"Music From Big Pink is a moving book that succeeds not just in vividly evoking its time and place but in distilling one young man's cliched and minor destiny into something approaching tragedy....This well-written first novel captures not just some of the dreams of that bygone era, but the way those dreams died."
-Greg Kamiya, The New York Times Book Review
Music From Big Pink is faction: real people like Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Bob Dylan and Albert Grossman rub shoulders with fictional characters and actual, documented events thread their way through text alongside imagined scenarios. Through the eyes of 23-year-old Greg Keltner, drug-dealer and wannabe musician, we witness the gestation and birth of a record that will go on to cast its spell across five decades - bewitching and inspiring artists as disparate as The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Travis, Wilco and Mercury Rev.
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Music from Big PinkA Novella
By John Niven
ContinuumCopyright © 2005 John Niven
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Chapter One"Don't you raise the sails anymore ..."
I don't know why I was crying like that. I hadn't seen the guy in years and he hadn't crossed my mind in months. But here I was, standing right in front of the Mini Mart, reading the newspaper and bawling my fuckin' eyes out. The stuff I'd just bought-canned soup, Wonder Bread, turkey roll, processed cheese slices-spilled from the dropped brown bag and rolled over the sidewalk.
Sitting down heavily on the curb (I'm in my forties and weigh nearly 300 pounds: I do everything heavily these days) I stared at the photo in the Star of a gaunt, bearded Richard. I looked at the headline again, hoping the words might have changed in the last few seconds. That "DEAD" would somehow have become "ALIVE." Or "PARTYING." But it hadn't. It still said:
"BAND" SINGER FOUND DEAD IN HOTEL ROOM.
Suicide, it said. He'd fuckin' killed himself. Richard had done that. He'd killed himself. I kept right on crying. I'd had a shitty week and hadn't seen this coming. I'd just had an argument in the grocery store-the guy who runs the place accused me of passing him a bum bill. (I hadn't, although I hadtwice before, getting away with it the first time and around it the second.) Anyway, we wound up getting into it. I was on an economy drive until the welfare check arrived at the end of the week and hadn't shot up since breakfast. It was now late afternoon and I was jerking, man: my sweat just froze in the early March breeze.
After a while an old girl stopped and-this being Canada-asked if I was OK. I looked up and caught my reflection in her Foster Grants: the rotted teeth, the starbursts of broken blood vessels across my yellowing cheeks. Neither of us needed to be seeing this. Bravely, like a child, I sucked the sobs down and nodded. She handed me a dollar and walked on. I wiped my face with a ragged shirtsleeve, gathered up the cheap food, and hurried home.
The place was a living shit-house. It had taken my parents thirty years to own it and me just three to run it into the ground. I would have drawn the shades but they were already drawn. I did the thing with the spoon and the lighter, the brown powder and cotton ball, the old hypodermic. (Glass and steel, pre-war, my father's.)
The heavily treated guitar came in like an ancient tramp wheezing his last, then the woody toms, deeper than a crack on the floor of the Atlantic. I took my shirt off, found a halfway decent vein, tied off, put the needle in, and pressed the plunger. I turned the old stereo (also my father's) way up, lay down on the rug, and let the intro go through me as I started to glow; the tempo of the song good and slow, slow as memory, the beat of my heart. Finally, here was Richard's voice, trembling in fuckin' agony; "We carried you in our arms, on Independence Day." He sang the words the way he'd sung everything: as though the information contained in the lyrics would end him.
I stared into the black rippling pool of the speaker, feeling every tremor and pulse like breath on my face, wondering if over the years the fibers of the cone itself had somehow become stained, impregnated with the thousands of songs, the millions of notes, that had shivered as they passed through and out into the air: electrical impulses becoming sound that became meaning and heartbreak. I turned away and looked up. It took me about a minute. There was a crack in the ceiling above me and, like magic, a tiny fleck of plaster broke loose and came floating down, like a sorry kind of snowflake, or maybe a leaf.
Sixteen bars, a spoonful of Iranian heroin, and I was two decades back into myself, floating happily through another time, another place. A time when we were all making money, driving good cars through the mountains, getting high, getting laid. A time when we were all living, not just waiting. Life is all just waiting after a while.
Chapter Two"It's for sure ..."
New York City, 1967
It had been a long, long Friday and I hadn't left Fifth Floor Dave's place in Alphabet City until after seven o'clock. It had also been a real hot day and it seemed like tonight every joker in Manhattan with access to a fuckin' automobile was trying to get out of the city and up to the Catskills before the summer called it quits.
There'd been a smash up ahead and I spent a goddamn frustrating 45 minutes trying to get onto the New York State Thruway north of the island, all the while surrounded by the usual highway trash: unsmiling businessmen in Oldsmobiles and Caddies, hippies in Volkswagens, the necks of acoustic guitars juttin' out the windows, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" blaring out their AM radios. Next came the station wagons jammed with bawling kids and their sweating folks, all trying not to kill one another. (Now that's a good one, ain't it? "Hey, the five of us don't get along in a house. Why don't we all cram into a 110-degree, eight-foot space for a few hours?" Great idea, Pop.)
Above us all sat the truckers in their fuming eighteen-wheelers; grim-faced, identikit pedophiles in mirrored Aviators and coffee-stained vests, caged 20 feet up in their chrome porno-rooms, their jerkin' off boxes. I mean, these guys, pumped up on bennies, caffeine and Marlboros, these guys jerked off while they drove. They were the kind of people who laughed and yelled stuff about your hair when you walked into a diner. ("Hey, are you a boy or a girl?" Suck my dick and find out, you stupid fuck.)
As I was trying to change lanes some girl in a Camaro bawled me out for cutting her up, yeah cutting her up at three fuckin' miles an hour, and I nearly jumped out and got into it with her boyfriend. But then I remembered all the shit I had in the glove box and thought better of it.
Two hours later I took the Saugerties exit off the Thruway, pulled over to put the top down, and drove on, heading west on Route 212. I loved this part of the drive, when the smell of the Catskills hits you right in the face-clean, fresh air washed and scented by the maples and pines. It would be October next week. Fall sets in early in the mountains and its first murmurs were visible-splashes of rust and coppery fissures running here and there through the leaves. Overlook Mountain loomed in the distance and somewhere at the foot of it was Woodstock.
I had been living in the town since the previous summer, the summer of '66, the summer Dylan had his little spill over there on Striebel Road. I'd had some trouble down in the city and my friend Alex said I could come up and stay for a while.
I'd left Toronto to come and study law at NYU a few years earlier (about the same time The Hawks were playing behind Ronnie Hawkins and really packing them in down on Yonge Street; but our paths never crossed) but college and I didn't really get along. After a couple of years I was pretty much done with it and was running speed and grass around Manhattan for a guy called Manny.
Manny was into a few things. He used to sell drugs to a lot of the Factory people, ran some numbers. He had a few girls on his books. Not what you'd call a stable-just a few broads who worked Times Square, draining the balls of the convention- attending jerks who flew in from the Midwest, the kind of guys you saw wandering around Midtown at night frazzled on scotch and soda, guys whose wives back in Minnesota hadn't fucked them right since Truman was in the White House, and who didn't complain too much when the cowgirl-style riding they'd been promised on the street wound up being a 30 second handjob in the room. It was the same old story: these girls-the daughters and nieces of the scotch-and- soda-30-second-handjob Mr. Joneses-would get off the bus downtown thinking about Broadway and meeting Merv fuckin' Griffin, until the 200 bucks they'd saved up working at the Dairy Queen back in cow-town ran out. Then they'd meet guys like Manny. Within a few months they'd be shooting speed and smack, nodding out under those hot lights with the 16mm camera whirring away and six or seven cocks going off in their faces. I heard that later on a couple of Manny's girls actually got TV shows and stuff, but most of 'em would wind up just getting older and skinnier and junkier until they found themselves turning forty down in the meatpacking district, teeth gone, doling out head and hand to cabbies and dock-workers at five bucks a pop.
It was all cool for about six months. After a while, though, I'd made a few connections of my own and was sick of the twenty bucks here, ten bucks there, while Manny was making all the real dough. I mean, I was the one riding around town with ten years on Rikers Island rammed down the crack of my ass. So-classic cliche shit-I started doing some work on my own. Then one night Manny showed up at my apartment with a Mexican guy who could barely fit in the apartment. They slapped me around a little, then Manny said that if I sold my shit to his customers again his friend here would sodomize me then "nail my fucken balls to the table."
Well, fuck that. I bummed around on the money my folks were still sending for a few months-until they found out from a friend of a friend that I hadn't been near the NYU campus in almost a year. They cut me off. So here I was in this situation. I had no money. I had people I could get drugs from, but no one I could sell them to. And that's when Alex called from Woodstock.
He said rent was cheap, Tinker Street was crawling with folksy girls in summer clothes and there were enough people in town who wanted to buy.
Grass was easy to get and Alex had a pharmacy connection with a guy along the road in Kingston who could get us several varieties of fat chick pills. For the heavier stuff I made the run into the city once a month (although it was starting to get more like bimonthly) and saw Fifth Floor Dave or the black guys I knew over on 10th Avenue.
And you know what? Fuck it, I thought. Fuck Manny and his wetback rapist enforcer. Fuck my parents. Fuck New York City. My apartment-my twelve-foot-square oven-off Canal Street was 300 dollars a month. Up here we were paying 120 between the two of us for a three-bedroom house. The living room had 14-foot-high ceilings with cedarwood beams and a big fireplace built out of blue Catskills stone. There was an old knotted pine dresser in the kitchen. We even had a couple of acres out back with a porch and tacky-cool Adirondack furniture. Man, it was paradise, two hours north of the city.
I had put the car in the drive, tucked all the shit under my bed, and was popping the cap off a cold Heineken when the phone rang. The heel of my hand caught the bottle-top and tore a little flap of skin off. Tired and pissed, I snatched the receiver up. "Yeah?"
"Greggy?" No mistaking that croak.
Rick was one of the few people who knew what I'd been doing down in Manhattan. He'd probably been calling for hours. "Hey man. You OK? I've been calling."
"Yeah, I just. I cut my fuckin' hand."
"Shit, be careful there. So, are we, um, happy?" "Yeah, we're happy."
"Then come on over." "Ahh, it's late. I just got in. Maybe we could ..."
"Hey, fuck that. C'mon man. Bring your guitar too. It's just me and Richard and a few chicks."
I thought for a moment. I did have to drop something off at Bill Lubinsky's place. Old Bill was a good guy, a fixer, wheeler-dealer type; one of those guys who'd offer to get you anything from an M-16 to a T-Bird. He was also a little nuts-drove around with a loaded .45 under the seat. I think he'd been in the military and you heard talk around town about him being a mercenary, being at Bay of Pigs a few years back and stuff. But I don't know. Who knows? Bill lived up at the end of Pine Lane, not far from the band's place.
"You'll get your dick sucked," Rick said in a hoarse snigger. I could hear female laughter in the background, Richard shouting something.
* * *
"Greg! How you been?" Richard kicked the screen door open and we embraced as well as we could given that I was carrying a guitar case and a bottle of bourbon and he had a huge, badly made joint dangling from his lips, a glass of something in one hand and a can of Bud in the other. "Greg's here!" he shouted into the house and I followed him through.
The place was a mess. The ugly pink house had been gradually deteriorating since Richard, Rick and Garth moved in back in the spring. I'd stepped over a fresh dog link outside and Hamlet was stretched out on the rug having his belly stroked by a young, drunk blonde. The neon beer sign Richard had stolen from a bar downtown glowed on the mantelpiece above them and music-unusually it sounded like their music-played softly in the background.
"Greggy!" Rick bounded across the room. He too seemed more than happy to see me; then again drug takers (we weren't drug addicts, not yet) were usually happy to see you when you were bringing them stuff.
"How was the city?"
"Fucked. It took me an hour to get on the interstate."
"Shit. Well, you're here now. This is," he turned to the two girls sprawled on the floor with the dog, "this is Shirley and ... Marla?"
"Carla!" the blonde giggled.
"Carla, sorry baby."
They were both fuckin' cute. You hand it to these guys, they got girls, man.
"Hi," I said, setting down the fifth of Four.
"Hey, Greg," Richard smiled, raising one of those big, furry eyebrows. "Did you ..."
"Yeah yeah." I pulled out two cellophane bags from my jacket pocket; the bigger one was full of grass (these guys got through a lot of grass) the smaller one was coke. Richard gleefully slapped them on the table.
"Oh, oh, and listen to this!" said Rick, jumping hyperactively across the room. "We just did this." He turned the volume up and the music cut through the blue dope smoke with unusual clarity. The songs they'd been recording down in the basement all summer didn't sound like this. I mean, they were starting to write some pretty good stuff, but the sound quality? Jeez. You hated to criticize people, but they were out of their minds recording down there. The whole room was concrete and metal; cinder block walls, a cement floor, a big iron furnace and these steel foundation poles. It was the worst possible environment to record in. I'd mentioned it to them once or twice, but they didn't seem to give a shit.
This was different. I listened-blown away but not showing it-as Richard sang a beautiful song about losing a girl called Katie. That voice. Man, he could break you up just singing the lottery numbers. I looked over to him and his eyes flickered up at me, bashfully. "You did this downstairs?" I asked.
"Nah. Down in New York a couple of weeks ago."
"Who's Katie?" asked Shirley. Or Carla.
"Robbie's mom," Richard replied deadpan, not looking up from the pile of powder he was smoothing across the back of a framed picture. Rick laughed-a short bark-and leaned in with a tightly rolled twenty.
Hours later Richard and I were sitting out back finishing up the liquor and watching the sky. We could hear Rick playing bad piano down in the basement, working the same chord progression over and over again. The talk all night had been about Levon, their old drummer. They hadn't seen him since he walked out on the Dylan tour nearly two years ago and they were thinking about getting him back up from down South to help with all the new songs. They'd heard he was working on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico or someplace.
"I don't get it," I said. "The guy just walks out on a fuckin' world tour to go be a deckhand or something?"
"Yeah, Lee's got balls!" Richard chuckled. "To tell you the truth, I don't think he really liked Bob's music too much." I couldn't understand this. "As a matter of fact," he continued, "I don't think Levon liked Albert too much either." This I could understand. Grossman, Dylan's manager, was a scary, cold-hearted son of a bitch.
"So, you're gonna sign with Warner?"
Richard shook his head. "Capitol now, I think."
He shrugged. "Albert had some meetings. He called Robbie. Hell, I don't care. Long as we get the check!"
Excerpted from Music from Big Pink by John Niven Copyright © 2005 by John Niven. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I didn't think I would enjoy this book as much as I did. 33 1/3 is a music criticism series that's been getting good reviews, but "Music From Big Pink" dispensed with the criticism and uses an album and a band as a jumping-off point for a novella about drug addiction and the seedier side of the sixties. Focusing on two Canadians: Greg Keltner, a drug dealer who finds himself well-placed for the Woodstock music scene; and Richard Manuel, singer & pianist for The Band, and the dealer's entrance to the larger scene in Woodstock. Greg's drug dealing run-ins with musicians are sometimes a bit of a stretch, such as the off-handedness of Lou Reed's cameos, and suffer the same repetitive "oh yeah, I know [insert musician's name here]. He's a bit of an asshole" approach. What's worthwhile are Greg's interactions with the scene in Woodstock which make up the first part of the book: the parties, the languid days, the music, the scene. Then, as the rest of the country takes note of what's going on in Woodstock and starts to congregate there, the seedier side begins to take its toll and you see the eventual slide of the hippie movement as an inevitability. While this isn't on the level of Greil Marcus's madcap criticisms, its an effort well worthwhile reading if only for the joy of listening to The Band's opus while imagining what it was like to be a hanger-on at that time.
This is part of the 33 1/3 series--each a novella of creative nonfiction that looks into the creation of a pivotal and memorable album. This particular book looks at The Band's first album, "Music From Big Pink". If you're going by number, this is number 28.This was vivid, fun, and a memorable read. It draws you into the scene of characters around The Band giving you humor and incredible moments of touching emotion. It brings back the music so that you'll want nothing more than to slip the album into your stereo, but I have a feeling that this would be a fun read even for someone who isn't familiar with the music it's based off of. The characters are memorable, and it feels as if you've wandered up to the window of a life you probably won't know yourself, but can certainly look into. And for anyone who's had those crazy musician friends, or has a year or so in their background when they had a bit too much fun--this will bring back some crazy memories I'm sure. It's not for everyone, but if this sounds entertaining, or if for that matter you're a fan of [Jesus' Son] or strains of pop culture, this is a fascinating read.