It started with Big Pink the house. Then came the LP, The Band’s classic 1968 debut record that lodged itself so thoroughly in our cultural subconscious we’ll forever be humming its lines, “Pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ ’bout half past dead …” Now Music from Big Pink is also a novella by John Niven, No. 29 in Continuum’s quirky and admirable “33 1/3” series that matches seminal rock albums to good prose. Niven’s is the first fictional treatment, and it’s easy to see how he might have spied a worthwhile story up there in the mountains of Woodstock.

“When I think about that album, I still have to laugh about how close the songs were to our lives,” drummer Levon Helm wrote in his memoir This Wheel’s on Fire. “The characters that appear in the lyrics—Luke, Anna Lee, Crazy Chester—were all people I knew. The music was the sum of all the experiences we’d shared for the past ten years, distilled through the quieter vibe of our lives in the country.”

Alas, there’s no one named Luke in Niven’s story; instead, he distills his vibe through Greg Keltner, an earnest, music-loving college dropout-slash-dope dealer who’s always saying stuff like “Hey, wanna go to the john and get fucked up?” Greg follows a friend to Woodstock and ends up supplying the likes of Bob Dylan, his infamous manager Albert Grossman, and of course Helm and the boys. In place of Anna Lee, meanwhile, there’s Skye, whose name sort of says it all. She’s Greg’s inevitable crush, a girl born with a Rolling Rock in her fist and who likes to respond to everything with “Rilly?” to which Greg is prone to shoot back, “‘Yeah.’ Yeah rilly, you fuckin’ bitch.”

And as for Crazy Chester—well, he could be just about anybody. In Niven’s book they’re all tripped out or coked up, so that after one Crazy Chester ingests too much powdered Khe Sanh, another Crazy Chester decides that the only remedy is a few ice cubes punched through the back door. Greg gives us that moment with typical stoner understatement: “He and I looked at each other. I shook my head. No way, man, I didn’t even know the fuckin’ guy. ‘Ah, fuck it,’ he said.”

Ah, fuck it indeed. That’s the level at which Niven’s characters operate—“classic cliché shit,” to quote Greg—which is maddening and ultimately deadening, especially since Big Pink begins with such a big syringe full of pathos. It’s 1986 and Greg, no surprise here, is a real mess, barely getting by, when he sees the paper: Richard Manuel of The Band is dead. A suicide. Greg puts on the album, which plays “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.

This is on page 3—page fuckin’ 3! as Greg would say—and it’s the only moment in the story that feels real. Writing, character, and music are all in focus. (By chance, Helm also begins his book with Manuel’s death. “What I saw just broke my heart,” he wrote on finding the body. “That’s for damn sure. It would’ve broken yours too.”) All the worse, then, that for the rest of Big Pink Niven treats us to groaningly bad descriptions of music that skip like a record:

Page 46: “It sounded to me like nothing on earth and, at the same time, like it’d been recorded a hundred years ago and dug up out of the ground.”

Page 113: “… it sounded brand new—like nothing I’d ever heard before—and at the same time it sounded ancient …”

Of course, Big Pink is a novel. It cannot and should not be music criticism; it probably shouldn’t even aspire to spinning out some freeform Lester Bangs–style tribute. But it has to do better than “it was old, it was new, it was like nothing on earth” or how can readers understand, let alone care? Perhaps Niven assumes we’ve heard these songs before; perhaps he depends upon it. A better writer would have excited us into listening again, only with his ears this time. Instead, we’re stuck with Greg’s ears, in which notes hang in the air, “fading like glory.”

As Greg would say, “I mean, fuck.”

Music from Big Pink by John Niven (Continuum, 160 pages)
The Quarterly Conversation, 2006