When Eddie Vedder was but a twinkle in the eye of the godfathers of grunge, Neil Percival Young, born in Toronto in November 1945, had already dealt with polio, his parents’ divorce, and had played his first gig. His name calls up a triptych image of musical style and substance, a spindly, reedy-voiced figure behind a hank of dark hair, and a musician wedded, but not tied to, the north American landscape: the Canadian prairies, the dense, mystical American Deep South, Californian ranches, and many of the points in between.
Neil Young: American Traveller is Martin Halliwell’s 11th book. Halliwell knows what he’s talking about, and writes with real enthusiasm and know-how, as might be expected from a Professor of American Studies (at the University of Leicester). He’s also co-author of American Thought and Culture in the Twenty First Century (2008), and the more recent Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock Since the 1960s (2011).
Authors of books in which the star subject hasn’t been in direct contact with the writer in interviews, and trying to get to get to the bottom of things face-to-face, really have to know what they’re on about, lest the books become a Hades of hazy speculation and guesswork. Halliwell avoids this problem by truly, relentlessly knowing his stuff. It also helps that he writes in a way that doesn’t hinge on having the reader’s approval, and also that he doesn’t claim to have some kind of mystical truth of the subject that was overlooked by everyone else.
Neil Young is arranged with the view that everything Young does — upping sticks from Canada to Los Angeles in the ’60s, getting excited about cars and where to drive them, moaning about this or that government administration or one or the other music download websites — is a journey, or at least part of a wider literal or metaphorical personal pilgrimage. Everyone’s life is like that, to an extent, but Young’s life seems to exemplify the idea of living as a wandering about. Sometimes he knows where he’s heading, and sometimes not, with his creative output a kind of map of where he’s been, and sometimes providing clues of where he’s heading to next. Indeed, a well-travelled yet mystical map of north America, featuring especially the pastoral, might appear in one’s mind when considering Young.
After a preface in which Halliwell has a gentle whinge about being born too late to partake in the music and cultural scene of the early ’70s, the book segues into a helpful introduction titled “Twisted Road”, which helps you know what you’re getting: the next four chapters are named after some of the places that loom large in Young’s life and music. The first two chapters, “Sonic Journeys” and “Dream Traveller”, mix things up a bit, giving the clear message that it’s not merely physical geography that counts when documenting Young’s traveling trajectory.
Some of Young’s American travels are the stuff of legend in the pop culture psyche, particularly the first major voyage in the story of Young the musician: his journey from Canada to Los Angeles in 1966 in a black hearse is known to people outside of his fanbase. He gave a hint of the mindset of the young traveller and dreamer when he later said “I knew I had to leave Canada, and the sounds I was hearing and the sounds I liked were coming from California.” Halliwell notes that in Young’s early songs there is a “tension between an urge to take flight and frustrating inertia”, which might well have fueled his journeys in later life and his urge to get there — somewhere — in the end.
Chapter Three, “The Deep South”, is especially interesting, given that Young has never lived there. Halliwell is well aware of Young’s ambivalent relationship towards the southern states, highlighting, among other things, his critical song “Alabama” — itself a bit of a road trip — and his fascination with the music scene in Nashville. It becomes clear, as a jigsaw puzzle slowly comes together, that if life is a journey, then Young doesn’t have any more or less of an idea of where he’s going than anybody else does. Halliwell offers the idea early on, and repeats it, that a central theme in Young’s physical and metaphorical journey is drifting: drifting, with the traveling and not the destination as the point, by someone with enough strength of character and motivation to let the voyage enrich and shape his spirit and creativity.
It’s especially interesting when opposites collide, and there are plenty of opposites in Young’s story: his bucolic roots and the dawn of the vocoder-flecked ’80s (see his 1982 album Trans); Young vs. the South and Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd in the “Southern Man” showdown, which dissolved into nothing much; Young’s obvious drive to collaborate with others and then get away apparently when he feels like it. Even his father, renowned journalist and novelist Scott Young, took the view in his memoir Neil and Me (1984) that his son had a wayward streak from the get-go, comparing him to John Updike’s famous literary creation Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom who, in Updike’s 1960 Rabbit, Run, drives away from home as far as he can in a bid to escape everything. Then he finds it a bit too much and turns round and drives back home again.
Neil Young, though, continued and continues to wend his way around landscapes both physical and imaginary. Halliwell is well aware of the times when whatever was cooking in Young’s consciousness bubbled up and became an unmistakable manifestation of place, notably in Young and Crazy Horse’s 2003 rock opera of sorts, Greendale. The themes in Greendale echo Young’s long-standing environmental concerns, and here he let the imaginary residents of a fictional Californian town tussle over them.
More hazily is Human Highway, the 1982-released film featuring and co-directed by Young, under the name Bernard Shakey, which involves journeys, but odd ones, including space and inter-dimensional travel. Human Highway was considered a oddity that cinema goers could do without on its release, though in later years it was looked at through a quirkier lens and was regarded as a lovable silliness. (Perhaps Young knew what he was doing more than anyone knew, as some of the people involved in Human Highway turned out to be darlings of David Lynch).
Even his songs float on down the road. Given the failure to record Human Highway as an album in the ’70s, Halliwell notes that “…not only do travel and movement permeate Young’s lyrics, but also his songs themselves drift in unforeseen and surprising ways, often appearing as part of a different project or in an alternative form.”
Halliwell knows about journeying: it’s there in the writing, and in the structure of the book, which makes reading Neil Young: American Traveller feel like a road trip in itself. It’s now part of legend that Young stays relentlessly true to himself — you probably don’t get to become a rock legend by doing what everyone else wants you to do — and his leaving certain people by the side of the road, to drive by them a second time or not, fuels the depth and poignancy of the whole business.
Halliwell is smart to acknowledge and reference Jimmy McDonough’s troubled but fabulous 2002 biography of Neil Young, Shakey, the gloriously monolithic touchstone of available, reliable information about Young. It’s difficult to totally escape an element of assumption in a book like Neil Young: American Traveller, and suppositions sometimes creep in a little bit. “[Young] would certainly have benefited had he read studies such as Lewis Killian’s White Southerners” Halliwell says in Chapter Three, talking about Young’s sometimes patchy understanding of all things Southern. Elsewhere, there’s a part about Young and the Situationist concept of derive, which feels a little tacked on.
But overall this is a good read, and it’s a testament to Halliwell’s writing skills that he has managed to make the book so concise. A tale of Young and the musical and physical journey would take forever in less capable hands.
Author Kevin Chong, who wrote Neil Young Nation (2005) said that “If Young creates a musical map of North America in his songs, then Martin Halliwell has done a wonderful job of annotating it.” You can just imagine Halliwell following Young on his journey, floating somewhere slightly behind him, ready with pen and paper to record events, cars, map references. Long may they run.