Waging Heavy Peace
A Hippie Dream
By Neil Young
Blue Ride Press. 502 pp. $30.
Reviewed by Dan DeLuca
Are we in the Golden Age of the rock-and-roll memoir? Maybe. We're at least in the midst of an ongoing wave of 1960s and 1970s heavy hitters in their senescence who are seizing the opportunity to sell books - or e-books - the way they used to sell records.
It started with Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Vol. 1 in 2004.
It carried on with Patti Smith's National Book Award-winning Just Kids in 2010, and Keith Richards' best-selling Life later that year.
Now it's time for Young. (And soon, Pete Townshend's Who I Am, which is due early next month.) Like Dylan's Chronicles, Young's Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream (not one of the more elegant titles from the auteur behind "Rust Never Sleeps" and "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World") is a collection of episodes that travels back and forth over time as it surveys a sui generis career of 40-plus years.
Young, however, has proved time and time again during a career in which he was once sued by his record company for making music "uncharacteristic of Neil Young" that he is his own man. His guiding principle has always been, as he put it in a recent New York Times Magazine interview, "As long as you don't tell me what to do, there will be no problem."
So, Waging Heavy Peace is its own kind of book. Like an epic jam with Crazy Horse, it's loose and baggy and always in the moment. Early on, as he would with a recurring guitar riff in, say, "Cortez the Killer," Young will state a theme - such as his obsession with inventing a fuel-efficient luxury car, or the loss of close friends such as producer David Briggs, cinematographer Larry Johnson, and musician Ben Keith - and return to it repeatedly.
Like almost everything done by Young, who has a double album called Psychedelic Pill with Crazy Horse coming in November, his memoir might benefit from a crisp, clean edit. But if it got one, it wouldn't feel so authentically Neil.
From recording with Rick James for Motown in the mid-'60s to receiving a handpicked selection of gospel songs from Bob Dylan after his surgery for a brain aneurysm in 2005, Young rubs elbows with all sorts of musical glitterati.
The latter episode, one of several Young health scares, including a childhood bout with polio while growing up in Omemee, Ontario, inspires some of Young's best writing.
There's a breathless account of a postoperative complication that left him bleeding profusely in a New York hotel lobby, close to death. He tosses off his most luminous prose as he looks out his hospital window at the Queensboro Bridge: "Headlights were crossing the bridge in the fog like diamond water drops dripping from a hanging leaf, continually forming and falling, commuters heading to work."
Young started working on Waging Heavy Peace last year while seven months clean and sober. (While writing the book, he says, he was suffering from musical writer's block, a situation that has, hopefully, been rectified.) He quit drinking and smoking marijuana on doctor's orders, while fearing he would come to suffer from dementia like his father, Scott Young, a Canadian newspaperman and author. Among the sweetest scenes are those that find him as a boy sleeping in his backyard near his pet chickens, and being roused by his father so he can head out on his morning paper route.
The 65-year-old Young has had his fun. He snorts cocaine and writes "Like a Hurricane" in the backseat of one of his many vintage cars. He gets busted for marijuana while his buddy Stephen Stills escapes out the window of a Los Angeles house in an interlude that begins: "I was in a bedroom by myself, not being very social at the time because I probably had smoked too much weed and was paranoid." And one of Waging's most mind-blowing revelations is that he wrote "Cinnamon Girl," "Cowgirl in the Sand," and "Down by the River" all in one day in 1969, while sick - and delirious - with the flu.
Young pours his praises on many, from Stills (a "genius") to the Pistol Annies, the femme honky-tonk trio he takes great pleasure in listening to while riding around in his El Dorado with his dog.
He hates a lot of things - the iPod shuffle function, the compromised sound of MP3 files. But he rarely has anything bad to say about anybody, although he still sounds peeved at Linda Ronstadt for warning Nicolette Larson not to date him because he wasn't "living in the real world."
He doesn't back away from his semi-support of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, even after being pilloried for it. And he goes soft on Lynyrd Skynyrd, who told him off in "Sweet Home Alabama," apparently justifiably, according to the older, mellower Young.
Waging Heavy Peace is not principally a chronicle of debauchery, nor a cautionary story. It's a shaggy-dog tale told with childlike wonder by a protean creator learning a new craft as he goes. At times, Young uses more exclamation points than a texting teenager, and he'll inform you that his word count is up to 90,000, or that he has only had to rewrite one paragraph so far.
He can also be funny, explaining that the knobs on his amps go all the way to 12, so you know what Spinal Tap can do.
A chapter that seems to be about shopping at a Costco in Hawaii doesn't justify its existence until the songwriter wanders into a store and encounters a box of used Neil Young CDs. "There were about thirty or forty different albums in the box. I felt suddenly very sad. All of these people had given up their CDs! . . . I had spent so long making each one, pouring myself into it, making it sound great. Now they were all in this little box, shadows of their former selves."
Young never talks about being haunted by the black dog of depression. But his life, as he lays it out in Waging Heavy Peace, is about constantly seeking new adventures and challenges as he fights to keep that sinking feeling at bay, while surrounding himself with supportive helpmates, including his wife, Pegi, daughter Amber and sons Zeke, who was born with cerebral palsy, and Ben, a paraplegic.
"Do not doubt me in my sincerity," Young writes. "For it is that that has brought us together now."
Young's songs have always drawn their power from his impassioned delivery - he means it, man! - and the strength of Waging Heavy Peace lies in its openness and honesty. When you put Young's book down, you feel you know him.
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan.
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