Neil Young: Waging Heavy Peace

Neil Young
Blue Rider Press ISBN: 978039915946
* * ½  

Confession: I’ll listen to or read anything with which Neil Young is associated. This is an important admission because how much you will enjoy his recent autobiography (newly available as an e-book) probably depends upon how much you already know, as this one is definitely for Young fans.

Neil Young is a heck of a songwriter, but he’s no literary stylist. This is billed as an autobiography, but it’s really a stream of consciousness memoir loaded with asides. Young is refreshingly earnest and guileless, but he’s all over the place in how he presents his story. There is no single narrative arc and Young seems to have typed his thoughts as they occurred. There is very little attempt to group likeminded themes or anchor the story in any way. Unless you have followed his life and career, you will find the book’s chronology confusing–sequencing just isn’t something that concerns Young. For example, snippets of his Ontario boyhood come later in the book and are interspersed with thoughts about recent events, friendships, concert memories, shout-out thank yous, and commentary on his hobbies.

We learn that Neil Young really likes cars, toy trains, guitars, playing with Crazy Horse, and clean sound. It would be no stretch to say he’s obsessed with these things to the point of needless repetition. We read, for example, numerous screeds on the horrid sound quality of MP3 and CD files, and of his vision for analog-based high-quality recordings. It’s been on his mind for so long that his original entrepreneurial enterprise, PureTone, changed its name to Pono because of trademark disputes–something we only learn after the fifth or sixth explanation of why he cares so much about sound. We get similar disjointed discussions of the LincVolt, Young’s conversion of a 1959 Lincoln Continental, which he hopes will become a usable large electric car. These are laudable projects, but they belong in separate chapters so Young can stop rupturing the narrative with sermons.

Of course, these projects are laudable, which is why we read about them, and Young is a man of both talent and integrity, which is why we care. Young makes no attempt at self-aggrandizement, nor does he ask us to overlook his failings. He is quite willing to admit that he was responsible for the breakup of past relationships–most famously with actress Carrie Snodgrass–that he used to drink to excess, that he has disappointed friends, and that he smoked pot regularly until ordered not to by his doctor. (Young suffers from epilepsy, about which he is also candid.)

Young fans will find interesting reflections on his parents–his father, Scott Young, was a respected journalist and sportswriter–of his early days of playing rock, doo-wop, and R & B covers, of being inspired by more mature bands, and of hanging out with everyone from Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan to Devo, Bruce Springsteen, and Pearl Jam. But this is not one of those rock biographies in which the protagonist disses other musicians or past band members–Young has little but praise for everyone with whom he has played and tells very few tales out of school. He considers himself lucky for possessing Broken Arrow Ranch in California, for his marriage to Pegi, and for longtime friends (including Pancho Sampedro, Billy Talbot, Steve Stills, and Nils Lofgren). Sometimes we wish Young was more candid; fans know, for instance, that he has had famed spats with his friends—especially Stills.

Young is now 68, and the book has the wistful feel of an aging man musing upon  the joys and losses in his personal journey. (There are loving passages to departed friends such as Danny Whitten, Ben Keith, Nicolette Larson, and Kurt Cobain.) Young adores being a father, even though both of his sons suffer from cerebral palsy and younger son, Ben, is quadriplegic, and his daughter, Amber Jean, inherited his epilepsy. When he tells us that he learned from Ben how many ways there are to communicate, we believe him.

This is not great literature. The books runs over 500 pages and a good editor could have pared it by 25%. (A developmental editor would have restructured it and made Young connect a lot of the stray dots.) But what comes through clearly is that Young considers his life the eponymous hippie dream. Who can begrudge a man who chased the Muse and found inner peace?

Rob Weir

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