Bloomsbury are publishing a new edition of John Niven’s brilliant 33 1/3 novella about The Band’s debut album Music from Big Pink. I was very honoured by John’s asking me to write a foreword for it. Here it is…
THE FACT THAT John Niven was just two years old in 1968 – the year in which The Band’s Music from Big Pink was released – only makes his 2005 novella about the album’s inception and germination the more remarkable.
As someone who’d not only been obsessed by The Band since 1973 but had moved a young family to Woodstock largely on the strength of that obsession, I read Niven’s boldly unorthodox contribution to the excellent 33 1/3 series in a state of mesmerized disbelief that a thirtysomething Scotsman could, with such uncanny accuracy, catch the heady geist of that late ’60s zeit.
It was as if the former Wishing Stone – and future author of the caustic Kill Your Friends, the bestselling novel about his coke-crazed days as a London A&R man – had time-travelled back to Woodstock’s Tinker Street and infiltrated the “scene” that coalesced around the demurring Bob Dylan and his musical henchmen the Hawks. What supernatural deal had he struck to pull this off, and which literary devil had he struck it with?
A prosaic answer would point to the telling of The Band’s near-tragic story through the eyes and ears of drug dealer Greg Keltner. This device instantly demystified the curated sainthood of the Hawks/Band as forefathers of back-to-the-land Americana – mystic bumpkins with Homburgs and mandolins. From the moment we first meet Rick (Danko) and Richard (Manuel) in Niven’s story, there’s no mistaking their priorities: drugs, girls, and music, in that order. Which takes nothing whatever away from the magical music they made.
Keltner, who hails from Ontario like four-fifths of the Hawks/Band, is a somewhat feckless but endearingly poetic soul. True, he scores his dope from “Fifth Floor Dave” in the scuzzy East Village, but he quickly gets the point of Woodstock, the tiny Catskills town to which so many dropout boys and girls are beating a path in the summer of 1967. He also gets the point of the Hawks/Band, responding sensitively and meaningfully to the lovely songs he hears in the squat West Saugerties box known as Big Pink – as he does, still more incredulously, to the soulful woe and funky exhilaration of Music from Big Pink itself.
Keltner may be a rock’n’roll parasite but he is not a heinous dude. Plus we know he’s going to wind up broken and desolate in 1986, the year of Richard Manuel’s wretched death. The loose stoner flow of his narrating voice is the perfect medium for depicting the unsteadiness of Woodstock’s bucolic dysfunction in that 1967-69 period, hinting strongly as it does at Niven’s saturation in the more gonzoid strains of 20th Century American prose from the Beats to Pynchon to the so-called “Noise Boys” (Bangs, Tosches, Meltzer) of ’70s rock journalism – and snaring the disorienting vibe of a time and place in which everyday hedonism is evolving a little too rapidly.
I have no idea whether Rick or Richard would have recognized their lives in these pages, but then nor do I have any idea whether Robbie or Levon or Garth even read Niven’s novella. I do know that Greil Marcus, whose chapter about them in his sacred Mystery Train (1975) framed and explained most of what I felt about The Band, was as astonished by the book as I was, rightly acclaiming it as “an amazing piece of work”.
Keltner, in a sense, speaks for every besotted Band fan as he seeks to understand how these five men – these musical brothers – transcended their rather quotidian apprenticeship with Ronnie Hawkins to craft two of the most special records made in the name of “rock”. Espousing half-hearted songwriting aspirations of his own, Greg swiftly abandons them on hearing an acetate of Music from Big Pink. Like Al Kooper and Al Aronowitz in their early Rolling Stone pieces about them – and like the group’s entranced British disciples Eric Clapton and George Harrison – he understands instinctively that The Band has tapped into something altogether deeper than rock bombast or singer-songwriter over-sensitivity. “Now I knew, I really knew,” he confesses, “that Richard – and Rick, Levon, Robbie, Garth – they were a different order of human being from me.”
If there’s something Zelig-like about the novella’s serendipities – the chance encounters with Dylan, his crony Bob Neuwirth and his manager Albert Grossman, even with Lou Reed – they permit perfect cameos from these enigmatic characters. The drawling Arkansas poetry of Levon Helm’s speaking voice is expertly replicated; so is the aloof coolness of guitarist and principal songwriter Robbie Robertson. There’s also the gauzy presence of love interest Skye, a bewitching sprite who distils the appeal of so many liberated late ’60s girls – and who is bedded by the insatiable Rick before Greg can even get near her.
It should be no great surprise that Niven’s next work of “fiction” was the lacerating black comedy of Kill Your Friends. Certainly he was under no illusion that late ’60s Woodstock represented any kind of valid countercultural utopia.
“It seems to me it went fairly quickly from being the hippest place you could go to being almost Touristville,” he said when I talked to him for my Woodstock/Bearsville history Small Town Talk (2016). “It was already becoming a caricature of what it had been. A lot of the people were quite troubled, so there was this notion that ‘If I put myself in some kind of bucolic surrounding, things will get better’. But changing your locale doesn’t change what’s going on inside you.”
Yet Niven’s remarkable book is a testament to the fact that Woodstock’s “locale” did change the Hawks/Band – just as it profoundly altered the course of North American music.