December 27, 2012


A mini-odyssey through rock autobiographies

by Neil Young
497 pages, Viking/Penguin

Review by Pat Black

Some folk don’t get Neil Young. Maybe it’s a blind spot – a recognised medical condition. Or it could be the voice.  

I have my own blind spot about Springsteen. No matter how many compilations are burned for me, I just can’t get into him. I like the guy, agree with his politics, admire his longevity, but… It’s not happening. It might be the brass on Born to Run; it sets my teeth on edge.

Perhaps it’s something that’ll come with age. I was 27 before I discovered Neil Young, and you could say I’ve never looked back since.

Waging Heavy Peace is Neil Young’s autobiography. He’s notoriously picky and controlling about his work, in some cases taking 40 years to release albums from his archives, and in some cases simply never releasing them. He got a bit awkward about Jimmy McDonagh’s titanic biography from 10 years ago, Shakey, famously writing his own incerpts in the text and keeping the manuscript under lock and key for years due to litigation. God knows how much money and effort this wasted. To this day I’ve no idea what Young didn’t like about that book, or what purpose his opposition served – but he’s an unusual guy, to say the least.

Like much of Young’s oeuvre, Waging Heavy Peace doesn’t travel in straight lines. Indeed, the chief pleasure of this book is that it follows the dips and bumps in the road in much the same way his music does. It meanders on occasion, thoroughly enjoys digressions and sidesteps, and whole chapters can zip by without music even being mentioned. If you’re looking for an orderly chronological record of events taking Neil Young from his early days in Canada through to his position as one of the world’s most revered musicians, then you really must look elsewhere.

For example, Young might start talking about LincVolt, one of his most cherished engineering projects; a car which can run on biofuel. A lover of strange, even baroque American automobiles, he’ll then talk about cars he’s owned in life, and the weird, Frankensteinian adapted tour buses. From there he’ll finally mention how his disabled son loves to ride in these buses. Many times, he uses discourse over physical objects as a gateway to talking about his life and the key events in it.

Another project Young has on the go is PureTone, a digital music platform that seeks to reproduce the depth and audio quality of analogue tech. This seems more like a crusade than a commercial adventure. His zeal in protecting the depth and nuance of his recordings is admirable, and seems to have caught the attention of many of his contemporaries. He acknowledges that there’s a huge, fruity obstacle in his way, though.

Young says a friend asked him: “Are you waging war on Apple?” and Young replies, “No – I’m waging heavy peace.” Neat line, an open goal of a book title, and it illustrates something I’ve always loved about the guy. He sees a dodgy photograph of himself walking past a dwarf, or an awful drawing of a winged naked woman, and he’ll think: “That’s it – that’s the album cover.” Snap decisions are revelled in – no matter if there’s a human cost somewhere down the line. That could be offended eyeballs or eardrums, or it could be people out of work thanks to cancelled tours. Snap decisions are better than dishonest ones, Young reasons.

He’s an instinctive man, but instinctive doesn’t quite seem the right word. Impulsive? Perhaps, but there’s a backbeat to what he does, too – it isn’t just chaos. A notorious stoner and a child of the sixties, Young claims to have only just given up getting bent in the service of his muse – no booze, no weed. His pronouncements get lovably spacey, particularly when he talks about moving with the Great Sprit. He’s like the sixties acid casualty uncle you never had (although Young says he was never into acid). You might think this is purest flower power nonsense, but Young is a man in tune with certain things, hidden rhythms.

Attuned – that might be the best word to use.

Similarly, Young goes into detail on his favourite things in life, including his passion for model railroads. Something he shares with Rod Stewart, as regular readers of this site may recall. He can go into page after page of recollections of this hobby, how it’s built up over the years. You have been warned.

There are reminiscences about life on the road if you want them, as well as recollections of Young’s late, great collaborators, including producer David Briggs and Crazy Horse sideman Danny Whitten. He’s both candid and complimentary about Crosby, Stills and Nash, takes a look at how his relationship with Carrie Snodgress didn’t work out (the word “womanising” is mentioned but it’s like pulling teeth), and reveals some of his appalling health struggles. Young contracted polio as a child and also suffered from epilepsy, as well as developing crippling problems with his back (it’s hard to believe that when you see him performing the Massey Hall concerts, he was wearing a brace). Later in life, he had surgery on an aneurysm that might have killed him as quickly and effectively as a bullet. The problems his children faced are also examined – Zeke and Ben’s cerebral palsy, Amber Jean’s epilepsy.

What you sense is that Neil Young is a guy who doesn’t give up, or turn back. What impressed me was not so much the way he overcame what fate dealt him in physical terms, but the way he dealt with repeated knocks and setbacks in his musical career up until he formed the Buffalo Springfield with Stephen Stills. He had so many disappointments in those times, so many tragedies and instances of poor luck. Losing hope can be the worst thing of all. A lot of people might have given up. A lot of people would have just gone home. But he stuck to it and got there.

I sense that this book didn’t change much from first draft to last. There’s a little bit of feedback here and there, and it can come across as a freewheeling and sometimes ramshackle piece of work, like some of his unending guitar solos and jams with Crazy Horse. If, like me, you know of few aural pleasures to match pouring a wee glass of something and sticking on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere or Tonight’s The Night or Live at Massey Hall, then you’ll love that style translating to the page. If you’re not a fan, then it’s best to move on. Neil Young’s never been for the casual listener, and his book shares the same difficult, but rewarding DNA as his records.

Young admits he loved writing his book. He is from good writing stock, with his father Scott having been a noted journalist and author in Canada. He says he can see himself forging a new career with a pen rather than a guitar pick, and spitballs ideas for his next books.

I do hope he makes good on these proposals. But not before I finally get to see him with Crazy Horse in concert next summer.

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