I dug into Neil Young’s memoir Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream with a lot of anticipation, because he is one of my very favorite singer-songwriters, and because I’ve followed Neil’s work long enough to know that a long session of candid and honest soul-searching with this brilliant and enigmatic rocker/hippie is a rare thing.
I’m always excited when a rock star I love (like, say, Pete Townshend) writes a memoir. But a Neil Young book is in a very special category. Like many other rock stars, Pete Townshend has already told us his life story many times in interviews as well as in his directly confessional songs, so Pete Townshend’s new book fits effortlessly into the already well-known story of his career. Neil Young is built of slipperier stuff … so slippery that it’s hard to imagine this rock star writing a memoir at all.
And, well … now that I’ve read Waging Heavy Peace, which I loved and which kept me in its grip laughing and nodding in constant agreement, I know that Neil Young hasn’t. This book is not a memoir. It’s something else, though, and maybe this is just as good.
Why would we ever expect Neil Young to deliver anything straight? When this artist sees an expectation, he must defy it. His best songs are highly sincere but never direct, and he likes to get in his own way. Neil Young suffered from an overdose of fame and popularity in the Woodstock/Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young era, and then spent the 70s caroming from country-rock to proto garage/punk to bleary psychedelic experimentation. He tends to push his supple artistry just to the brink of comic annoyance, like in the guitar solo on “Down By The River” that consists of a single thudding flat note repeated 20 times … followed by another 20, and another.
It’s a great musical moment, and “Down By The River” is an amazing song … and yet it’s clear that the very purpose of the “Down By The River” guitar solo is to defy expectations, and this kind of effect may work better in a minor-key blues ballad than it does in an autobiography. Many readers won’t like Waging Heavy Peace because his prose often aims for a similar thud-like effect as the famous “Down By The River” guitar solo, and it goes on a lot longer too.
Readers want a certain straightness and completeness in an autobiography. We want memoirists to deliver themselves up to us in full. We don’t want chewy, artificial passages like this one, in which Neil explains the digital music system he recently helped to invent and is currently seeking capital funding for.
PureTone players will be portable, everywhere players, usable at home, in the car, or in your pocket with earphones. Additionally, PureTone home players could be bigger and better, with more memory and audiophile features galore for the extreme listener, but basic PureTone is for the masses, for music lovers. “Quality whether you want it or not,” as Larry Johnson used to say.
Is this a memoir, or a blurb for a technology company? Waging Heavy Peace is a lot of things at once, a rambling stream-of-consciousness, sucking in to itself like a vortex every thought, idea, opinion, business plan, musical memory, old grudge, old friendship or hilarious observation that flits past Neil’s eyes as he sits there trying to write. Heavy Peace is a highly self-conscious work — meta-memoir, to be sure — and Neil does not even seem happy about the fact that he has committed to writing an autobiography, even though he did so of his own free will. He swerves crazily, like a drunken bus driver on a mountain trail, between past and present tense, between the 1960s and the 1980s and now, between technology talk and random memories and musical explanations and tributes to his long-lost friends. The book will keep you awake and amused, but it won’t deliver the punch of truth and honesty that a great memoir should deliver, and that recent books by Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Patti Smith all delivered.
Well, unlike Bob and Keith and Patti Smith, or even Gregg Allman (whose recent memoir My Cross to Bear I’ve never written about, but also really loved), Neil Young does not appear to have ever been interested in literature. This doesn’t help him when it comes to writing a book. His body of lyrics, as great as it is, stands virtually free of literary reference points, though Neil makes up for this deficiency with awareness of roots music, native American culture, modern politics, alternative cultural values, and the wonderous receptivity of a faux-naif mind. Waging Heavy Peace mentions only one writer in passing, the adventure novelist Clive Cussler. And Neil Young doesn’t seem to be trying to achieve the level of transparency of a Clive Cussler novel either.
But this is why Waging Heavy Peace is great, even though it’s not a great memoir. Neil Young has a furiously original mind; he eats originality for breakfast. The book is a structural mess, packed with theories about digital music technology (a lot of theories about digital music technology), classic automobiles and alternative-fuel systems, small farms, forestry, Lionel trains, real trains, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, substance abuse, illness and old age, recording studios, the corporate music industry … but the overstuffed mess is a wonder to behold, and Neil has something surprising and heartfelt to say about every single thing. Many paragraphs are strewn around with utter carelessness, but not too many paragraphs are wasted.
The quiet backbone of the book is Neil’s relationship with his family — his wife Pegi, their two grown sons Zeke and Ben Young (he calls him “Ben Young”, and explains why), both of whom were disabled from birth, and his daughter Amber.
Neil’s devotion to his family seems to be the only constant in the later part of his life, and I can’t think of any other recent book that better uncovers the real meaning of the term “family values” than this one. He has clearly worked harder to get to know his two sons than he has to sustain his musical career. His book is at its best when he’s talking about them.
Zene Young was picked on by his peers, but he is a resilient and loving person, with a heart as big as life itself, and he has become a man I am so proud to call son. He is hardworking at his daily job, one he found at the Home Depot, where he started part-time and has stuck with it to become a full-time senior employee.
Zeke had gone to an audio recording school and learned all the technical theory behind recording. He used to work with me on my tours, recording my shows on a Pro Tools system. One day he came to me and said, “Daddy, I think I should get another job, because I need to be independent and you will not be doing this forever. I don’t want to be relying on you for a job.” I think any father would be really proud to hear these words from his son, and I was very impressed with Zeke.
Neil Young once got sued by Geffen Records for refusing to record characteristically “Neil Young” albums, and we can feel the powerful source of his stubbornness in his account of this ordeal:
My new record company wanted me to make a hit as big as ‘Harvest’ and thought that I had ripped them off by not repeating myself and making them look like a great record company. I have never thought that it was my job to make a record company look great. I thought it was the other way around. The record company has to recognize when something is a statement by the artist or whether it is commercial enough to be a hit and do a good job of presenting either option to maximize the release.
At moments like this, Neil acheives a Thoreau-like clarity (has he read Thoreau? He must have). At other times, his stubborn observations seem to hang spookily between clarity and obscurity — but then his lyrics always did too, and we like it when that happens. Like the characters in his songs, he often lets his thoughts drift towards obsessiveness:
It was just a little ranch house built on a lake in the fifties our of plywood siding, and it had some pretty cheesy interior features as well. We took down the cheap plasterboard paneling with phony wood grain that was on the old cabin walls. After a few days, we replaced it with beautiful redwood planks I picked out myself at the lumberyard. I went through stacks and stacks of twelve-inch-wide planks of rough-sawn A-grade redwood, choosing the ones with the most beautiful sap and grain. Maybe I took one of every twelve. I loaded them carefully into the back of my ’51 Willys pickup truck. When we got the redwood to the ranch and inside the house, we cut the planks carefully to length, choosing the exact grain detail we wanted to see on the wall, and then put them up. I chose every piece and placed each one carefully, taking my time to examine the grain, then deciding where to put it. These planks had a lot of sap in them and a unique grain. They were not the best grade for structure, but they were my favorite and I was using them only for a wall covering. Pegi and I still enjoy them in the living room today.
I have no idea, but something tells me Pegi may be humoring Neil at times like this.
Despite the freewheeling nature of Neil Young’s muse, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream does illuminate the severity of his work ethic. At one point Neil describes the intense trauma he goes through facing the challenge of preparing for a performance at Farm Aid when he has been off the road for a few months. There are many passages like this:
I am currently tired of my musical self. I have reached a point where I have OD’s. When this happens, it is temporary, but my capacity to enjoy music disappears totally. Every thing I think of musically is a joke and I reject it completely. This is part of the process. It has happened a few times before. The last time was near the end of 2009; I finished that tour and had to stop. Too much of a good thing. Even other people’s music turns me off when I am like this. It all sounds the same.
It’s news to me that Neil Young seems to feel a lot of guilt and self-loathing over his many artistic failures, and he may suffer about some of the poor reviews Waging Heavy Peace will inevitably get, because it’s truly a sloppy book. But Neil Young shouldn’t feel bad about anything. He’s given us nothing but pleasure for the past four decades.