Catskill Mountains outside of the City. The town is fast becoming a bohemian Mecca for musicians, bands and their entourages – The Band residing in a large pink property, from which the book takes its name.
Greg develops a lucrative business running drugs from the City to cater for the ever-growing appetite for mind-altering substances among the hip mountain community, and it’s here that he starts to hang out with – among others – the (largely) fellow Canadians of the The Band. He forms a particularly close bond with troubled soul Richard, whose suicide kicks of the story:
“I listened – blown away but not showing it – as Richard sang a beautiful song about losing a girl called Katie. That voice. Man, he could break you up just singing the lottery numbers.”
Of course, hanging around with top musicians – Bob Dylan and Lou Reed are among the key players of the time that Greg rubs shoulders with – means that available girls are aplenty. He meets and soon falls for the beautiful Skye, setting into motion a convoluted love triangle which – along with the narcotics – ultimately contributes to his downfall (and that of others around him).
Placing a fictional narrator in a factually based story is an interesting device – the risk is slipping into self-indulgence, but this only happens on the odd occasion. You can see strong evidence of the author’s former experience working in the music industry (he was an A&R man) – the dialogue (in genuine-sounding US vernacular of the time) for the most part seems convincing, especially when describing the music itself. The novella feels like a testament to a hell of a lot of research, too.
Niven creates a distinctive atmosphere and there’s a real ‘end of the Summer of Love’ feeling as events unfold against a backdrop of a rapidly changing world. The pace of the narrative across the series of episodes – parties, overdoses, run-ins with the law – leading to the eventual denouement is slick, engaging, enlightening and often entertaining (the only exception being barely believable incident that occurs when Greg returns home to Canada for a funeral). The story itself is a little predictable and in places clichéd, but despite this you’ll be more than happy for it to take you along on the ride.
It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, especially if you’re a fan of The Band or music from that era, or the era itself – I’d recommend doing so in one sitting if you have the time. I’m not sure Bob Dylan would like it – he doesn’t exactly come across very well – but then he probably wouldn’t care.
Music From Big Pink
is published by Bloomsbury Circus
and is available here
John Niven was born in Scotland around the time that Music from Big Pink was recorded. After playing guitar in 1980s indie hopefuls the Wishing Stones, he read English Literature at Glasgow University and went on to work as an A&R man in the UK music industry before leaving to write full time. He is the author of eight novels, including Kill Your Friends, The Second Coming and Straight White Male.
Reviewed by Delme Jones
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