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Music From Big Pink by John Niven

[Peter Viney]  Book review by Peter Viney

[book cover]

Music from Big Pink is a work of semi-fiction. While real people and events have been described, certain conversations and scenarios have been imagined by the author.”

Hmm. I think that disclaimer on the inside title page would sway weakly in the face of libel action. Unusually, there is no acknowledgment to publishers and composers for the use of lyrics either. Technically, permission should have been sought, but he gets away with it by keeping the quotes very short. In spite of that, enough of Rockin’ Chair gets quoted as chapter lead ins to be in the permissions area when accumulated, not that Rockin’ Chair is on the album. And the one that gets long quotes is Ain’t No More Cane which is ‘Trad.’ so not copyright. The quote from Bessie Smith would probably have needed permission. I guess it wasn’t sought because it wouldn’t have been granted.

Any Band fan will have problems in seeing the real people, some of whom they may have met, in a fictional setting. Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Howard Alk, John Simon, Martin Scorsese, Albert & Sally Grossman are among the others who appear. The immediate reaction is ‘This isn’t fair!’ but I’m not sure that it’s any less fair than books like Elaine Jesmer’s Number One With A Bullet where Motown people are easily recognizable. If the author had fictionalized totally and had Bobby Robinson writing ‘The Load’ with Gareth Hudman on piano and Lee Helmet on drums, he might have been safer from comebacks, but ultimately it would have been less honest and also very irritating to read. As far as describing people breaking the law, he isn’t going to get any comeback from Rick or Richard, so it’s instructive to see who breaks the law most in this book. And yes … it’s Richard. Followed by Rick. Rick gets most of the sexual action. Nothing he alleges about Levon isn’t in Levon’s own book, and he steers well clear of allegations about Garth or Robbie. He briefly mentions that Robbie has a ‘joint in his mouth’ in 1967 but that’s as tough as it gets. Howard Alk (deceased of course) gets it far worse. He describes Dylan’s filthy fingernails in the well-known 1966 film of Dylan and Lennon, but that’s describing a video rather than having an original insight. If he’d wanted the sensationalist dirt on The Band, he could have found more damning stuff in Cathy Smith’s published groupie tales.

The book isn’t alone in having a fictional protagonist mixing with real people. The whole Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser works on the same premise, as the fictional Harry Flashman meets most of the important historical figures of the 19th century. It’s quite common to get politicians or dead historical characters fictionalized. Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man does the deed on Custer (who deserves it) for example. Nineteenth century characters, particularly Wild West ones, have frequently appeared in fiction. Some of Richard Condon’s novels quite obviously have the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson in his sights, but under new names. It’s much rarer to fictionalize living people, but the recent TV drama A Very Social Secretary in the UK dishes the dirt on David Blunkett and Tony Blair to hilarious effect.

This novel(la) takes off fast and hard, with the line from Tears of Rage coming from his loudspeaker well-placed.

I liked Robbie’s first appearance, and the fact he told the narrator, Greg, to ‘fuck off.’ Maybe Greg thought The guy was cold. But the narrator is not a pleasant character. There’s a lot of humour in there, where Greg, a wanker if ever there was one, says of Robbie, I tried to give him some production tips, a little advice … then is surprised to get cold-shouldered. In contrast to some readers who commented on the Band Guestbook, I reckon Robbie comes out of it pretty well. His guitar playing is praised extravagantly, and he’s only an arsehole to the narrator. We definitely sympathize with Robbie here. I found several of Greg’s reactions to known situations amusing and well placed.

The fictionalized Band members come out pretty much as you’d expect. The narrator (and also the author) regards Richard and Rick with the most affection. Levon is a “character”, Garth is remote but a genius and Robbie’s the leader, the toughest emotionally and ultimately, the winner. Years of reading the Band Guestbook indicates that this is the generally-held view. I’ve corresponded with a number of people who worked with The Band over the years, and again and again I’ve seen the comment I liked Richard and Rick the best.

Somewhat unfair is grabbing quotes from Levon’s book, and putting them in Levon’s mouth in 1967. Levon described the rain at Watkin’s Glen as like a cow pissing on a flat rock and here it gets put in his mouth in 1967. Also They booed us everywhere we went is Robbie’s line, given to Levon here, not that Levon was there for most of the 65/66 tour. And over the years, I guess Robbie borrowed more of Levon’s lines than vice versa. I’d hazard a guess that his assessment that Levon didn’t appreciate Dylan’s material in 1965 had some truth in it, but actually Levon has always spoken well of Dylan, as well as making Don’t Ya Tell Henry a favourite live number right up to the most recent Midnight Rambles.

I find it artificial when bits of Band biography get shoehorned into the story, as when Greg is at his mother’s funeral.

The coffin went through the thick purple drapes toward what I imagined were the flames, but Garth Hudson, who had started out in music playing the organ in his uncle’s funeral parlor, told me much later that it really went to a kind of storage area …

In a similar vein, though let’s not dwell on veins in a book with so much shooting up, Greg remembers that Robbie thought Lou Reed was a crock. Another gem garnered from old interviews, and the original description of Robbie reacting to The Velvet Underground live is funnier.

It’s not a book about Music From Big Pink, nor is it a book about The Band. They’re merely peripheral references in a competently-written druggie book about a dealer who ends up in prison. As a novella, it’s fair enough, though Hubert Selby Jnr hasn’t got any competition from Niven. I found it always readable, often funny, sometimes very pointed. He portrays Greg well via Greg’s first person narrative, and unlikeable as Greg can be, you do feel a degree of sympathy for a richly drawn character.

BUT … as part of a series that supposedly explores classic albums it’s a … in his words … crock. There isn’t a single new insight into the album, not a single new fact, not even any interesting critical views of the music. There isn’t any thorough assessment or description of tracks or of the creative process. While I Shall Be Released, Tears of Rage, The Weight and We Can Talk get mentions, and he quotes the lyrics of In A Station, I don’t remember him even mentioning This Wheel’s On Fire, To Kingdom Come, Caledonia Mission, Long Black Veil or Lonesome Suzie. So on the question of quoting lyrics without permission, he stays closer to Richard Manuel’s work. Hmm, the safer option again. What annoys me most is that the book is an exploitative take on the corpse of Richard Manuel, who can’t hit back.

Factually, actually …

It’s Hi-Heel Sneakers, not High Heel Sneakers

Was Rollin’ Rock beer popular in 1967? It was in 1997, but I don’t know.

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