Neil Young, Memoirist

The rock star memoir has emerged as a serious format in the past decade. Exceptional efforts by Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Keith Richards have lit the way, and news broke this week that Neil Young signed a contract with Penguin for a book, tentatively titled Waging Heavy Peace, to be released late next year.

I rarely allow myself to get excited about a book that hasn’t been written yet, but there are reasons to bet that Neil Young will take this assignment seriously and deliver a book substantial enough to stand next to the examples mentioned above. Two of these authors are among Neil’s own early role models: he’s cited Keith Richards’s Rolling Stones as his greatest musical influence (he and Keith share a you-can-never-be-too-sloppy musical ethic), and has managed his entire career according to the Bob Dylan playbook (give hilarious interviews, and completely reinvent yourself every two years). We can reasonably guess that Neil Young must have been inspired to write his own memoir after reading Bob’s and Keith’s impressive works, and this portends very well for the upcoming book.

I can barely think of any literary references in Neil Young’s large body of work, but his verses are undeniably postmodern, occupying a narrative space somewhere between Richard Brautigan and Raymond Carver. His subject matter includes odd pop culture ephemera, Native-American mythology (a fascination he shares with Jim Morrison, who would probably have also written a great memoir by now if he hadn’t died), and, most of all, the colorful walls inside his own brain. Neil is a masterful, subtle lyricist, clearly trained in the art of haiku, and a sly player in the game of words. His spare, roomy lyrics often present the singer as a plaintive questioner, pleading for answers from an enigmatic other:

Now that you’ve found yourself losing your mind, are you here again?
Finding that what you once thought was real is gone, and changing?

A Neil Young “character” emerges from many of his songs: a proud American drifter, a sincere hippie with a wicked sense of humor, a natural loner fascinated by his ability to connect with the strangers who surround him. This character sometimes resembles Holden Caulfield in the depths of his vulnerability:

Blind man running through the light of the night
With an answer in his hand,
Come on down to the river of sight
And you can really understand,
Red lights flashing through the window in the rain,
Can you hear the sirens moan?
White cane lying in a gutter in the lane,
If you’re walking home alone.
Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning,
Just find someone who’s turning
And you will come around

Or, more simply:

When the dream came, I held my breath with my eyes closed
I went insane, like a smoke ring day when the wind blows

His songs are always about feelings, about relationships, about being swept over by or buried in them. This character’s voice is usually not descriptive but active in its context, declarative; the character is playing a role in his stories, and the lyrics are part of some intense private conversation (which is often not going very well).

I have a friend I’ve never seen
He hides his head inside a dream
Someone should call him and see if he can come out
Trying to lose the down that he’s found

And yet this character’s attitude is usually sarcastic, self-mocking, careful, aware of the tragedy of decay, as in the early verse that later morphed into an album and movie called Rust Never Sleeps:

Hello, ruby in the dust
Has your band begun to rust?

Neil Young lived an exciting life, and there are awesome stories he can tell: driving from Winnipeg, Canada to Los Angeles in a hearse to join Buffalo Springfield and then Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; playing at Woodstock; marrying and divorcing a young movie star; embracing punk rock just a couple of years before everybody else caught on; settling down to raise a family with a couple of special-needs kids, nurturing a late-career fascination with trains and alternative cars. I hope this memoir will turn out to be a transformative moment in Neil’s career, and my intuition tells me that it will.

I don’t usually get excited about a book that won’t come out for another year, but this is a book I’ve been wanting to read for, well, decades. I also don’t usually like long books (as my regular Litkicks readers well know), but if Neil Young’s memoir comes in at over a thousand pages I’ll be nothing but happy to enjoy every one. Go, Neil, go!

6 Responses

  1. Patti and Keith’s great
    Patti and Keith’s great reads, but where is the next instalment of Dylan’s life? Is there to be one?

  2. Neil Young has written some
    Neil Young has written some of my favorite song sof all time. Old Man & Heart of Gold being two of my most favorites…thanks for the heads up on this book…i, like you, am looking forward to cracking it open. Now, we wait.

  3. …so much history…in fact
    …so much history…in fact he’s the soundtrack to my 70’s….i remember 1st listening to the buffalo springfield in menlo park, california when i was in high school back in ’68, what a band…..i saw neil in ’71 at baltimore civic center where he got pissed and walked off stage during his acoustic set, literally arguing with the crowd…..about 40 minutes later he came back with that black guitar and crazy horse to blow us away!!!!!!

  4. Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO
    Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO came up with the line Rust Never Sleeps. DEVO was in the Young film Human Highway from around that time and did a cover of Hey Hey and Mothersbaugh put the line in. Young continued to use it.

  5. I was at that show. NY wanted
    I was at that show. NY wanted to do an acoustic solo set. The Baltimore blue collar crowd, armed with firecrackers and likely speeding, screamed for rock and roll. This was downtown B’more in 1971. A war was taking 19 year olds that weren’t in college or the seminary. The riots were recent memories. The Civic Center was not a coffeehouse. He did walk off. The house lights came up. I guess the promoter won the argument. NY came on with the band, played the best live rock and roll I’ve ever heard for about 30 minutes, and left. He played the white falcon, too. I’ve seen Hendrix, the Dead, the Allmans, EmmyLou’s Hot Band, Danny Gatton, and SRV. NY and CH might have been PO’d, but they found a groove and rocked it like I’ve never heard anywhere else. Cheers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!