Friday, March 29, 2013

Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young

The wit, the wisdom, the wonder of Neil
I consider myself a fan of Neil Young’s music, but not a fanatic. When this autobiography came out in 2012, I wasn’t eagerly anticipating it, and it was a Kindle Daily Deal that eventually convinced me to buy it. I am very glad I did, for Waging Heavy Peace really exceeded my expectations.

From the beginning, Young displays an obvious talent for engaging storytelling. He wrote this book without the help of a ghost writer, and at times it seems without the help of an editor. Abandoning any attempt at chronological order, he indiscriminately jumps around from past to present. While this can be disorienting and sometimes leads to redundancy, the benefit is you never know what’s coming in the next chapter. Young’s father was a popular Canadian newspaper columnist, and though this is Neil’s first book it is clear that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. His writing is unpolished but articulate, with the casual, conversational style of a born blogger. The 68 chapters read like a series of emails from an old friend in response to the question, “What have you been up to for the last 50 years?”

Those expecting a conventional tell-all rock exposé will be disappointed. There’s not a whole lot of rock star gossip included here. Brief mentions are made of Bob and Bruce (Dylan and Springsteen) as old friends who have helped him out of a jam. There’s also some limited discussion of collaborators like Pearl Jam, Devo, and Linda Ronstadt. Mostly, however, he concentrates on his former bandmates Crosby, Stills, Nash, and the guys from Buffalo Springfield and Crazy Horse. One aspect of being a musician that Young covers very well is the artistic and technical processes of recording albums and putting on live shows. Fans who are familiar with his musical catalog will enjoy the details he reveals about how he wrote certain songs, assembled various bands, or recorded particular albums. Yet Young provides a broader vision of the rock star as father figure to a sort of entrepreneurial mini-corporation. He discusses in detail the business aspects of music, and devotes a lot of stories to the large entourage of friends on his payroll: managers, producers, supporting musicians, doctors, lawyers, graphic designers, caregivers for his disabled son, and caretakers of his houses, cars, trains, and guitars. The end result is an unglamorized and unpretentious view of the rock star life.

Young is an avid collector of cars and model trains, both of which he gushes over with a great deal of affection. Often a chapter begins with a story about a car, than takes an unexpected turn into a moving tale of love, music, drug use, or health issues. He devotes a lot of ink to two of his current obsessions. Pono (formerly called PureTone) is a high-resolution format for digital music that Young is attempting to market as an alternative to the low-quality mp3. LincVolt is the project name for a giant 1959 Lincoln Continental that he has transformed into an electric car. At times these techie diversions distract too much from the music history, but they also reveal a lot about the author. Young’s nostalgic reverence for the past and his enthusiasm for cutting-edge technology combine in a singular way to form and inform his music and his life.

Waging Heavy Peace has its faults, but it ultimately succeeds because you really do get to know Neil Young. Of course, the more you like his music, the more you’ll enjoy the book. I liked this book so much that I actually rationed chapters to make it last longer. I hope Neil’s still got a few more books left in him, because I am eagerly awaiting the next one.

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