In the annals of rock, Neil Young is the bridge spanning the mystic poetry of Bob Dylan and the existential storytelling of Bruce Springsteen. In a career spanning six decades, Young has seesawed between Dylan-esque tales of enigmatic intent and Boss-like slices of modern life.
Less consistent than Dylan or Springsteen, Young often has been great, but occasionally awful. (Check out, if you dare, his 1986 album Landing on Water). But, good or bad, with Neil Young you always get the authenticity that distinguishes rock’s greatest performers.
In his new memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, Young veers wildly from hunks of stirring storytelling to painful bouts of verbal diarrhea. The book has a stream-of-consciousness style in which Young bounces from one subject to another and back again without concern for structure, repetition or tying up loose ends.
“I am not interested in form for form’s sake,” he admits partway into the book’s 500 pages. “So if you are having trouble reading this, give it to someone else.”
It’s no trouble, Shakey. In fact, it’s a pleasant journey. The best part is it’s obvious every word in the book was written by Young, not some high-sheen ghostwriter. You come away with a pretty good idea of what’s flitting through the author’s brain from day to day.
There are two major themes to Waging Heavy Peace. The first is Young’s diversity of passions. He loves cars, musical gear, filmmaking, model trains, his Northern California ranch and his beach house in Hawaii. You learn a lot about his investments in electric car technology and improving the sound quality of digital music. You learn more than you probably want to know about the latter two subjects, but Young is unrepentant in using his memoir as a bully pulpit for causes he believes in.
The other major theme is loss. Many of Young’s oldest and closest friends have died: Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, producer David Briggs, filmmaker Larry Johnson, musicians Bruce Palmer, Ben Keith and Jack Nitzsche, among others. Although Young has had a reputation for being difficult to work with, it’s clear he’s earned many loyal friends through the years.
He’s at his best when he buckles down and fulfills the fundamental mission of a memoir: recounting the most interesting episodes of your life. There are funny stories: While recording with Crosby, Stills and Nash, he lived in a motel room with a couple of bush babies that turned out to be nasty little pets.
“They were dirty, and I had to clean up after them every time I came home from a session,” he writes. “I wore a leather glove because when I caught them to put them in their cage they would bite me. Imagine coming home from recording ‘Helpless’ at three o’clock in the morning and clean up after bush babies in the bathroom. Is that the life of a star or what?”
There are amazing revelations: While bedridden and “semi-delirious” with the flu, he wrote three of his greatest songs in one afternoon: “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.”
There are startling anecdotes: While hanging out with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, Young met a songwriter named Charlie. “His songs were off-the-cuff things he made up as he went along, and they were never the same twice in a row. … He was quite good.” Young recommended that his record label, Reprise, take a look at this talented young man. “Shortly afterward, the Sharon Tate-LaBianca murders happened, and Charlie Manson’s name was suddenly known around the world.”
Young’s ramshackle book does not strive to match the literary ambitions of recent memoirs by rock contemporaries such as Dylan and Patti Smith. But while Young may lack the discipline or desire to produce such tightly woven prose, he’s capable of flourishes of very good and fluid writing. Describing a walk in the redwood forest on his ranch or recalling the glory days of Buffalo Springfield, he exhibits a natural ability to tell stories and describe emotions. Relishing the rare beauty of the echo in a Kansas City concert venue, he writes: “The sound was like I was in another world. Every note just hung there in space. I drew them out and felt them all lingering and fading. … That echo was a gift from the gods.”
Waging Heavy Peace echoes the radical range of Neil Young’s discography: from transcendent grooves to forgettable schlock. It’s a mess — and yet impossible not to like.
WAGING HEAVY PEACE: A HIPPIE DREAM Neil Young, Blue Rider Press, 512 pages