In this week’s particularly magnificent edition of the Rock’s Backpages Podcast, Mark, Barney & Jasper start with featured artist Mavis Staples and discuss her legacy as a member of the Staple Singers – as well as her solo work with Prince and other producers.
Three pieces by featured writer Bob Stanley spark discussion of Johnny Cash and self-proclaimed “best group on the planet” the Stone Roses. A 1992 interview with Saint Etienne cements Bob’s “poacher turned gamekeeper” status as one third of that “meta-pop” trio.
The week’s audio interview is with B-52s Keith Strickland and Katie Pierson, wherein they skirt around the subject of bandmate Ricky Wilson’s AIDS-related death in 1985. Mark and Barney consider the group’s status as darlings of late ‘70s New York and hail them as one of “the best things to come out of New Wave”.
Launching into the highlights of the rest of the week’s additions, Mark selects a diverse selection of pieces including a 1972 live review of the Rolling Stones, plus interviews with jazzman Horace Silver and with Bobby Brown of the rebooted New Edition. Barney mentions the irascible Mark E. Smith and a review of the late Ellen Willis’ book Out of the Vinyl Deeps. Jasper introduces his considerably older colleagues to the music of young guns Crystal Fighters.
In this week’s episode of the Rock’s Backpages podcast, Mark Pringle (left) and myself are joined by special guest and good friend Keith Altham (centre) to pay tribute to the late Scott Walker, an artist he interviewed many times for New Musical Express. They consider Scott’s early years as a teen idol and as a Walker Brother, followed by his bold ’60s solo albums and his radical re-emergence in the ’80s. Keith talks about touring with Scott and Jimi Hendrix – and about introducing the NME to the concept of “humour”.
The three of them listen to a clip from an interview with Martin Fry and Mark White of ’80s icons ABC about Trevor Horn’s production of debut album The Lexicon of Love. Mark then introduces selections from the week’s new additions to the RBP library, including Mick Jagger talking to Dawn James in 1965, folk siren Anne Briggs “zooming down a whirlpool to annihilation”, David Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust album, My Bloody Valentine live at London’s Clarendon, John Mellencamp‘s self-confessed status as a rock cliché and Salt-n-Pepa being denied their rightful place in hip-hop’s history. Barney rounds it all off with tributes to writers Steven Wells and Mick Farren.
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.
A rare visit to our capital by the brilliant Jaron Lanier, in conversation in the wonderful (and appropriate) Marx Memorial Library with dapper Idler host Tom Hodgkinson (centre) and trenchant Guardian columnist John Harris (left). Lanier brought, and played (thrillingly), two of his obscure wind instruments and addressed the main points from his brand-new Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. He is a genuinely fascinating Silicon Valley maverick and I urge you to read all his books. He and his like may be all that stand between us and a dystopian hi-tech nightmare of total control and dehumanisation. (N.B. the Socialist Society banner below was apparently woven by William Morris and his son…)
Along with Jon Savage, Allan Jones, Caitlin Moran, Michael Lydon and presenter Stuart Maconie – to mention but a few – I’m one of the voices gabbing in Jonathan Mayo’s terrific Radio 4 doc on the golden age of the music-press interview. The programme also features a bunch of clips from the Rock’s Backpages audio archive, including the spoken thoughts of Messrs. Hendrix, Cobain, Marley and Garcia…
To celebrate RBP’s brand-new anthology Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Companion, I shall on Saturday 11th November be discoursing with fellow Dan fanatics John Ingham (who reviewed Katy Lied for Sounds) and Daryl Easlea (who revisited Aja for the BBC) about the wit, wisdom and sheer musical brilliance of Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker. It’s at 2.15 pm at Manchester’s Louder Than Words festival, and you can book tickets here…