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Music from Big Pink: A Novella (33 1/3) Paperback – November 16, 2005


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic (November 16, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 082641771X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0826417718
  • Product Dimensions: 4.8 x 0.4 x 6.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #318,670 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

Music from Big Pink is a book to awaken a deeper appreciation of The Band's sweet poetry. The book has a powerful style of its own and a story that might illuminate an entire period. It is a piece of writing that will be admired by anyone who's interested in the era that made our own, and those who read it are unlikely to forget its cool Updikean temperament. (Andrew O'Hagan, author of Our Fathers and Personality)

'Publisher Continuum has produced a startling series of monographs on some of the greatest rock albums...There is a lovely coming of age story here, wrapped aroung the album in an oddly parasitic manner.'
(Scotland On Sunday)

'As evocative as it is gripping.'
(Observer)

"...fans of the Bandshould grab a copy of John Niven's new Musicfrom Big Pink, part of Continuum's 33-1/3 series, to see how evocativelyfact and fiction can be married."- ProvidencePhoenix, January 2006

'...Like the album itself, Niven's story accupies that 60s fault line where hedonism and optimism turn to failure and melancholy...Niven's beautifu lly tragic mini-novel crawls inside the lonesome core of this one-off album, penning a heart-broken postcard from a past he never knew.' (Andrew Male Mojo)

Music From Big Pink is a moving book that succeeds not justin vividly evoking its time and place but in distilling one young man'scliched 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. (Gary Kamiya The New York Times Book Review)

The Band's 1968 debut album Music From Big Pink is the veritable Ur-text of Rock Snobbery, an artefact so definitive only the brave and deluded would even approach it (and they did). It inspired Greil Marcus - if not the Dean of Rock certainly a man with a wood-panelled office - to write Mystery Train, his first and maybe finest tome. This set of songs, cooked up in a rented house in bucolic Woodstock, New York, during breaks from their regular employer Bob Dylan, landed in the Swinging Sixties like a time capsule unearthed from the previous century. It was taupe in a Technicolor age, organic not synthetic, inhabited by the ghosts of an America which predated sound recording.
It was also fake, a work of smart artifice. Drummer Levon Helm apart, the Band were Canadian lads healthily fixated on songs previously presumed lost, and unearthed by archivists like Harry Smith and Alan Lomax. Although they toyed with names like the Crackers (way off the mark) or the more accurate Honkies, their drab monicker captured perfectly their undeniable precision. Dylan's first movie might have been called Don't Look Back, but his backing musicians started the trend for nostalgia. There's an argument that American rock music has yet to recover from 1968. Its dress sense certainly hasn't.
But writing anything new about this lovable cultural millstone is problematic. So as his contribution to Continuum's well-received 33 1/3 series of little books on big albums, John Niven has penned a novella inspired by the era's events. The narrator, Greg Keltner, a none-too-bright Canadian drug-dealer, moves in high and low places. He scores in the city then services the musicians of Woodstock, as the anonymous town chosen by Dylan as a bolthole rapidly becomes a hippy mecca. The temporarily connected Greg sneers at the rubes and hangs out with a cast of characters that includes an entire line-up of Sixties stars, a few of them still with us.
It's a great gimmick. Passing celebs such as a taciturn Dylan, his creepily controlling manager Albert Grossman, and a hilarious, speed-addled Lou Reed, conform to every biographical description of them ever printed. Boon companions include the party-hearty bassist Rick Danko and the unfortunate Richard Manuel, whose quavering voice anchored the Band's best music and whose 1986 suicide opens the book, setting obese junkie Greg to reminiscing. Robbie Robertson, Band leader and guitarist, is described merely as cold, ie in control. (It took Hollywood to bring him low, according to Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.)
Niven is no stylist, though. Although he certainly knows how musicians talk - he worked in the record business for years - there are some stilted conversations captured here. (Being kind, he may just be mocking the meetings of the starstruck and the talent.) The obligatory femme fatale, about as convincing as one of Dylan's idealised subjects, even bears the gloriously absurd name Skye Grey. Greg's florid attempts to describe events of years past make this a strong argument against the use of narcotics, but they're hard to read without squirming.
The schematic structure of the book, each incident ticked off as the narrative moves forward, is surely more obvious than the author intended, and interferes with a convincing description of an aimless life. A melodramatic funeral scene stretches the reader's credulity and the use of historical events to delineate time is corny at best. (Did regional television stations really hold a vigil for Andy Warhol after his shooting by Valerie Solanas? I doubt it.)

But there are compensations. The narrative drive is irresistible, while set-pieces such as a night tripping at the flicks with a chick, or eviction from a party on Dylan's orders, convey public embarrassment (or its absence) beautifully. All such analyses of individual records are exercises in nostalgia to some extent, so why shouldn't the shaky voice of a fitfully imagined middle-aged man with no future and only hazy memories of a worthwhile past represent them all? This may be no more than the literary equivalent of a promising demo tape, but it is certainly distinct. Well done to Niven for giving a voice to the sleazy foot soldiers of rock'n'roll. They also serve who stand on weight.

(Steve Jelbert Independent, The)

"Niven... delivers one of the more ambitious and lengthy books in the series, writing about The Band's extraordinary first album in the form of a novella.... Through his eyes we see a fictionalized but historically-rooted account of what it was like to be in or around The Band in 1968. The novella describes the circumstances of the album's creation and its sound, but is more than an oblique work of criticism. It is itself, like its subject, a grand work of art." -Ukula Magazine, Spring 2006



'This identically-titled novella, or smaller novel, part of an imaginative, unique series called "33 3/1", from Continuum Books, is just as solid, thought provoking and interesting as the album that inspired it.'
Mark Gould, Sound Waves Magazine
(Mark T Gould)

Quote from Mark Gould, Sound Waves Magazine, 'This series is an absolutely brilliant idea'


“…fans of the Bandshould grab a copy of John Niven’s new Musicfrom Big Pink, part of Continuum’s 33-1/3 series, to see how evocativelyfact and fiction can be married.”- ProvidencePhoenix, January 2006

Music From Big Pink is a moving book that succeeds not justin vividly evoking its time and place but in distilling one young man'scliched 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. (Sanford Lakoff The New York Times Book Review)

The Band's 1968 debut album Music From Big Pink is the veritable Ur-text of Rock Snobbery, an artefact so definitive only the brave and deluded would even approach it (and they did). It inspired Greil Marcus - if not the Dean of Rock certainly a man with a wood-panelled office - to write Mystery Train, his first and maybe finest tome. This set of songs, cooked up in a rented house in bucolic Woodstock, New York, during breaks from their regular employer Bob Dylan, landed in the Swinging Sixties like a time capsule unearthed from the previous century. It was taupe in a Technicolor age, organic not synthetic, inhabited by the ghosts of an America which predated sound recording.
It was also fake, a work of smart artifice. Drummer Levon Helm apart, the Band were Canadian lads healthily fixated on songs previously presumed lost, and unearthed by archivists like Harry Smith and Alan Lomax. Although they toyed with names like the Crackers (way off the mark) or the more accurate Honkies, their drab monicker captured perfectly their undeniable precision. Dylan's first movie might have been called Don't Look Back, but his backing musicians started the trend for nostalgia. There's an argument that American rock music has yet to recover from 1968. Its dress sense certainly hasn't.
But writing anything new about this lovable cultural millstone is problematic. So as his contribution to Continuum's well-received 33 1/3 series of little books on big albums, John Niven has penned a novella inspired by the era's events. The narrator, Greg Keltner, a none-too-bright Canadian drug-dealer, moves in high and low places. He scores in the city then services the musicians of Woodstock, as the anonymous town chosen by Dylan as a bolthole rapidly becomes a hippy mecca. The temporarily connected Greg sneers at the rubes and hangs out with a cast of characters that includes an entire line-up of Sixties stars, a few of them still with us.
It's a great gimmick. Passing celebs such as a taciturn Dylan, his creepily controlling manager Albert Grossman, and a hilarious, speed-addled Lou Reed, conform to every biographical description of them ever printed. Boon companions include the party-hearty bassist Rick Danko and the unfortunate Richard Manuel, whose quavering voice anchored the Band's best music and whose 1986 suicide opens the book, setting obese junkie Greg to reminiscing. Robbie Robertson, Band leader and guitarist, is described merely as cold, ie in control. (It took Hollywood to bring him low, according to Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.)
Niven is no stylist, though. Although he certainly knows how musicians talk - he worked in the record business for years - there are some stilted conversations captured here. (Being kind, he may just be mocking the meetings of the starstruck and the talent.) The obligatory femme fatale, about as convincing as one of Dylan's idealised subjects, even bears the gloriously absurd name Skye Grey. Greg's florid attempts to describe events of years past make this a strong argument against the use of narcotics, but they're hard to read without squirming.
The schematic structure of the book, each incident ticked off as the narrative moves forward, is surely more obvious than the author intended, and interferes with a convincing description of an aimless life. A melodramatic funeral scene stretches the reader's credulity and the use of historical events to delineate time is corny at best. (Did regional television stations really hold a vigil for Andy Warhol after his shooting by Valerie Solanas? I doubt it.)

But there are compensations. The narrative drive is irresistible, while set-pieces such as a night tripping at the flicks with a chick, or eviction from a party on Dylan's orders, convey public embarrassment (or its absence) beautifully. All such analyses of individual records are exercises in nostalgia to some extent, so why shouldn't the shaky voice of a fitfully imagined middle-aged man with no future and only hazy memories of a worthwhile past represent them all? This may be no more than the literary equivalent of a promising demo tape, but it is certainly distinct. Well done to Niven for giving a voice to the sleazy foot soldiers of rock'n'roll. They also serve who stand on weight.

(Sanford Lakoff Independent, The)

Ukula Magazine, Spring 2006



'This identically-titled novella, or smaller novel, part of an imaginative, unique series called "33 3/1", from Continuum Books, is just as solid, thought provoking and interesting as the album that inspired it.'
Mark Gould, Sound Waves Magazine
(Sanford Lakoff)

About the Author

John Niven graduated from Glasgow University in 1991 with a First Class Honours MA in English Literature. He toured and recorded as guitarist in The Wishing Stones - their sole LP Wildwood (Heavenly Records 1992) owes more a passing debt to the music of The Band - before becoming an A&R man and working with acts like Travis, Mogwai, and Sigur Ros. Over the years he has written about music, film and sport for publications like Word, FHM, Socialism, The Herb Garden and Mixmag. In 2003 he sold his first screenplay and co-wrote and directed the award winning short film ‘Tethered’ (British Film Council/Frozen Tundra Films.)

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Customer Reviews

Which is to say that the writing ... could be a little tighter and a lot better.
Clare Quilty
John Niven's book brings the era, the place, the people and the music to life with an uncanny realism.
Martin Kelly
Why not give more attention to the album songs which are ripe for discussion and speculation?
Bruce Freshwater

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Clare Quilty on August 13, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
... but the fact remains: This album deserves a more fact-based approach from the 33 1/3rd series.

Author John Niven takes a unique strategy in writing about the Band's classic debut, "Music From Big Pink."

He writes a short novel that follows a character through key events in the history of the Band during the late 60s and in rock music in general.

Anybody who loves this group is bound to have, at some point, looked at Elliott Landy's photographs of the guys hanging out at their country house in Woodstock, or read Levon Helm's biographical account of the time, and thought it must've been great to have been there.

The guys were making great music in the basement, spending their new money on booze and fast cars, playing pick-up gigs, hanging out with hippie chicks and frequently cranking out a tune with a post-crash Bob Dylan. Sign me up, I'm down for exactly all of that.

And so is Niven's fictional main character, Greg Keltner, a young dope dealer who befriends Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm (and -- ha ha -- gets a cool brush-off from Robbie Robertson).

Through Keltner, we get an enthusiastic (almost stalkerish) witness to the band's rise and its eventual stagnation.

But there are problems:

Keltner has an almost "Forrest Gump"-ian ability to be in the right place at the right time. He's there when Manuel offers up an early solo version of "I Shall Be Released" (at Robert Ryan's apartment in the Dakota, no less); he's there when they read their first "Rolling Stone" rave; he's there the very day the guys pack up and move out of Big Pink (which happens to be the exact same day Andy Warhol gets shot).
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Jimmy Guterman on March 31, 2007
Format: Paperback
Richard Manuel's voice has haunted many people, 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 (mid-'07). 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 in 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.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By D. Richman on April 17, 2006
Format: Paperback
I really enjoyed this book. But be warned: if you are looking for a book that describes how the album was made don't look here. "Music from Big Pink" is more fiction than fact, and the central focus is on what life might have been like in Woodstock at the time - the parties, the drugs, the music.

What really struck me about this book was the Niven's use of evocative language. The way he described the Band songs, especially when he was hearing them for the first time, was poignant, rich, and insightful. Hearing the narrator talk about the songs really made me want to listen to the tracks; and when I did, I certainly had an enhanced experience.

Overall it was pretty good. I say buy it!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By L Esquivel on January 21, 2008
Format: Paperback
I'll admit I wasn't instantly glad to learn that this entry into the 33 1/3 series was in fact a novella rather than a more typical factual based analysis of one of my favorite records. Oh well. The truth of the matter is that almost in spite of itself it manages to be entertaining enough to hold your interest. If you're looking for deep reflections on the emotional power of The Band's music this isn't a bad place to look. If you want those reflections to be tied exclusively to facts rather than fiction then seek out other avenues. But for my money this book does the job of what I believe the 33 1/3 series intends to do, albeit in an unorthodoxed fashion -capture the mood of a record, drawing from the time in history it was created and people involved in it's creation.

The great thing about the album Songs From Big Pink is that the times in which it came into being were times when the unthinkable could be a reality, both the good and the tragic. That's what holds the author's narrative together, the possibility that the main character, an average slub, could have rubbed elbows with such a talented and ultimatley famous group of artists. Even the passages that veer completely away from The Band and their music and focus on character development only deepen the profound emotional connection the author conjures up between artist and audience, hitting on just how intimate The Band's music was and still is.

I would have probably preferred a more conventional analysis of this album, but as a fan of this music I can say that much of Niven's prose do resonante with me and the way he translates his character's emotions and reactions to witnessing first hand the evolution of a milestone record is certainly commendable and worth the read.
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