1:47 PM EDT, September 28, 2012
What do you expect from a rock star? I just closed the back cover of Neil Young's “Waging Heavy Peace,” his big anticipated memoir (of sorts), clocking in at 500 pages (75 shy of the rock star-memoir mountain peak established by Keith Richards' “Life”); then I walked around the block; listened to his album “After the Goldrush” on my iPod from beginning to end; checked on the Blu-Ray price of “The Neil Young Archives Vol. 1” on Amazon (still $350); thought about whether I could make an Orange Julius at home; double-checked the date of Neil Young and Crazy Horse's show at the United Center (Oct. 11); admired the library book-spine design of “Waging Heavy Peace”; flipped to a random page and read a random line (“I am fascinated by the power of nature”); stood up, went out, got coffee, returned, sat in front of the book I just finished and tried to remember if I read that correctly — Young once lived in a cabin with a band featuring Rick James on vocal and the cabin was attacked by polar bears?
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No — Young was in a Toronto band featuring Rick James, and polar bears lived beneath a cabin he stayed in. Separate things. But an understandable mistake when a book reads, even less than 10 pages in, like a random assortment of diary entries and half-remembered memories. A generous reading would say when you come across a memoir and Rick James-polar bear confusion is your problem, you have a good problem. An honest reading would go more like: "Waging Heavy Peace" is a sprawling, distracted big-hearted mess.
Which is what I expect from a rock star like Neil Young — which is to say, there is no rock star like Neil Young, and to expect an artist as brave, difficult and seemingly unconcerned with audience taste as Young has been for decades to deliver a book that's lucid and revelatory is to forget who the man is. (Let's not forget this: Neil Young was famously sued once by Geffen Records for making music "unrepresentative" of himself; Geffen wanted more rock 'n' roll; he responded with an album of '50s rockabilly. It's an anecdote, like many chapters of his life, so fragmented throughout actual chapters that the entire story remains unclear.)
Which is to say, any longtime fan of Neil Young eventually becomes a Neil Young apologist.
Indeed, five years ago visual artist Jeremy Deller began selling brown posters with no image, just the words: "What Would Neil Young Do?" That poster has since become the hipster equivalent of cat posters you see behind office desks that read "Hang in There" or "One Day at a Time" — a reminder to question your instinct.
Or just act — can't decide which.
"What Would Neil Young Do?" would have been a more accurate title than "Waging Heavy Peace" — which suggests a unifying theme that Young, never one to explain his motivations, never really explains. He also talks about smoking pot the way people talk about the weather and seems to remember faintly what a rock-star memoir includes, writing about the name of one of his vintage cars, then, a sentence later, finding a back door in the paragraph that drops us off at a boldface famous person. Charles Manson, Jimi Hendrix — no memoirist who came of age in the '60s can avoid using an encounter with them. This doesn't, either.
Young is also generous enough to toss a little raw meat, and it's prime: Interviewed by the Associated Press about the Geffen lawsuit, he gets into an argument about Ronald Reagan, mentions that he doesn't see a villain or believe Reagan's a bad man, which no one buys back then; writing about Lynyrd Skynyrd's famous slam in "Sweet Home Alabama" ("Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/ A southern man don't need him around anyhow"), Young admits his song "Alabama" ("See the old folks tied in white robes/Hear the banjo/Don't it take you down home?") was "condescending" and not entirely thought out, which he's wrong about.
And this: Young grew up in a small Ontario town of 750 people ("That is where I remember growing up the most," he writes, a line as poetic as it is sweetly clumsy), and entered the United States illegally, through a back road border crossing. He didn't have a green card until the late 1960s: "Thank God capitalism saved me, and I was able to buy a green card. A real one! Through my lawyer!" (A lawyer with INS connections.)
Anyway — and incidentally, Young uses "anyway" as a segue as though it were a tic — now I'm suggesting a book unrepresentative of what you would expect from Neil Young. The bulk of "Waging Heavy Peace" is less interesting. It is ... stuff. During his Buffalo Springfield days, he liked the German pancakes at IHOP on Sunset Boulevard. Page 271 is a picture of a spaghetti recipe from Young's journalist father, heavily copy edited (OK, charming). Page 152 is a Wikipedia entry for pneumoencephalography, a draining of fluid in the brain. This comes just after the German pancakes and right before he had the clap and had to go to a free clinic. Page 187 ends with the mention of a cat named Orange Julius. Page 188 begins with a short recipe for the drink itself.
The obvious precedent to "Waging Heavy Peace" is Bob Dylan's "Chronicles: Volume One," an equally discursive memoir from a musical iconoclast that everyone expected to read like Young's book but read instead like a dream, the clear, discerning memories of a man with a jumbled life who remembered a lot.
But that's a rock star rarity.
The Neil Young book you wanted is a decade old — Jimmy McDonough's rowdy, messy, 800-page "Shakey" (Young even participated in it). On the other hand, the book you get is not the work of a ghost writer, either. This is smart (Young's loopy voice comes through) and frustrating (Young's loopy voice comes through). As much as we expect great songwriters to be literary storytellers, it's not a muscle all the hero worship in the world wills into existence. Young, somewhat pragmatically, knows this.
Think digressive Christmas family letter, plus 499 pages.
Also think personal details left casually to interpretation, for us to piece together the puzzle of the man.
For instance, even if you know Young has epilepsy, and that his daughter has epilepsy, and that he fathered two sons (in two different marriages) with cerebral palsy, the matter-of-factness with which he writes about their lives is touching, without being maudlin. As are frequent pit stops to mention the endless projects he plans to complete, despite being 66. The one that gets the most ink is PureTone (now called Pono), a digital-music alternative intended to restore the soul and texture to digital music files. Frankly, the incessantness of the PureTone thing is cheap, and a chore. But I understand.
Indeed, if there's a theme to "Waging Heavy Peace," it's one Young has hammered since the 1960s: Do what's easy and expected in your life and you eventually give away your true self through a million tiny compromises, or stay and fight big, unwinnable battles of attrition. Pono is never going to buckle the 8,000-pound iTunes monster and will probably be quickly squashed.
But what would Neil Young do?
Christopher Borrelli is an entertainment reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
Waging Heavy Peace
By Neil Young, Blue Rider Press, 497 pages, $30
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