With "Waging Heavy Peace," Neil Young shows that his prose is as infuriating and sporadically brilliant as his music
There are few artists in the history of rock 'n' roll more glorious than Neil Young. And there are few artists in the history of rock 'n' roll more infuriating than Neil Young.
Both sides are on full display in "Waging Heavy Peace," a Young autobiography that is essentially what you might expect if you've been following this mercurial artist over the last five decades.
It doesn't give you the answers you want. It spends time noodling around with whatever Young feels like talking about instead of what most readers would expect or wish for. It's not a particularly satisfying book, but it is an interesting one.
And let's face it: In Neil Young's world, satisfying has always had to take a back seat to interesting.
The first time I met Young, he was sitting on the floor of his dressing room at the Universal Amphitheater in 1984, moments after playing a spirited but odd show with a group of country musicians called the International Harvesters. The set consisted mostly of country songs from his upcoming album, "Old Ways," as well as revamped country versions of some of his older material – and when he talked after the show, Young insisted that he was in it for the long haul.
"I'm through with rock 'n' roll," he insisted. "From now on, I'm just going to do country music."
He wasn't lying, maybe, but he didn't turn out to be telling the truth. Within two years, without making another country album, he was back to rock 'n' roll.
The moral of the story is that when Neil Young tells you what he's going to do, don't believe him. And that's apropos to "Waging Heavy Peace," because the book is chock full of instances of Neil Young telling us what he's going to do.
In just the first two chapters of a book that's supposed to be a memoir — you know, that genre where a writer looks back — Young keeps detouring from the looking-back part to talk about his plans.
He's going to start a company called PureTone to "rescue … music from the degradation in [sound] quality that … is at the heart of the decline in music sales." He's going to start writing songs again, something he hasn't done since he stopped drinking and smoking dope. He's going to collect early music from his band Crazy Horse and put it on an album. He's going to record new music with Crazy Horse in a bungalow on his property. He's going to fix the problem that caused some model trains to derail. He's going to figure out how to keep the birds on his property from being eaten by bobcats. And he's going to write a book.
Obviously he did the last of those things, but I have no idea how many of the other ones Young has actually done or will actually do. And the way in which he wrote the book is entirely in keeping with the way in which he has conducted his perverse, brilliant, infuriating, mesmerizing, weird career.
Young skips around in time, taking detours and switchbacks until the chronology is a mess and the reader can set his watch by each new mention of the horrible sound quality of today's music, or each new reverie about a favorite old car, or each new tribute to his friends and cohorts David Briggs and Larry Johnson.
He'll start talking about Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, then drop that discussion abruptly, go into a multiple-page detour about Lionel trains, and then offer up successive chapters about his electric car, a tour he might do, and PureTone (which has been renamed Pono by the end of the book) before he gets back to telling his story.
In Chapter Six we learn about Young's first successful band, the Squires, doing a residency in Toronto. Then he changes the subject for a chapter and explains why he wrote the book. (Because "I have to slow down.") Then in Chapter Eight he returns to the Squires — but to their earliest days, with little sense of how the earlier Squires chapter fit in.
At times, it feels as if Young is interested in everything except the main reason why anybody would want to read a Neil Young autobiography, which is his music.
In a way, the book's approach recalls the one Bob Dylan took in "Chronicles, Volume One," when rather than recount his entire career he focused on a few specific eras that were crucial to him, even if they weren't the ones most readers would want to know about in detail.
But Dylan delved deeply into those eras, and spoke so eloquently about the recording of "New Morning" or "Oh Mercy" that you forgave him for not telling you a damn thing about "Highway 61 Revisited" or "Blonde on Blonde."
Dylan was also a masterful prose stylist; for all undeniable skills as a songwriter, Young is a flat, over emphatic one. (Enough with all those exclamation points!)
There are highlights, certainly: Young's descriptions of how much Dylan's music meant to him; of his first trip to Los Angeles, where the Buffalo Springfield was formed; of his brief and stormy tenure with Geffen Records, which sued him for making music "uncharacteristic of Neil Young."
But Geffen's lawyers had it wrong. Young's albums for that label — weird, uncommercial, defiant detours into techno, rockabilly and country — were entirely characteristic of a guy whose muse changes her mind constantly, and who sums up his attitude toward commercial success thusly: "If you have lots of cash, that doesn't make you successful — it makes you rich."
While the book grows more lyrical as it goes along, and acquires a cumulative sense of loss as one friend after another passes on, it also grows more scattershot. Young doesn't linger, he rarely goes deep, and he's never far from another short chapter about sound quality or a description of another favorite car.
But really, what did I expect? I've often thought that if I were faced with a twist on the old "what one album would you take to a desert island?" question, and offered a lifetime of listening to the entire body of work of only one artist, my choice would come down to Young or Van Morrison — not because I like them best or listen to them most, but because their output is so wide-ranging, so varied, so sporadically brilliant and occasionally catastrophic that you could spend a lifetime trying to figure out what the hell they're doing, without ever getting to the bottom of it.
Young doesn't get to the bottom of it in this book, but I suspect he never wanted to. As he says of his longtime band Crazy Horse in the book, "History has shown that the best way to spook the Horse is to tell it what to do or where to go or, even worse, how to get there."
The bottom line, I guess, is that Neil Young has never been particularly interested in being good, and a lot of the time that has made him pretty great. After one reading I don't know if "Waging Heavy Peace" is great, but I'm pretty sure it's not very good.