It's better to burn out than to fade away. – Neil Young
One doesn't have to delve very deeply into Neil Young's new book Waging Heavy Peace in order to realize a few things: his love of model trains and classic cars, his commitment to projects involving alternative fuels and enhanced sound quality of commercially available recordings, and his abiding love and loyalty to family and friends. These things permeate the entire book. Along the way, Young recounts events and personalities that make up his remarkable life and career.
Young seems to be part of a trend when it comes to aging rock stars writing memoirs. Perhaps it all started with Bob Dylan's self penned Chronicles in 2004 that opened up the floodgates. If the reclusive and enigmatic Dylan could do it, then why not everybody else? Just recently, there have been autobiographies by Greg Allman, Carole King, Keith Richards, Randy Bachman, and Pete Townshend just to name a few. It seems to be a way for these iconic rock music figures to tell their stories on their own terms, settle some scores, make amends, and come to terms with their respective legacies. Call it closure…call it therapeutic. Mr. Young sees writing as "...very convenient, has a low expense, and is a great way to pass the time. I highly recommend it to any old rocker who is out of cash and doesn't know what to do next".
Given his self admitted rep for being difficult, Young is rather easy going in his recounting of memories and reconciling relationships. If there was turmoil among friends, band mates, and/or former lovers, he tends to lay the blame at his own doorstep. Like Dylan, the past, present, and future are intertwined. Time is something to step into or step back from and reflect. To some it might seem the book was written on the fly. Maybe it could have used some crisper editing, but in the end it's just Neil being Neil. Those of us afflicted with adult ADHD can relate. For those wanting a more focused and traditional bio, they should read Shakey (a name Young uses for film projects), a 2002 biography by Jimmy McDonough. But be advised, although Young contributed more than 50 hours of interviews for that book, he alludes to disappointment with the finished result "…just don't hire some sweaty hack who asks you questions for years and twists them into his own vision of what is right or wrong".
Don't spook Neil and his muse or tell them where to go. Just come along for a ride in Young's hybrid fuel 1958 Lincoln Continental (Lincvolt) and listen to music on his PureTone sound system. PureTone is a project near and dear to his heart. Because an MP3 contains only about five percent of the information found in a PureTone master file, Young has taken it upon himself to change not only how we hear music, but how we feel it. And if you haven't noticed, vinyl records are making a comeback due in part to their superior sound quality compared to digital recordings.
In between the many side trips and digressions, Young does take us through his youth in the wilds of Canada to the wilds of the late 60's Los Angeles. It was in LA that he teamed up with Stephen Stills and formed Buffalo Springfield. Living in both Laurel and Topanga Canyons fueled his creativity along with some herbal concoctions. Perhaps more a legend than a band, Springfield soon broke up with Young rejoining Stills to form Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. From there he went on to that great solo career and performing occasionally with his band of choice - Crazy Horse.
For those wanting to get a glimpse of Neil's songwriting process, little is on display in the book. For him, songwriting is a place where everything is magical and mystical where great things often happen. And while he doesn't necessarily invite us in to see the process, he often reveals the stories behind some of his greatest songs – Old Man (a song written about the caretaker of his ranch. Neil's father, the Canadian sportswriter Scott Young thought the song was about him. Neill never told his father otherwise.), Like a Hurricane, Sugar Mountain, Cinnamon Girl (A tow truck driver once asked him who the cinnamon girl was. Young showed him.), and Hey, Hey, My, My (The song contains perhaps the most riveting line in rock music – It's better to burn out than to fade away.)
The most moving passages concern his wife and children. Young and his wife Pegi have been married almost forty years. That's no easy feat considering the trials, tribulations, and temptations abundant in the rock and roll circus. Add the physical disabilities of two sons – Zeke and Ben, well it's is nothing short of amazing. She has been his anchor and chief advisor. She has been largely responsible for his longevity and productivity. As Neil would say, "Thanks, Pegi"!
He dedicates the book to Ben, who has been disabled since birth and now a quadriplegic being fed via tubes. "I remember some of the dreams I've had where Ben Young is walking and talking, dreams that seem so real and vivid. The things he says are so natural, like he has always talked, and he exchanges a knowing glance with me as his mother makes an observation concerning the feelings she has had her whole life". And that's not Neil Young rock star writing that, nope it's Neil Young concerned and loving dad. Any parent regardless of musical taste can relate, especially those with children challenged with physical and mental disabilities.
Young hints at another book. He acknowledges he still has a lot to say and one book can't contain it all. Long may you run Mr. Young, long may you run.