WAGING HEAVY PEACE by Neil Young (Penguin Books, 2012)
Be honest, you didn’t really expect this to be a straightforward autobiography, did you?
Neil Young has always done things his own way and having just turned 68, you’d hardly expect him to change a habit of a lifetime now.
I don’t think you could call him truly avant-garde but his singular quality definitely sets him apart from his peers. His style is that of a loner and a hard task master, but this is what makes him such a unique artist.
He writes as he sings, with a disarming simplicity and openness. He continually admits his own limitations and recognises his idiosyncratic approach: “There is a lot to cover and I have never done this before. Also, I am not interested in form for form’s sake”.
By rights, there should be a footnote to say that no editor has interfered with any aspect of this book. The publishers appear to have accepted the finished work on trust, warts and all. “Today, my past is a huge thing”, Young states with a vagueness you quickly become accustomed to. Some chapters have titles while, for no obvious reason, others don’t and you will look in vain for any coherent narrative thread.
He is aware that such flawed content is, paradoxically, part of the book’s strength since it stems from a desire to set down thoughts and memories as spontaneously as he can. Despite its failings, it’s hard to judge it too harshly when he writes things like: “Do not doubt me in my sincerity, for it is that which has brought us to each other now”.
Young’s determination to tell his own story is why he decided against employing a ghost writer. Had he done so, we would probably have gotten a more widely accessible and logical account of his life and works but I doubt if we would have learnt so much about what makes the man tick.
What you get is not merely a nostalgic journey through the past but an attempt to define his current state of mind and body. At the same time, it is evident that one of his main aims is to seek a sense of closure on former musical and romantic partners, both living and dead.
There’s plenty of interesting stuff about Stephen Stills (“a genius”), Buffalo Springfield and how blessed he feels to have worked with a long list of top rate musicians, too many of whom are no longer around. His deep love for his third wife Pegi and dedication to his two disabled sons are among the most moving and revealing passages.
Less interesting (at least to me) are the numerous details of the vintage cars he collects and a sophisticated train set he has lovingly assembled; “I have a thing for transportation”, he concedes apologetically.
There is a lot of repetition to put up with, particularly his recurring grumbles about the low quality of MP3s and streamed music. He’s not a technophobe (Steve Jobs is one his heroes) but, while he acknowledges that online resources are great for making new discoveries, he believes that discerning listeners deserve better.
This subject is close to his heart (and pocket!) as he is currently in the process of getting backing for Pono (originally called Pure Tone), a music device that he claims will bring analogue warmth to digital sound. Due to be launched in 2014, he makes full use his autobiography to publicise its merits.
What comes through most of all is how full of contradictions Neil Young is. One the one hand, he fondly recalls cruising in bars with a group of fellow musicians and producers, meeting girls, smoking weed and drinking heavily. The flip side of this is an admission that he’s awkward around women and anything but a party animal. Giving up drugs and drink to preserve his declining health is one of the struggles he documents in this book.
As both a hippie folk singer and a cosmic rocker, these contrasts extend to his music as is amply demonstrated when a warm appreciation for the bold radicalism of Sonic Youth is immediately followed by glowing praise for the more mainstream talents of Linda Ronstadt.
Young’s own best sellers have been his collections of melodic acoustic ballads on albums like Harvest and Harvest Moon but he’s consciously avoided sticking with any tried or tested formulas. His unreserved enthusiasm is for the numerous, and more eclectic, albums he has made with Crazy Horse which he describes as “my window to the cosmic world”.
It occurs to me that his preferred way of recording is mirrored in the way he has approached the writing of this book. Young favours getting his songs down on tape as soon after they are composed as is humanly possible. In the studio, he maintains that the first or second takes are the ones that invariably work the best as they contain the life force of the songs. He quotes long-term collaborator David Briggs who was fond of saying “be great or be gone”.
Just as his records contain minimal overdubs, the impression you get is that he wrote sections of this book by setting down what was uppermost in his mind without being overly concerned to make too many revisions afterwards.
As such, the book is like a written equivalent of an unwieldy archive of live shows. There’s plenty of ragged glory to be discovered provided you are prepared to tolerate a liberal smattering of self-indulgent improvisation.