Journey through the Past

Neil Young
Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream
(Blue Rider/Penguin)

If you want a (mostly) chronologically structured and exhaustively detailed biography of Neil Young, you want Jimmy McDonough's Shakey, a nearly 800-page tome published in 2002. If you want the full flavor of Young's mind and obsessions and thought patterns, full of quirky insights -- and what fan doesn't? – you will be unable to resist Waging Heavy Peace. Though either flawed or willfully eccentric, depending on one's perspective, it's mostly a compelling read.

I have a sneaking suspicion that part of the reason this book is non-chronologically structured and doesn't cover all of Young's career is that he read Dylan's Chronicles, Volume One, which does the same thing. But Chronicles is far more tautly structured and thorough in what it does cover. Young just rambles and free-associates.

Perhaps that's not as influenced by Dylan as by the haphazard birth of this memoir, written during downtime after Young broke a toe, and by the looks of it, written off the top of his head. And he's defiant about his approach, writing at one point, "I am not interested in form for form's sake. So if you are having trouble reading this, give it to someone else." There are 68 chapters, but many are short -- one is just half a page. There is no index. You will have to let Young guide you through his life; he refuses to show you how to dip into what you want to read about.

The most annoying aspect of the book is that Young regularly intersperses chapters about his high-fidelity digital stream/download startup, which started life as PureTone and then, that name already taken by another company, became the less intuitive Pono -- "Hawaiian for 'righteous and good," he writes. There are also multiple chapters about his other obsession, the Lincvolt, the electric/ethanol hybrid car he developed with a team of technicians. Often these obsessions are combined; he has a Pono receiver in the car, and one of the things he's doing to promote it is going for rides with various celebrity musicians and playing it for them. These commercials for his ventures are naturally irksome -- I wish he'd devoted a longer chapter to each, or both together, and spared us the redundancy. Having reached the end of the book and realized how much territory he hasn't covered, I feel they're taking up space that would have been better allotted to swathes of his career left unmentioned or covered cursorily. But then, without the promotion of those projects to motivate him, this book might never have been written.

His priorities may seem strange. He spends more time on some of his tour buses than he does on discussing some albums, and most of his cars get more coverage than most of his albums. His '70s albums get the most attention of his catalog, and deservedly so, but there's no explanation of why he's refused to issue a CD of his superb 1973 live album Time Fades Away, which had all (then) new songs, including some of his best. He defends his movie Journey through the Past without saying why he's never issued a CD of its soundtrack, which includes a great 15-minute studio rehearsal of/jam on "Words." Things get very spotty after the '70s. Only half of his '80s albums are even mentioned, and only the first three Geffen albums are mentioned more than peripherally. From 1993 through 2002, only two albums are mentioned.

There are things in here that will excite fans. There is a lot about his early life, plenty about his first Canadian band, the Squires, and some about the Mynah Birds, his band with Rick James. He announces that he's working on a compilation of unreleased tracks entitled Crazy Horse: The Early Daze, which will cover the period before original guitarist Danny Whitten overdosed. He as much as admits that he deliberately spited David Geffen (after Trans, "He told me to make a rock and roll record. So perhaps vindictively, I gave them a record called Everybody's Rockin' that was traditional old rock and roll, literally what he had asked me to do.") There are less momentous matters that nonetheless will warm the hearts of music geeks, such as several paragraphs devoted to the echo chamber at Gold Star Studios. And, oh yeah, he's given up drugs and alcohol.

He also covers heart-wrenching topics. He talks about his father, Scott, having Alzheimer's, and how though Neil wrote "Old Man" about the foreman on his Broken Arrow Ranch, "My dad thought it was written for him, and I never told him it wasn't because songs are for whoever receives them." His devotion to giving his quadriplegic son, Ben, as rich a life as possible, is deeply touching. Young also returns, over and over, to his friends/collaborators who have died, making one suspect he feels his own mortality intensely at this point (he devotes a whole chapter to his 2005 brain surgery).

I've been fairly critical of this book, yet as a Neil Young fan of long standing, I enjoyed most of it, and was sufficiently fascinated that I got through most of it in one day. I recommend it to fellow fans. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.