Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography by Jimmy McDonough

“Type of guy you think I am, you probably think I’ll run over that dog and get a new one.”

“You know what? You would feel so bad that for the next six years you wouldn’t even tell anybody — but this dog motif would appear in fifty songs.”

— An exchange between Neil Young and the author, Jimmy McDonough

After reading Jimmy McDonough’s new biography of Neil Young, you emerge from the experience having learned two things: that Neil Young is an enigma, and that Jimmy McDonough blew a chance to write a good book. In Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography, McDonough’s exhaustive, and exhausting, biography of the rock legend, McDonough comes across as so self-indulgent, so desperate to impress the reader, that he almost completely loses track of what he’s here to do: to write a frickin’ biography. During his school years, Neil Young once clobbered a bully with a dictionary. By the end of Shakey, you want to do the same to McDonough, using this particular weighty tome instead.

Neil Young has had such a fascinating career over the past thirty-some years, and is such a fascinating person, that it’d be hard to muck up a book about his life story, but McDonough tries his best to ruin things. Shakey is haphazardly organized: at times it wants to be a straight-ahead biography, and then it tries to be an oral biography, and in the last hundred pages it shifts into a lame attempt at gonzo journalism. Like a Crazy Horse album, this book reads like it was thrown together in one marathon sitting, with no overdubs. Er, I mean editing. And like the last Crazy Horse album Broken Arrow, it’s a rather hit-and-miss affair.

When McDonough hits, though, he really connects, and the book shows a lot of potential. The first 150 pages of Shakey chronicle Young’s formative years: his early life in Toronto with parents Scott and Rassy Young, the family’s subsequent years in the small Ontario town of Omeemee (the subject of Young’s song “Helpless”), Young’s battle with poliomyelitis at the age of six, the break-up of his parents’ marriage, and Neil and Rassy’s move west to Winnipeg, Manitoba. The Winnipeg years are well-documented, and McDonough hints that the Prairie city possessed the most important Canadian rock and roll scene in the mid-Sixties. As opposed to the strictly rock or folk schools of thought in a place like Toronto, Winnipeg teenagers had access to music from radio stations all over the American Midwest. Geographically situated at the northern end of the North American Plains, kids could tune in their radios every night and hear stations from as far away as New Orleans and Shreveport, and Young and his buddy Randy Bachman would study the new sounds and compare notes, eventually forming, in Bachman’s case, the Guess Who, and in Young’s, the Squires. McDonough quotes many of Young’s Winnipeg cohorts, adequately describing a part of Canadian music history few Canadians even know about.

Nearly half of Shakey‘s 738 pages of text are devoted to the 1970s, and while some readers may find McDonough’s attention to detail frustrating, fans of Young’s music will be fascinated with the account of Young’s most productive decade, from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere to Rust Never Sleeps. McDonough’s description of the tumultuous period is engaging, as he tells such stories as the spectacular collapse of the Buffalo Springfield, Young’s struggle to control epileptic seizures, the formation of his long-suffering back-up band Crazy Horse (consisting of Billy Talbot on bass, Ralph Molina on drums, and Danny Whitten on guitar), Young’s marriage to flaky actress Carrie Snodgrass, and his own personal yin and yang, in the form of producer David Briggs and manager Elliot Roberts. Then there’s Whitten’s fatal heroin overdose, Young’s brief partnership with Cajun wildman Rusty Kershaw, whose musicianship and his concoction called “honey slides” both had a profound effect on Young’s On the Beach album, the Nashville sessions that yielded Harvest, the hilariously bombastic ego trip that was Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and Young’s wildly hedonistic time in Malibu, which produced the great Zuma album.

Young’s musical career has been so diverse, that if you ask five Neil Young fans what their favorite album is, they’ll give you five different answers. Personally, I agree with McDonough, that Tonight’s the Night is Young’s greatest record. A favorite of Young’s as well (when Reprise Records wanted to release the mainstream Harvest on CD, Young agreed, only if they released Tonight’s the Night also), the album is one of the sleaziest, skankiest, sloppiest collections of rock tunes ever recorded. Made shortly after the drug-induced deaths of Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, Tonight’s the Night defines the term “dark night of the soul” like no other album in rock history has managed to do since. McDonough’s love of this album fuels the entire 30 page chapter devoted to it, and his account of the tequila-and-hamburgers-fueled sessions at a dumpy Los Angeles rehearsal space is far and away the book’s high point. McDonough even scores a little journalistic coup, tracking down the former drug dealer mentioned in “Tired Eyes”, Young’s classic song about a drug deal gone horribly wrong in California’s Topanga Canyon.

From that point on, though, McDonough becomes very tiresome, as Shakey begins to unravel. He glosses over Young’s classic 1979 albums Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust, never once mentioning the influence the album had on bands like Sonic Youth in the 1980s (although he does venture into such tired rock music cliches such as pondering whether “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”). After slogging through all the details of Young’s life in the Seventies, only 200 pages are devoted to the 1980s and 1990s; McDonough does a good job describing David Geffen’s infamous lawsuit against Young in 1983, as well as Young’s 1989 comeback with “Rockin’ in the Free World”, but he just skims over everything else, resorting to idiotic critiques (“yeccch-sax.”), grumpy comments towards Pearl Jam and the whole grunge scene, and going on and on about how he was part of Young’s inner circle (he even shamelessly emphasizes it was he who made Young listen to Nirvana). McDonough admirably goes out on a bit of a limb, saying “I’m the Ocean” is Young’s best song from the 1990s, but you’re still left with the feeling there was too much left out (his 1994 guest appearance on Randy Bachman’s tribute to Winnipeg, “Prairie Town”, is not mentioned, for instance). It’s like meandering through a record store with a pompous audiophile who says, “Oh, just skip this stuff, it all sucks, anyway. I know Neil Young. You don’t.”

As for Young, he may be a control freak, a recluse, a guy who will fire a band on a whim, and an obsessive perfectionist (how long have we been waiting for his Archives box set?), but one thing about Young emerges over McDonough’s self-indulgent scribbling: Neil Young loves his family. Nowhere is this more evident during Young’s account of his son Ben’s first few years. A nonoral quadriplegic, Ben Young was diagnosed with having cerebral palsy as an infant. After supporting Rust Never Sleeps, Young and his wife Pegi entered a program designed to teach Ben basic motor skills, which involved trying to teach Ben to crawl, for 14 hours a day. Neil and Pegi did this, every day, for an astounding eighteen months. His son’s disability (his first son Zeke, from his marriage to Snodgrass, also suffers from mild cerebral palsy) has inspired Young’s highly successful annual charity concert for the Bridge School in San Francisco, as well as his development of a disabled-friendly remote control for model trains (he eventually bought the Lionel model train company).

Idiosyncrasies and all, by the end of Shakey, it’s hard not to at least admire Neil Young. The same, however, can’t be said about Jimmy McDonough. Here’s a guy who seems awfully chuffed with the fact that he, for a time, was a Neil Young insider, to the point where he admits he declined to interview David Geffen, most likely in order to put himself in the good books of Elliot Roberts, who has hated Geffen for many years. At times, he shows he can be a good biographical writer, but too often he tries to sound like a bad imitation of a younger Hunter S. Thompson (or a perfect imitation of an older Hunter S. Thompson), inserting himself into the story, and constantly interrupting the story with a running conversation between he and Young, where he uses phonetic spellings of words like “innaresting” and even transcribing offhanded smirks (“Heh. Heh.”). Neil Young can flub up an album from time to time (case in point: Are You Passionate?), but still come away unscathed, ready for his next project. In McDonough’s case, like a hack session musician, he simply lacks the chops to keep up, as Young leaves him twisting in the wind.