Monday, February 1, 2010

Book Review: 33 1/3 #28 - "Music From Big Pink: A Novella"

I should have read John Niven's 33 1/3 book on Music From Big Pink a long time ago. I'm a fiction writer. I'm writing a collection of stories about music. I love the 33 1/3 series--so, why did it take me so long to get to this, the 28th entry in the series? Fuck if I know.

It might have something to do with the fact that I haven't listened to The Band in quite a while. Or maybe it's because the other fictional entry into the series that I've read, Joe Pernice's volume on Meat is Murder, wasn't as dazzling as I'd hoped. Or maybe it's just because other books in the series have caught my eye first. Regardless, it's a shame I just now got to this book because it quickly became one of my favorites.

From almost the very fourth (more on this later) page of the novella, John Niven effortlessly portrays a time and place that, according to his author bio, he was barely even alive for. By drawing on fictional characters like the drug dealer protagonist Greg, his love interest Skye, and a handful of other burnouts and drug addicts, Niven breathes fresh breath into the task of rock criticism.

Okay, so maybe this novella isn't criticism in it's strictest sense, but it functions as criticism in a number of ways. Niven's novella celebrates Music From Big Pink, while simultaneously positioning the record within its cultural, historical and social contexts. This isn't just a story about a stoner/dealer who happens to know The Band--it's a story about car crashes and assassinations, being afraid of Albert Grossman and hating Lou Reed, sneaking a peak at Dylan's bible and sticking an ice cube up a dude's ass because he's just OD'd on heroin. Somewhere, within all of this, Music From Big Pink is birthed and becomes a soundtrack of sorts for the protagonists. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Niven's novella is that he never pauses to make us read about the album. Rather, he weaves the album's feel into the fabric of the narrative so that by the novella's end we've experienced the album, and The Band, in a new way. That is exactly what 33 1/3 books should do.

Niven's prose, for the most part, makes the book almost aggressively readable. He nails Greg's voice and doesn't worry too much about dazzling us, relying instead on tight, solid sentences that are unexceptional on their own, but add up to a truly engaging story.

The only real quibble I have with the novella is its tacked-on-feeling frame and the overly abrupt end to the Woodstock section. While these elements were less than satisfying, they weren't disappointing enough to ruin the rest of the narrative. Perhaps that speaks to the strength of the characters that an unsatisfying ending doesn't feel like such a big deal?

By my count, I've only got one more of 33 1/3's fictional entries left, Kate Schatz's entry on PJ Harvey's Rid of Me. I might pick a copy up the next time I see it. Anyway, I'll try to review 33 1/3 books as I finish them. Even the older ones because, well, I really like the series. Even the lesser entries offer something. So, until next time...


  1. Which album did Colin Meloy write about? I have Meat is Murder by Joe Pernice.

  2. He wrote about "Let it Be" by The Replacements. Is that one fiction?