Saturday, March 31, 2007

Must-read: John Niven's Music From Big Pink

As this is a blog, I must preface my unmitigated rave for John Niven's novella with a self-indulgent personal story.

A year ago today, I suffered an accident that led to some broken bones, surgery, and a general personal and professional tailspin. I'm out of all that now, but there are some months from last year I'd like back.

The Saturday after my surgery (which left me unable to put any weight on my right ankle for several months), I spent the afternoon on our living room couch, reading and listening to music. I was going through some of my favorite CDs, hoping that my affection for and familiarity with those records would improve my mood. One of those records was The Band's Music From Big Pink. Now I know it's a record filled with sorrow: parents mourning ungrateful children, loyal philanderers narrating from the grave, and prisoners trying to conjure up some hope for the future. I've known that since I first heard it. But I never really felt it until that afternoon, lying helpless on the couch. That is one sad record.

The saddest part of Music From Big Pink isn't the songwriting or the muted tempos: it's Richard Manuel's voice. From the broken cry of "Tears of Rage" that starts the record to the hollowed-out falsetto of "I Shall Be Released" that ends it so unmercifully, Music From Big Pink documents the terror that can be contained in a human voice -- and this was before Manuel's long personal slide really began.

Manuel's voice has haunted many people, many of them better at making sense and art of it than I'll ever be, and one of those people is John Niven, author of an outstanding novella called Music From Big Pink that came out in 2005 but I just got around to reading on a plane last week. Read it, please. Written from the point of view of a drug dealer who associates with the members of The Band and the general Woodstock explosion of the late '60s, it details the promise and broken promise of that time with precision, wit, and an amazing command of and love for its source material. Not since David Shipper's Paperback Writer, decades ago, have I read a piece of fiction about rock'n'roll that so captures the big themes and microscopic details that make a life lived in music -- either as a practicioner or a hanger-on -- so thrilling and harrowing. It's as open and dark as Manuel's voice on the album that gave it a title. I'm not going to describe it much or quote any of it here because I want you to read all of it without me inadvertently ruining any of it. But this is that very, very rare piece of rock'n'roll-drenched fiction that actually feels like rock'n'roll.

Amazon link

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