Friday, October 05, 2012

Neil Young's "Waging Heavy Peace"

So Neil Young wrote a book, and it's as idiosyncratic as you'd expect from a guy who's been resolutely going his own way since he stepped out of the Buffalo Springfield back in 1967. 'Tis the season for rockstar memoirs (although Frank Zappa and Ray Davies, to name two, got there decades ahead of the pack), in which Keef Richards is a best-selling author and Pete Townshend's long-awaited bean-spiller Who I Am waits in the wings.

In contrast to the pre-publication hype surrounding those two tomes, Neil's Waging Heavy Peace arrived unobtrusively; I only learned of its existence when it magically appeared in my Amazon recommendations, and read it during a weekend of enforced leisure. It was written during a similar period for its author, during a year when he was idle after breaking a toe, and quitting marijuana and alcohol simultaneously on his doctor's advice. It was also a musically fallow period for Neil. After 40 years, he finds himself unable to write songs straight, and is working up to another tour with Crazy Horse. (We know there's a happy ending there; since the book was completed, the Horse has once again hit the boards and released not one, but two new albums.)

That's not to imply that Neil was idle during that time. Waging Heavy Peace is full of descriptions of works in progress, and not just musical ones: a compilation of early Crazy Horse material, a restored version of his 1982 film Human Highway, his biomass-fueled electric car Lincvolt, his ultra-high definition music streaming system Pono. At times, the book reads like an infomercial script for the latter two projects, but Neil's propaganda is of interest for the insight it provides into his passions and his innovative streak. (Inspired by his disabled son Ben Young, he also created switching and sound systems for Lionel Trains, and founded the Bridge School. And made the album that got him sued by his record label.)

By now, rock 'n' roll has undeniably evolved into an old man's game, and Waging Heavy Peace could only have been written by a 65-year-old man. There's nothing polished or "professional" about his prose style, which reads like a letter from a friend. Neil lifts the lid on some of the health problems that contributed to his enigmatic image early on, and almost took him out in 2005. He episodically details his career trajectory (the bits on his early days with the Squires are particularly engaging), with only a thimbleful of the sex 'n' drugs 'n' interpersonal dysfunction that sensation-seeking fans might be wanting and much more focus on fallen comrades like original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, longtime producer David Briggs, and cinematic collaborator Larry Johnson. Those finely wrought portraits are probably the most heartfelt and evocative writing here, along with Neil's ruminations on his family. Memory, grief and loss, regret and gratitude: the stuff of life.

Neil says he wants to write more books, and that he's working his way up to fiction. Sounds like this old man might just be getting started.


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