It seems that the ever aging-out baby boomers have risen up from their affair with modern country schlock to find some kind of meaning to their lost promise and dreary lives. We were confident that we would top our parents in some way. After all we were children in the Age of Aquarius…but somehow we lost our way.
It happened incrementally without us even noticing. We have class reunions that few bother to attend - so & so's mother passed away; and our entire class mourns but doesn't even remember the classmate, let alone the parent. We have 401K's instead of pensions. We work longer and earn less than our parents. Our music will never die, but it doesn't chart.
It's this dark cloud on the horizon signaling the end of our youth and our shrinking relevancy to the stage of public opinion. Lately it has been decreed (by no one in particular) that 2012/2013 is now The Golden Age of Rock & Roll Biographies - seems like our old heroes have something to say even if they can't secure financing for their next big project. This is how you do it; imagine a three-pronged media blitz consisting of a book signing @ Barnes & Noble, a record release and a massive coast-to-coast tour with 12 dates scheduled in Europe. Only nobody comes to the book stores because they don't carry books, only NOOKs; the tour is expensive and folds after a few dates in the artist's home state and there isn't enough cash to pay for studio time - even if it's free. Sound familiar?
Well, that isn't what Neil Young's book is about. It is a thoughtful stream of consciousness tome poem about friends, lovers and compatriots who have touched the life spirit of Mr. Neil Young. There are 68 chapters though several run only a few pages. Young is an uninhibited writer who effortlessly mixes fantasy or dreamlike passages when writing about his father or dear friends who have passed on with nuts and bolts details of his Lincvolt electric car or his fascination with Lionel Trains (which he purchased).
His style and approach to writing a book appears to be similar to his approach to making music - following his muse and trusting his impulse to free associate. He is one of the original free spirits - a hippie who altered his consciousness through dope, booze, love, sobriety and self-reflection. He is a musical genius and a renaissance man who can shape a cracked broken down rock with hammer and anvil to create the perfect alchemy, turning lead into gold.
The initial chapters rest comfortably amongst the memories and other artifacts of Young's keen mind. Each story links to emotional connections with people with whom he collaborated or loved. Lionel Trains was a lifelong pursuit and it was more than just a hobby. The time and creativity that Young devoted to his trains was inextricably linked to his mostly successful attempts to find ways of communicating with his son Ben Young, who was born quadriplegic. Ben's birth was a sentinel event for the family and Neil made every effort to help his son communicate and enjoy his life despite the physical obstacles.
Though Ben was non-verbal, Neil made every effort to communicate with his son meaningfully. He even recorded an album entitled TRANS in which he sang through a machine. Most people couldn't understand what he was saying - that was the point! Young was trying to communicate across barriers from one world (verbal) to another world (non-verbal) - TRANS was the bridge. Ironically, it was at this creative juncture that record mogul David Geffen attempted to sue Young for the bizarre contractual breach of “writing music that doesn't sound like Neil Young”.
Young praises Buffalo Springfield, especially the singing of Steven Stills and Richie Furay. He maintains that if drummer extraordinaire Bruce Palmer would have not been deported the Springfield would not have imploded so early in their career. He recalled opening for the Byrds (one of his favorite bands) and blowing them off the stage. Buffalo Springfield were that good and yes, the Byrds were that bad! An early influence was Randy Bachman, the founder and leader of the Guess Who. Bachman was the premier guitarist in Canada at the time was nice enough to give Young some tips about fingering positions on his guitar and equal levels of encouragement.
Despite all the high-profile acrimony between CSN&Y Young only praises his former partners - especially Steven Stills. Young refers to him as a genius with one of the most naturally soulful voices he's ever heard. Young writes about how incensed he was with the Kent State massacres and his immediate visceral response of “disbelief and sadness” that led him to compose Ohio. He recorded it the next day in an LA studio. It was on the radio within a week (this was before the Internet and You Tube). Young felt that CSN&Y were speaking for a generation (they were - their influence cannot be overestimated). Young writes that the U.S. government has still not apologized to the families of the four fallen students. Shame.
Crazy Horse has always been Young's favorite band and he's done some of his best work with them including Cinnamon Girl (their first song), Down By the River, Cowgirl in the Sand, Keep on Rockin'in the Free World), and My My, Hey Hey. Young says it's simple down-to earth rock & roll. In introducing Cinnamon Girl to the band, he described the modal instrumental theme as “Egyptians rolling giant stones up to a pyramid on logs. It's huge and it's moving. Unstoppable” YES! He describes his deep long term mourning for the loss of the Danny Whitten, a great spirit in the sky who sang and played great rock & roll.
One of the most poignant moments in the book was Young's collaboration with filmmaker Jonathan Demme. The film Neil Young: Heart of Gold was a sensitive yet powerful performance that captured Young in a triumphant appearance of his critically acclaimed album Prairie Wind and classic hits like Heart of Gold, Harvest Moon and Old Man. He had a great group of players and singers including his wife Pegi Young, Emmylou Harris, Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham and Rick Rosa. Buy this DVD - it is the musical companion of Waging Heavy Peace. Read and listen!
Loss is a pervasive theme in Young's book. At this stage in his life he's lost his parents, family members and many friends. He mourns the loss of Kurt Cobain as he felt they shared a special connection. Cobain left a suicide note quoting one of his songs, “It's better to burn out than to fade away.” Before Cobain's death, Young attempted to reach him and take him under his wing - it struck a deep chord in Young that resonates to this day.
Young also talks about the death of his longtime collaborator Ben “long Grain” Keith. Ben Keith played pedal steel and can be heard on countless Neil Young sessions including the entire Harvest LP. Old Man and Heart of Gold are just two examples of Ben Keith's signature sound. When Young first heard of Keith's death he let out a primal screen thinking it was his son. Then someone told him it was Ben Keith and a different sadness took over and settled in.
The last few pages of Young's autobiography are a fantasy piece in which Young is riding in his Continental. His mind wanders and he thinks of all the women he has met and loved and he comes up to Pegi, his wife and he feels really good. Family business is on the agenda. It is a time of reckoning - all the houses and properties, maybe too much to handle. Suddenly the traffic slows to a crawl. The radio plays Da Doo Ron Ron. Somehow he's connected to a vintage radio show, He decides to get off the Interstate and take a two-lane road. It's very quiet and Neil pulls over near a creek. He enjoys the taste of the fresh clear water. He gets back on the two lane and continues down the road to an old café. Two of his old friends David Briggs (Record producer; died in 1995) and Larry Johnson (the filmmaker- Journey Through The Past; died 2010) are there drinking coffee. Young walks over and sits down. They don't talk much. David says something about an old friend and Larry Gets up to make a call. He wants some more coffee. Briggs looks at Young and asks, “What have you been doing?”
I Love this book and recommend it to anyone who is interested in sixties Rock & Roll, Folk Music and The Summer of Love.
You can purchase Waging Heavy Peace @ Barnes & Noble