A blog about Bloomsbury Academic's 33 1/3 series, our other books about music, and the world of sound in general.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Shuffling along

Following the lead of the great TMFTML, here is what my iPod thinks of my life, in its charmingly random way:

How does the world see you?
"I've Got Something on my Mind" The Left Banke

Will I have a happy life?
"Miracle Drug" A.C. Newman (mmmm, Vicodin)

What do my friends really think of me?
"Don't Let Me Down" The Beatles (crap, this is getting heavy)

Do people secretly lust after me?
"White Collar Boy" Belle & Sebastian (that would be a no, then)

How can I make myself happy?
"This hip hop" Summer Hymns ("You're my BAAAAABY!")

What should I do with my life?
"99 Problems" Jay-Z (What would Jay-Z do?)

Will I ever have children?
"The Gift" Way Out West featuring Miss Joanna Law (This brings a tear to my eye, for some reason)

What is some good advice for me?
"Indian Giver" 1910 Fruitgum Company (??)

How will I be remembered?
"Time" The Loft

What is my signature dancing song?
"Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale" Love (Just tried it: not bad!)

What do I think my current theme song is?
"Driftwood" Travis (painfully hip, I know)

What does everyone else think my current theme song is?
"Amazon" M.I.A. (how very 2005)

What song will play at my funeral?
"When the Levee Breaks" Led Zeppelin (I'm totally there)

What type of women do you like?
"Two Headed Boy" Neutral Milk Hotel (erm, isn't that illegal?)

What is my day going to be like?
"No Love" Mable John

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Little Richard

You'll be glad to know that I've reached the halfway point in my proofreading odyssey through The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. The goal is to get it done by midnight on Sunday. Losing an hour early on Sunday morning won't help, nor will getting drunk at the Flaming Lips show on Saturday night. But both look inevitable from where I'm standing.

Anyway, the book continues to delight and impress. Here's a snippet from the entry on Little Richard:


Richard Penniman, the self-styled King of Rock'n'Roll, was born in Macon, Georgia, on December 5, 1932. Such was his explosive impact in late 1955 that many baby boomers remember better where they were when they first heard Little Richard than when they first heard that Kennedy was killed - the assassination of 'melody' being more vividly felt.

To comprehend his impact, picture yourself stuck in the mid-1950s as puberty strikes. Life has been drab. The grown-ups talk about 'before the war' all the time; it has cast a long shadow over your childhood. In Britain, ration-books have only just disappeared. Few people have TV. School is like the army. Everybody's house is cold and you must eat up your liver and rice-pudding. Your parents listen to awful, syrupy music on their radiogram by people like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, who think they're so smooth and sophisticated and who imagine that these are virtues.


By the time you're halfway through hearing Little Richard's first hit, 'Tutti Frutti', your mind has been mangled by this mad, wild, delicious gibberish from a human voice like no other, roaring and blathering above a band cranking along like a fire truck running amok in the night. By the time the record finishes, you have glimpsed the possibilities of a whole new universe. All those sophisticats defeated at a stroke. Enter glorious barbarity, chaos and sex.


And don't forget to check out Michael Gray's blog, too.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Good to see the 'trot getting some love from the 'fork today. The new EP is out next week.

Today's eclipse, as seen from a tiny Greek island. If you look really closely, you might just be able to make out Sumire, from Haruki Murakami's beautiful Sputnik Sweetheart.

There's a big piece on Guillemots in today's Guardian. I like Rufus Wainwright's description of them as "a super-sexy pack of nerds who aren't afraid of being possessed, Linda Blair-style, by the music."

Continuum author to rock Stars Hollow

This just in: Joe Pernice, author of our Meat Is Murder book (still the best-selling book in the series, by the way), will make his network television acting debut at some point in the next couple of months, on the very wonderful Gilmore Girls. From the Pernice Brothers website:

"Joe Pernice will make his episodic television debut in an upcoming Gilmore Girls. He will play one of several Stars Hollow troubadour-wannabes that descend on the town after the regular troubadour, Grant Lee Phillips, is discovered by Neil Young and whisked off on a tour. Joe will sing a yet-to-be-determined song. No word yet on who the other troubadours are, but knowing the excellent musical instincts of the Gilmore gang, it will undoubtedly be good. I do not yet know the air date, but will post as soon as I do. Joe heads out to Burbank next week to tape. I know I have a proclivity toward making things up, but this is true. I swear to God."

I hope Joe gets to hang out with Lane. She rocks.

Now if we can only get a guest spot for Jim Fusilli on Veronica Mars...

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Catholic Easter Colours

"Catholic Easter Colours", from 1993, is a song that upset me the first time I heard it, and has upset me every time I've heard it since. Because, when it starts to fade out after 7 minutes, it's only just hitting its stride.

It ambles amiably for just over 3 minutes, then picks up momentum from there, breaking into an effortless jog - kicking off its shoes, skittering along, Bobby Wratten doing his usual repeat/echo vocal trick, then Annemari's harmonies come in, and the typically bleak chorus lyric ("We don't call each other up any more")...but when the piano first appears at the 5:30 mark, it's like the sun bursting through after three days of rain, and it only gets more beautiful from that point on.

If there's a 12-minute version of this song knocking around in a studio in South London, I'd sell most of my records just to hear it once.

You can download this song for free, at the Myspace page for Northern Picture Library.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Six author interviews

Rob Trucks, master of the pithy conversation, has conducted several in-depth interviews with our authors. You can read six of these interviews (Joe Pernice, Jim Fusilli, John Perry, Eliot Wilder, Michaelangelo Matos, and Erik Davis) here.

Warning: if you're averse to artful photographs of naked ladies, you need to tread very carefully around this site.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

NMH chat on WNYC, Monday March 27th

Kim Cooper, author of our Neutral Milk Hotel book, will be discussing the book and the album on WNYC's Soundcheck radio show on Monday afternoon, 2-3pm Eastern Time. 93.9FM if you're local, online if you're not.

Also appearing with Kim will be Robert Schneider, the album's producer. Should be good!

New Book #2: Sly and the Family Stone

The second of our four new books for spring is by Miles Marshall Lewis, native of the Bronx, but currently residing in the aptly riotous city of Paris. If you want to buy Miles' book from Amazon, you can do so here.


By the autumn of 1971 both John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding were in stores. Both albums compare aesthetically with There's a Riot Goin' On; they are all musical denials of what the artists had produced before, presented at times with almost tongue-in-cheek, ironic attitudes regarding music the musicians were themselves responsible for popularizing. Soul records with this much depth had only recently begun appearing on the landscape of popular music. Motown released What's Going On six months before Riot. Some say Sly's title was meant to answer Marvin Gaye's rhetorical question. In fall of '71 Stevie Wonder had only recently put out his first completely self-produced album, Where I'm Coming From. Jimi Hendrix had overdosed in September 1970; he and Sly were scheduled to jam with the Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell at the Speakeasy Club in London the day before his death. (Hendrix never showed.) When the public still believed that music could save and/or change the world - with evidence to the contrary only just surfacing - Sly Stone, if anyone, was expected to bring his universal optimism and acerbic social observations to the table and help everyone make heads or tails of what was happening to the country. Be careful what you ask for.

The lyrics of There's a Riot Goin' On are an interesting affair. On the one hand they show the abstruse influence of Sly's idolizing Dylan, whose work he always found inspirational. In 1986 Sly told Spin magazine writer Edward Kiersh of his plans to include Dylan on his comeback album, ultimately never completed - "I like the way he can't sing so well," he said. His desire to include Dylan on a duet proves that he considers them to be peers of the pen. Never before on a Sly and the Family Stone album were songs open to so much interpretation, and even more so, dripping with cynicism.

On the other hand you can hardly hear what he's saying for most of the album.


Big Pink reviewed in the Independent on Sunday

Steve Jelbert (who was, under a previous regime, contracted to write a book for us at Continuum) reviews John Niven's Big Pink book in the Independent on Sunday today. I'm tempted to put "gloriously absurd" on the back cover, when we reprint.


Music From Big Pink by John Niven
By Steve

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.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Judging a record by its cover

I'm all about the packaging at the moment.

Exhibit number 1:

That's the inside of a gatefold CD single by the Bristol band Santa Dog. Limited to 100 copies - and the 100 people who pre-ordered it got their names and home towns printed, as you can see. I'm sandwiched in between Colin Clark from Glasgow and Tim Zimmerman from Leipzig. A lovely place to be, I'm sure. If you want to listen to some Santa Dog, you can do so here.

Exhibit number 2:

That's a 7-inch single by Midlands band The Sequins. It's a work of beauty - a gorgeous red sleeve that comes wrapped in a muslin-like fabric with black roses crawling from right to left across it. The Sequins are like an English version of Voxtrot, perhaps a little more angular and jangular - with maybe a hint of Feargal Sharkey's young voice. Can't find any obvious downloads, but go to their Myspace here and listen to "Happy Chappie".

And finally, a band whose packaging I have yet to discover, although I've ordered their EP from Sweden. They're called Gentle Touch, and you could try listening to their song "Smedby" here. I've no idea what or who Smedby might be (sounds like a podgy Liverpool left-back from the mid-80s), but this song is majestic. It's perilously close to being a pastiche of OMD, New Order, Depeche Mode synthpop, and sounds like it should play over the closing credits of the best movie John Hughes never made. Despite (or because of) all that, it's magnificent.

New Book #1: The Stone Roses

We seem to have been lacking some actual content on here in recent weeks, so let's get back to the books themselves. Our four spring titles are now on sale at Amazon, and should be in the usual stores in the US and Canada any day now. (Those of you across the Atlantic will have to wait another month or so.)

So here's the first of four extracts over the coming days, from Alex Green's book on the Stone Roses' debut album.


After all these years, The Stone Roses remains for fans and critics alike both a high point and a sore spot. A high point in that, as John Robb writes, "They changed the whole soundscape of British pop," and a sore spot for no other reason than that, as Q put it in a recent article, "they threw it all away." Whatever camp you're in, the music of The Stone Roses is still spoken of in sweeping, grandiloquent terms crafted with fondness and affection. But where it gets unfair is when I read critics sticking it to them for not having been the leaders of Britpop, for abandoning the post that was so clearly theirs and, almost by default, meekly passing the torch to Oasis.

"They would have destroyed Britpop and you would have loved them for it," says Alan McGee, before going on to say, with his usual charm: "Britpop was shite, Britpop was fucking awful apart from Oasis, Blur and Pulp. Britpop was terrible. Britpop was Menswear and the Boo Radleys who had the misfortune of being number one with the worst song ever released called 'Wake Up Boo.' [The song did make the top 10 in Britain, but it never reached number one.] Unfortunately it will probably feed Martin Carr for the rest of his life, but it's crimes against music - the man should die ashamed for his crimes. That song is truly the worst song I've ever had anything to do with my entire life. Wake up fucking boo - wake up Martin Carr you made the worst fucking song on my record label, you cunt."*

People should leave the Stone Roses alone. They shouldn't be blamed for not being the saviors of British music for the same reason Warrant shouldn't be blamed for being the sole murderers of hard rock. I suppose in retrospect the Roses' greatest strength was knowing what they wanted, and their greatest weakness was not realizing what they had. In the four years it took to put out Second Coming the Stone Roses, legal troubles aside, had simply mastered the art of fucking around.


*I do love Alan McGee. My favourite memory of him was at Morrissey's first ever solo show, at the Wolverhampton Civic Hall, the day after the Lockerbie/Pan Am disaster. Most of us had dutifully (and, looking back, insanely) been queueing outside in the December chill for almost 24 hours. Half an hour before they finally let everybody in, McGee shows up and casually jumps over the barrier, about 100 people back from the front of the line. Charming.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Franklin Bruno's books

On the excellent Largehearted Boy today, Franklin Bruno (author of our Elvis Costello book) eloquently discusses five of his current favourite books. Thank you to Wendy for the tip.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Update on the Under-21 Writing Competition

I've had a bunch of questions about this, so let me try to clarify, using as few rules as possible.

1. You must be under 21, as of June 30th this year.
2. You can write up to 2000 words about any album, apart from the 20 albums featured in the book. (See list in a prior post.)
3. You can write these 2000 (or less) words in any way you want to - straight essay, lurid prose, verse, humour, fiction, screenplay: I don't mind.
4. Your entry does not need to refer to the 33 1/3 series in any way: it should be a stand-alone piece of writing, that we'll publish as the 21st chapter of this book.
5. You should send it to me, via email, as a Word file, by June 30th. We'll pick a winner by the end of July.

That's it!

Friday, March 17, 2006

Teenage Kicks

Sometime in the autumn, we'll be publishing a book called 33 1/3 Greatest Hits, Volume One. This will feature extracts from the first twenty books in the series (from Dusty to the Ramones), and should sell for around $15 in paperback. More details to follow...

If you're under 21 years of age, your writing could be in this book, too. All you need to do is to write up to 2000 words about your favourite album (any album at all, no matter how recent or obscure - as long as it's not one of the twenty albums included in the book!) and email it to me by June 1st. The best essay will get published in the book, and there will also be a cash prize of $250 for the winner.

So, if you know of anyone who might be interested in this, (you, students of yours, nephews, nieces, babysitters, whatever!), please do spread the word.

Michael Gray's Bob Dylan Encyclopedia: The Blog!

Work continues apace (apace being a much nicer word than frantically) on our forthcoming Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, due to hit stores (as we say) on June 15th. I'm currently up to the letter C in my proofreading duties, and so far I've cried twice, laughed dozens of times, and have generally been bombarded by so much fascinating and beautifully expressed information and knowledge that I'm genuinely excited to be devoting my Sunday to C through G. All of which is a roundabout way of leading up to this:

Michael Gray, the book's esteemed author, has started a blog of his own, at


So far, posts include a list of the Dalai Lama's Tips for Humans, an extended piece about Tony Bennett, written by Michael in 1990, and an annotated list of Michael's top ten Dylan tracks of all time. Please do go and have a look, if you have the time.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Isobel & Eugene

Last night we went to see Isobel Campbell play, at Southpaw in Brooklyn. After a charming and meta-derivative support set from The Essex Green, Isobel put on a surprisingly great show. For those of us who were used to seeing her sulk her way through old B&S concerts (and even her own Gentle Waves gigs), this was something of a revelation. She's still hardly the most chatty performer, and still turns her back on the audience a little too often, but last night she had real presence: her voice was much stronger, it was a beautifully paced set (aside from a brief lull in the middle), she was genuinely enjoying herself, and her band was excellent. Eugene Kelly's vocals and guitars were great, and the final song - a cover of his Vaselines' classic "Son of a Gun" - was wonderful.

Two things:

1. I never thought I'd see Isobel dancing while twirling a (huge) bra around her head.

2. She looks fabulous. But, as the lovely Emma pointed out, "She's got the elbows of an obese woman!" Is this something to do with years of cello-playing?

Saturday, March 11, 2006

33 x 33 1/3

For anyone coming to the series for the first time - welcome! Here's a list of what's been published so far, and what should be appearing in the coming months.

1. Dusty in Memphis, by Warren Zanes
2. Forever Changes, by Andrew Hultkrans
3. Harvest, by Sam Inglis
4. The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, by Andy Miller
5. Meat is Murder, by Joe Pernice
6. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, by John Cavanagh
7. Abba Gold, by Elisabeth Vincentelli
8. Electric Ladyland, by John Perry
9. Unknown Pleasures, by Chris Ott
10. Sign 'O' the Times, by Michaelangelo Matos
11. The Velvet Underground and Nico, by Joe Harvard
12. Let It Be, by Steve Matteo
13. Live at the Apollo, by Douglas Wolk
14. Aqualung, by Allan Moore
15. OK Computer, by Dai Griffiths
16. Let It Be, by Colin Meloy
17. Led Zeppelin IV, by Erik Davis
18. Exile on Main St., by Bill Janovitz
19. Pet Sounds, by Jim Fusilli
20. Ramones, by Nicholas Rombes
21. Armed Forces, by Franklin Bruno
22. Murmur, by J. Niimi
23. Grace, by Daphne Brooks
24. Endtroducing..., by Eliot Wilder
25. Kick Out the Jams, by Don McLeese
26. Low, by Hugo Wilcken
27. Born in the USA, by Geoffrey Himes
28. Music From Big Pink, by John Niven
29. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, by Kim Cooper
30. There's a Riot Goin' On, by Miles Marshall Lewis
31. Doolittle, by Ben Sisario
32. Paul's Boutique, by Dan LeRoy
33. The Stone Roses, by Alex Green

Those last four are currently shipping out from our warehouse, and will be in stores very shortly.

As for the forthcoming list, it looks a little like this:

Autumn 2006:

Loveless, by Mike McGonigal (no, I don't believe it either...)
The Notorious Byrd Brothers, by Ric Menck
Court and Spark, by Sean Nelson
London Calling, by David Ulin
Daydream Nation, by Matthew Stearns
In Utero, by Gillian Gaar
Bee Thousand, by Marc Woodworth
The Who Sell Out, by John Dougan
Highway 61 Revisited, by Mark Polizzotti
People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, by Shawn Taylor

Winter 2006:

Aja, by Don Breithaupt
69 Love Songs, by LD Beghtol
Use Your Illusion 1 and 2, by Eric Weisbard
Songs in the Key of Life, by Zeth Lundy

Spring 2007:

Pretty Hate Machine, by Daphne Carr
Double Nickels on the Dime, by Mike Fournier
Rid of Me, by Kate Schatz
Another Green World, by Geeta Dayal
Trout Mask Replica, by Kevin Courrier
Let's Talk About Love, by Carl Wilson

Summer/Autumn/Winter 2007:

If You're Feeling Sinister, by Scott Plagenhoef
Shoot Out the Lights, by Hayden Childs
Horses, by Phil Shaw
Pink Moon, by Amanda Petrusich
Achtung Baby, by Stephen Catanzarite
20 Jazz Funk Greats, by Drew Daniel
The Dreaming, by Ann Powers
Lucinda Williams, by Anders Smith Lindall
Marquee Moon, by Peter Blauner
Swordfishtrombones, by David Smay

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Italian Job

With the sudden rush of balmy spring here in New York, it feels positively Mediterranean outside today. And it was a pleasant suprise to get, in the mail, a handful of copies of our first Italian translations - of Steve Matteo's Beatles book, and of John Cavanagh's Pink Floyd book.

I'm rather taken by the Italian series title of "One Record, One Book" - and it sounds even better when you say it with an Italian accent.

The publishers responsible are called Sublime.

Now I'm thinking of a long-ago summer spent in Oxford, teaching Italian teenagers the delights of the English language, and introductory shoplifting techniques. At the disco every night, even the twelve-year-olds would cop off with each other. Still, very charming kids: I hope one of them, somewhere, gets the chance to read one of these books, since I'm sure they've forgotten their English by now.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Creative Writing

If you (or someone you know and love) have ever thought about applying for a creative writing course, may I take a moment to recommend a particularly helpful little book we've just published? It's called, with the kind of imagination that so many writers lack these days, The Creative Writing MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Graduate Students.

Sounds dull, doesn't it? Remarkably, it's not. And this is due to the book's author, Tom Kealey - who has managed the rare feat of writing a practical, useful handbook that's actually funny, charming, and provocative at the same time. Tom has also created a wonderful blog to accompany the book, which you can find here. The book is written largely in a question-and-answer format, and the whole thing is refreshingly honest.

Working in book publishing can be intermittently entertaining. It's truly rewarding, though, on those occasions when you can help an author to bring a book to the world that will be of genuine use to those who read it. This is one of those books.

Here's an extract from the first page:

Why apply to a creative writing program?

This is an important question, and one to which you may already know the answer. I'd like to offer my own answer, though, and I hope you'll keep it in mind throughout your application experience.

People often apply to programs for a variety of reasons: to complete a manuscript, to qualify themselves to teach on the college level, to live and work within a community of writers, and/or to escape back into academia from the "real world." But here's the real reason:

You're drawing a line in the sand, and you're saying, I'm going to be a writer for the next few years, because I've always wanted to do that, and I'm going to see what I can make of myself. Any reason above and beyond that may actually be a good reason, but that promise to yourself - that you're going to follow your muse and (at my risk of being melodramatic) your dream - is the key to making your experience work for you. If you don't have that, then there are a lot of other options in life, and perhaps you should consider them instead. By choosing the graduate program route, you are staking a claim to being a writer, and you're letting everyone around you know it. Lots of people talk about being a writer; you're doing something about it.

And of course on a more practical level you'll be developing your skills as a writer, you'll be studying your craft closely, and you'll be interacting with other students, writing teachers, and lots of good books in order to find your writing voice.

You are buying yourself time. And time is what a writer needs.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

NMH/Pixies Double-header in Pasadena

Those of you fortunate enough to live in Pasadena will have the chance, on the afternoon of Saturday March 25th, to see Kim Cooper read from her Neutral Milk Hotel book, and Ben Sisario read from his brand-new, about to be released, Pixies book.

Venue: The excellent Vroman's Bookshop
Time: 4pm, Sat March 25th

Should be a great event!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Pink, Pink Sunshine

Very exciting news: the following review of John Niven's Music From Big Pink novella will appear in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday. The review is by Gary Kamiya, Executive Editor at salon.com.


"The Weight"

This novella set in the 60s imagines life with the Band.

Music From Big Pink: A Novella
By John Niven
160pp. Continuum. Paper, $9.95

By Gary Kamiya

It was only a matter of time before a clever publisher realized that there is an audience for whom Exile on Main Street or Electric Ladyland are as significant and worthy of study as The Catcher in the Rye or Middlemarch. And so we have Continuum's "33 1/3" books, a series of little paperbacks each dedicated to a seminal rock album, from James Brown's Live at the Apollo to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. The series, which now comprises 29 titles with more in the works, is freewheeling and eclectic, ranging from minute rock-geek analysis to idiosyncratic personal celebration. John Niven's Music From Big Pink, based on the classic 1968 LP by the Band, takes things a step further: it's fiction.

How do you write a novel about an album? A literal approach, focusing on the recording of the album itself or the stories of band members, faces the too-many-facts problem: what can a novelist add to the enormous amount that has already been written about, say, Bob Dylan's relationship to the Band? There are also taste and legal restraints, which cannot be ignored even in the age of A Million Little Pieces. Finally, if the book isn't just going to be a rehash of the group's bio, where's the story going to come from? The fact that Levon Helm tweaked the lug nuts on him tom-toms to give them a melodic sound is not exactly the stuff of Dickens.

Wisely, Niven chooses to write a novel first and foremost, one that happens to be set in the milieu of 1968 Woodstock, where the Band's members created their first album in the basement of the pink house of the title. And he pulls it off. 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.

Niven, a Scot, takes a kind of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead approach to his subject, letting us see big events through the eyes of an extra. His protagonist, Greg Keltner, is a small-time drug dealer, college dropout and musician manque who is a hanger-out in the Band's circle. Greg listens to the early recordings of "Big Pink", parties with the band members and groans when a girl he's fallen for ends up in their clutches. Niven has obviously researched his subject deeply, and the settings, people and events seem to be more or less accurately depicted. But that isn't really the point. Even the Band's members do not play a particularly central role, with the exception of Richard Manuel, the group's piano player and singer who hanged himself in 1986. A memorable scene late in the book in which Greg and Manuel, now both severely battered by life, talk about why Manuel never wrote any more songs evokes not just the pathos of their personal stories but something deeper and darker. "It's hard," Manuel sadly replies.

Band fans searching for fictionalized gossip about their musical heroes, or even much about the music itself, may be disappointed by Music From Big Pink. Niven writes well about this extraordinary album, but his story takes him elsewhere. What Music From Big Pink is really about is loss. As the book opens, in a flash-forward scene set in 1986, Greg, who has become an overweight drug addict, shoots up after learning of Manuel's death. As he floats off, he remembers "a time when we were all living, not just waiting. Life is all just waiting after a while." This well-written first novel captures not just some of the dreams of that bygone era, but the way those dreams died.


Sunday, March 05, 2006

B&S in NYC

Friday evening was a bittersweet one for team Continuum. Several of us went to the ceremony for the National Book Critics Circle Awards, hoping for our man Jonathan Coe to pick up the prize for Biography of the Year. No such luck. The winning biography was this, about Robert Oppenheimer. The two authors had apparently been working on it for 25 years, so fair enough...We'll win something next year.

We did sit very near to Joan Didion, which was a thrill. (She didn't win, either.)

Then four of us cabbed it up to Times Square for the Belle and Sebastian show at the Nokia Theatre.

Hadn't been to the Nokia before, but damn - it's like walking into an upscale hotel! A very well put-together venue. The New Pornographers were perfectly decent, while Belle & Sebastian were spectacularly good. It almost beggars belief how much they've changed since the early shows - Stuart and Stevie are quite the double act these days, and Sarah very quietly holds the whole thing together, without anybody really noticing. The setlist consisted almost entirely of very old songs and very new songs, and threw up some astonishing combinations: an utterly gorgeous "The Boy Done Wrong Again" followed by a dumb, delirious "The Blues Are Still Blue", for example. I miss the ramshackle bumbling mumbling charm of yesteryear, but B&S in 2006 are simply much, much better.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Mojo on Big Pink

The new issue of Mojo has a 5-star review of John Niven's Music From Big Pink:

They're a neat idea, Continuum's mini-music monographs: writers expounding various half-baked theories on their all-time fave albums. However, there's only so much studio apocrypha and weepy coming-of-age reminiscences you can take before screaming "No more!" Thankfully, John Niven has a way around this. With his "factional novella" on The Band's MFBP, the 37-year-old author recasts himself as wannabe Canadian musician Greg Keltner, aged 23 in 1968, dealing weed to those weird-beard musicians up in the big pink house in Saugerties, New York. Like the album itself, Niven's story occupies that 60s faultline where hedonism and optimism turn to failure and melancholy, multi-coloured psychedelia mixing with muddy heroin brown. As much as about time and place as sound, Niven's beautifully tragic mini-novel crawls inside the lonesome core of this one-off album, penning a heartbroken postcard from a past he never knew.

I'm a wannabe Canadian, too.

There's also a fetching ad for the series in this issue, sharing a page with an ad for Hefner's forthcoming "Best Of" album - highly recommended!