John Niven on Music from Big Pink

One of my favorite book series is Continuum’s 33 1/3, an ever-expanding collection of novella-length considerations of key albums in rock history by a motley assortment of writers and musicians. Until recently, each installment had been nonfiction—imaginative and highly personal, to be sure, but firmly rooted in “the real world.” That changed late last year, as John Niven’s Music from Big Pink became the first fictional segment in the series. In this essay, he explains how his literary ambitions coincided with Continuum’s cultural aims.

[John Niven]For a while I had been toying (and please forgive me that ‘toying,’ the author in his folio-lined study, disinterestedly ‘toying’ with any number of weighty subjects; the process was decidedly more fraught than that, but, nonetheless, toying I was) with the idea of a novel about a rock group right on the edge of success, but seen from the POV of a hanger-on, a drug dealer, a bagman. But something kept holding me back.

What was holding me back was what we might call ‘The Stillwater Problem’: the idea of hanging the story around a fictionalised group left me cold, cold, cold. (Grab a pencil and draw up a list of novels featuring an invented rock group that have really worked. Done? You should have a piece of paper with Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments written on it.)

bigpink.jpgMy friend Joe Pernice had recently written Meat Is Murder for Continuum’s 33 1/3 series and we got to talking about it in a bar. It seemed like 33 1/3 might be somewhere I could realise my idea and hang it around an actual group. Joe suggested I pitch the idea to series editor David Barker.

Before I did this I had to decide which group, which record, to hang the thing around. I knew I wanted it to be a debut album. Through working in the music industry for ten years—my entire twenties—I’d come to realise how very short the window of real happiness is in the life of a rock band. There are the years of penniless struggle (or there were back then, before you could land a record deal simply by debasing yourself on some TV moronathon for a few weeks) while you learn your craft, then the brief period—usually in your mid twenties, usually lasting no more than a couple of years—where ambition, energy, experience and naiveté collide and allow to produce your best work. If you’re lucky, it’s also the time when you garner the fame, adulation and money that accompany great work. And it’s all new and fresh as a May morning.

Then the usual ghouls come marching over the horizon: egos, wives, drug-addiction, alcoholism, difficult second albums, critical backlash and burnout. The gradual slide into obscurity, penury and speaking only to each others lawyers begins.

The window is short, the greatest is often behind you before you are thirty years old, and the leftover life to kill is hard, as The Band’s Richard Manuel knew as he sat on the ledge of the tub in a Florida motel bathroom in the early hours of a March morning nearly twenty years later, tying the shower curtain cord around his neck.

If the story is hard for some of the members of the group, it is harder, crueller, for some of the people around them. I have seen young drug dealers with young bands: jumping in and out of limos, floating backstage, waltzing into the thousand-dollar-a-day recording studio. For the musicians, it is a great life when you are twenty-five; it sparkles less brightly at forty-five.

In addition to writing about a debut album, I wanted a record that truly signalled a sea-change in music, which not only defined its time completely but which laid the groundwork for the decade to come and which was incapable of dating. You only get a handful of these in any decade and—significantly—they usually arrive at the end of the decade. The Band’s Music from Big Pink (1968) was completely out of step with the acid-freak outs of the time and anticipated country rock, which would define the coming years and reach its commercial apogee in the mid-seventies with The Eagles.

The Clash’s London Calling (1979) was a million miles from the choked fuzzbox punk of its day, jumping the gun on several trends (reggae, ska and rockabilly) which rock music would assimilate in the coming years and rolled out a blueprint for clean, hard and emotionally direct rock and roll that U2 would use to build commercial skyscrapers a few years later. The Stone Roses by The Stone Roses (1988) wrapped together pop, psychedelia, rock and roll, funk and dance music and made every indie group in Britain redundant overnight; I know, I was in one of them.

I could have written my novel around the making of any one of these records, for the story is an archetype (only the trousers and the drugs change), but I went with The Band because I loved the personalities involved and liked the greater historical distance the sixties afforded. I sent David Barker a three page outline and the first fifteen pages of the novel. A more supportive, hands-off editor you could not wish for. We both knew it was a gamble, combining fact and fiction around one of the most revered bands in American music history, especially written by a Scotsman who was in the womb when the songs on the album were still being written.

As anyone involved in publishing knows, the wheels turn slowly, very slowly for someone coming from the record industry, where material has been known to go from demo to recording to the shelves in six weeks. I began writing in the summer of 2004 and submitted the manuscript in May 2005. It was, like the song says, a long way from May to September when the bound galleys arrived.

Copies were sent out to press and, a few weeks later, there were emails in my inbox from Greil Marcus and Barney Hoskyns, unarguably the two most respected critics when it comes to Dylan and The Band, writers whose books had never been more than a few feet from my side when I was working on the book. Holding my breath, I clicked and opened: ‘An amazing piece of work’ (Marcus) and ‘took me to a time and place I’ve only ever visited in my head.’ (Hoskyns). It was with relief more than delight that I began tapping my replies.

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2 January 2006 | guest authors |