[29 November 2012]
Let’s get the bad out of the way first: Neil Young is not much of a prose stylist. In these pages you will not find any of the spasmodic twists and turns of his guitar solos. In fact, it’s only within that last 100 pages or so that his authorial voice ceases to sound plain, almost disconnected. How can such as an apparently laconic icon pen a (give or take) 500-page book? But if you come armed with a few mental semicolons and let those authorial ticks go as quickly as you can, then Waging Heavy Peace is pretty much everything you’d hoped it would be.
Young pulls a Bob Dylan here, eschewing chronology in order to follow the stream of his consciousness—present day is followed by deep history and deep history is followed by recent, but not current, events. Some popular records are treated elliptically and some unreleased albums are given deep reverence. Nothing is dealt with more reverentially than Crazy Horse—more on that in a bit—and Young tells us, more than once, that he really thinks his life’s story needs more than one volume. (Who, save for a publisher, wouldn’t think that of his own life?)
There’s probably, pound for pound, more in this book about his various automobiles than there is about his working relationship with David Crosby and Graham Nash. Stephen Stills, we learn, is like family, a misunderstood genius whose own bandmates—Crosby and Nash—Young feels, don’t really fully understand the guitarist and author of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”. Strange, considering the times that Young has pulled the plug on projects that he and Stills have been working on. Then again, Young tells us, those sudden changes of heart are about the music and not the ego. He can’t stand in the way of the muse once it’s come knocking.
Young is as restless in his storytelling as he is in his stylistic leaps as a recording artist—stay too long in one place and people are bound to think you’ve become complacent. Leap too often and folks won’t trust you enough to follow every gargantuan leap, but let that frighten you and you might as well give up the ghost right then and there. Young knows this. And he makes no bones about mentioning it. This is his story. The story he has to tell. In prose that some times almost derails the whole thing. Makes it harder to read than it should be. Whatever. He’s Neil Young. Disjointed narratives be damned.
About that Crazy Horse: If Young has a religion it’s probably the Church of the Horse. He claims to be a spiritual man and it’s evident that much of his spiritual power derives from whatever magic happens when he gathers with Billy, Ralph, and Poncho. There is a mainline they tap into that cannot be interrupted but is precious enough that they don’t go back to it more times than they need.
We also know that Young remains deeply haunted by the death of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and other deaths that have occurred in his many years. His own 2005 brain aneurysm has left him a changed man and his struggle with drugs and alcohol have also taken their toll in various ways. Young also loves his three children, two of whom have severe disabilities. What comes across in his writing about his family is not the pain the family has clearly endured, but instead the joy that has come despite the accommodations and demands for and on a family as special as theirs.
Young’s own health issues (seizures, polio, STDs) also remind us why David Crosby was once inspired to say that Young has faced life with tremendous courage. His second marriage, to the late actress Carrie Snodgress, was filled with tumult and perhaps it is her death that allows him to speak candidly about the difficulties of their relationship. Young, it should be noted, is never less than respectful of Snodgress, but he makes the difficulties be known, in particular how he could not cope with the Hollywood climate he faced during their relationship. He once leapt out a window of his own house to escape the Hollywood madness.
Young also has a wicked sense of humor—something that might not always come across in his music or in his persona but it comes across on the page. At least when the time is right and he feels that he can let his guard down enough to share a laugh. There are other things that are not surprises—he hates the sound quality of MP3s and would apparently love little more than to see those little suckers gone and forgotten; he still believes deeply in the flow and structure of an album, and although there’s a mystique and mythology around him, he remains unpretentious and is never self-mythologizing.
There are others stories told and points and corners to be found within the pages of Waging Heavy Peace, but to reveal all of them here would be a disservice not so much to the book and its author, but to the readers, who will have to learn how to read Young’s book with patience, allowing its mysteries to cascade over their eyes and imaginations long after the final paragraph has finished ringing in their minds.
As rock memoirs go, Waging Heavy Peace is not the best of the year, but it’s good enough to hold its own among the many such books it’s competing with, not unlike the man and the music of the man who penned this volume and lived through the tales that unfold, page after page after page.