The Book On Neil Young: You Gotta Tell Your Story Boy…
Some people never change, but don’t count Neil Young among them. To both the delight and consternation of his fans, particularly over the last three decades, there’s been much about Young’s career that has screamed change. If one liked his most recent album at any given time, it was a sure bet one wouldn’t think as fondly of his next album. Neil Young would be into something else. He has been – and is – into a lot of things. Readers of his new memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, will learn a lot -perhaps more than they ever wanted -about what inspires and moves Neil Young. They’re also likely to feel frustrated with what they thought would be a standard autobiography. For example, he devotes more space to Pono, the audio system he’s developing (to “save the sound of music”) than he does to his brain surgery and subsequent close call with death. But despite the book’s curious passages, readers should also come away newly impressed with the storyteller. There is nothing standard about Neil Young.
The Keeper Of The Key To The Locks… Neil Young made a grand impression with the five songs he wrote for the first Buffalo Springfield album, released in late ’66. Even with brilliant material released that same year by the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan, such Young compositions as “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” and “Out of My Mind” made it clear he would impel attention for years to come. And now, nearly a half-century later, for numerous reasons, some having nothing to do with his music, Neil Young has kept our attention.
Young tells his story in Waging Heavy Peace. The book at times is a collection of well-told events in his life and at other times a collection of random thoughts that must have occurred to him while sitting at his computer. As a writing endeavor, it’s part After the Gold Rush, his brilliant third solo album, and part Life, a bewildering collection Young released in the mid-80s. Like the fictional George Bailey, Neil Young has had a wonderful life. The reader senses Young’s appreciation for the days gone by. Many of his days have been challenging and painful, but he’s grateful for the experiences, and most of all, happy being here to relate the ups and downs.
Understandably, the pains encountered by Young would be enough to cause many to wallow in self-pity. At the age of 6, he was struck with polio, recovering in less than a year’s time, with help from the warmth of the New Smyrna Beach, Florida sun. His parents brought him there from Ontario so his body wouldn’t have to carry the weight of thick clothing through a Canadian winter. Young returned to Canada, making it through boyhood, adolescence and his parents’ divorce before heading to Los Angeles in ’66 to hone his musical chops. He did so in a big way, joining Buffalo Springfield, yet then began suffering epileptic seizures. The artistic success of Buffalo Springfield proved little comfort. The tumult in the band led to a breakup a few months before their third album, Last Time Around, was released in July ’68, barely a year and a half since their first LP revealed such promise. Always one to make the best of bad situations, Young as a solo artist would deliver on much of that promise himself.
Five months after Last Time Around, Young released his first album, a self-titled effort that would signal the beginning of eleven years of grand accomplishments, unmatched by any rock artist, excluding Bob Dylan. In those eleven years were, in their own unique ways, twelve great albums. With the 70s closing, Neil Young was still at the top of his game, approaching new peaks and enjoying a new wave of popularity. Through most of the decade he also intrigued followers with his on again-off again relationship with David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young was considered the American supergroup, in some minds taking the place of the recently disbanded Beatles. Those minds had it wrong. Except for “Helpless,” “Ohio” and his live performances with them in ’70 (as heard on the 4 Way Street album) Young’s contributions to CSNY didn’t represent his A game. Feeling “better down the road without that load,” Young didn’t tour as part of CSNY again until ’74 and it wasn’t until ’88 before he recorded another album with them, the frivolous American Dream, which Young biographer Jimmy McDonough described in Shakey (2002) as “a prime contender for the most wretched album Neil Young has ever lent his name to.”
American Dream fell into the pattern Young had set, willy-nilly, through most of the ’80s. Until Freedom, his brilliant comeback album, released in October ’89, his recordings were disappointing and perplexing. After nearly a decade and a half of making great music, Young seemed on the slide, like a pitcher who had lost his fastball. During this period, Young experimented with different sounds and genres. There was the country-western approach on the second side of Hawks and Doves, then the guitar hero gymnastics of Re-ac-tor, followed by the futuristic computer sounds on Trans, rockabilly on Everybody’s Rockin’ and more digressions to come. Young was all over the map and ineffective at most every spot. This was hard to explain. Young defenders could counter that at least he was looking to expand musically – and that still he was producing more interesting material than Crosby, Stills and Nash in those years, but that was cold comfort. Young’s perspective on his 80s output was positive, however, saying the years were “artistically strong for me.” Yet more important to him was his home life, which presented challenges that called upon his creativity, perseverance and devotion.
In “Beautiful Boy,” the song written for his son, Sean, John Lennon sings “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Lennon would’ve been impressed with how Neil Young has dealt with the events of life unplanned. In 1978, Young and his wife, Pegi, welcomed son Ben into the world. For the second time Young was a father. Ben, as with Young’s first child, would be diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The diagnosis of Zeke Young, the son Neil had with actress Carrie Snodgrass in ’72, was later determined incorrect. Zeke had likely suffered a stroke in utero, but symptoms in such cases are very similar to cerebral palsy. Young writes in Waging Heavy Peace of the instability he felt, given the plight of his boys. Neil and Pegi wanted to have more children, but he was apprehensive. They talked to a doctor, considered the advice and gave it a lot of thought.
Pegi and I weighed this information. To know someone like her and to make a decision as important as this with her was a gift beyond anything I have ever experienced. It was her idea and she guided us to this point. We made a decision together to go forward and have another child.
On May 15, 1984, Pegi gave birth to Amber Jean Young. The happy parents brought their daughter home in a baby-blue 1957 Chevy Bel Air wagon.
139 pages into Waging Heavy Peace, Young says “Writing this book there seems to be no end to the information flowing through me.” And he shares much of that information. Young lets the reader in on what interests him most, his family being number one. He provides a lot of detail about the rest, however – old cars, electric trains, and his sprawling ranch in the Santa Cruz mountains. Not far from home he and his associates have labored at turning a ’59 Lincoln Continental into the world’s first Series Electric Car with a generator fueled by biomass. Young envisions stylish cars hitting the American road, but doing so with zero emissions and requiring no roadside refueling. Another project of Young’s is the Farm Aid benefit concerts, which he founded with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp in ’85. The very next year he hosted a concert featuring Bruce Springsteen benefiting the Bridge School, founded by Pegi Young, Jim Foderer and Dr. Marilyn Buzolich. The school, located in Hillsborough, California, teaches communication through technology to children, those like Ben Young, who have severe speech and language challenges. The work of the school is “dear to my heart,” writes Young, proud of Pegi and the vision she shared for a school that is two and a half decades into its mission. Neil Young may be the famous name associated with the Bridge School, but he makes it clear Pegi is the catalyst.
It was her idea. One day when Ben Young was young and we were looking for school placement, after a depressing look at a local California classroom for the disabled, Pegi was near tears. She just blurted out, “Why don’t we just call your friends and put on a concert to raise money and start a school? We could get Bruce Springsteen!” I just looked at her, dumbfounded by this audacious idea.
Because of his grace, Bruce did it and made our first concert a sellout. We started the school on those funds.
I Could Be Happy The Rest Of My Life… Young refers to Pegi as his “Cinnamon Girl” and it’s apparent that if she’s not the star of his book, then she’s the star of his life. Throughout Waging Heavy Peace, words of praise and awe for Pegi Young are abundant. Pegi stands by – and understands – Neil, who surely strikes many as a real piece of work, despite all he’s accomplished. She must have been what he had in mind when he sang of searching in Hollywood, Redwood and across the ocean.
Neil Young has lived, albeit in different ways than what Teddy Roosevelt had in mind, the “strenuous life.” Beyond his celebrated and influential musical career there has been much of facing up to what John Lennon defined as life. Young looks back at his own 67 years, counting his blessings which include parents who loved him, despite an atypical home life. He also remembers and still mourns for Danny Whitten, the promising singer-songwriter and guitarist for Crazy Horse, who met a tragic end after overdosing on a mix of valium and alcohol, inspiring* Young’s dark and glorious Tonight’s the Night album (1975).
Even heavier on Young’s heart is the loss of his close friend and pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith (“Long Grain”). Already a sought-after session player (The first hit record he played on was Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.”), Keith first made Young’s acqaintance in ’71 during the recording of Harvest. The lovely strains Keith added to “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man” and other songs on that album helped launch a nearly 40-year bond between him and Young. The partnership ended on July 26, 2010 when Keith passed away due to a blood clot in his lung. Young got the bad news from Pegi over the phone while he was out cruising on the bus over the Manitoba prairies with his brother Bob Young and friend Dave Toms. In a sad and tender part of the book, Young reveals the great pain he felt – as well as what he thought he had felt – when he spoke with Pegi.
…. The phone rang. It was Pegi crying and crying. I knew something was really wrong, so I went to the back of the bus with the phone. “it’s Ben!” she cried. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Neil. He’s gone.”
I let out what Dave described as a primal scream. I was consoling her, thinking she was talking about our Ben Young, when she finally said something that told me it was Ben Keith, Long Grain. I felt a sigh of relief, but then a different sadness come over me.
They Give You This But You Pay For That… For readers not fully familiar with the trajectory of Young’s life and career, Waging Heavy Peace has to be frustrating. There’s a lot of jumping around from beginning to end about a strenuous life filled with elation, heartaches and diversions. Even for Young’s followers who’ve kept close tabs on his career since the mid-60s, there are parts in the book that do not pay off as expected. There are many songs and albums such readers want to know more about, especially from the best source. All that will have to wait for another Neil Young book, hopefully one written by him but maybe by someone else. Yet there is admiration for an artist deemed iconic by tens of thousands willing to share so much about his life, his family and a multitude of other things important to him, digressions included. Neil Young has written his story in his own way. Waging Heavy Peace is very much in the spirit of the opening words of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, “All this happened, more or less.” For those of us who’ve kept tabs on Neil Young, that’s what we should have expected.
* The heroin-induced death of Young’s roadie, Bruce Berry, is also a subject of the song, “Tonight’s the Night.”
** There is much covered about Young’s recording career in Jimmy McDonough’s, Shakey, published in 2002.
- Featured photo: Neil Young in concert in Oslo, Norway in 2009 by Per Ole Hagen and used under Creative Commons license.