Old man, look at my life . . .
MEMOIR: Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream. By Neil Young Viking Penguin, 497pp. £25
ONE DAY, a couple of years ago, Neil Young broke his toe. Recovering, he decided to write a book. At 497 pages and 68 chapters, the result is a sort of quadruple album. To argue that it might have been better at about half its published length would be to miss the point, perhaps.
Young writes plainly and often directly, in the sort of baggy patchwork style that wouldn’t surprise any admirer of his jagged and open-hearted music. A curmudgeon might feel that the book is not wonderfully edited, but perhaps it’s a brilliantly effective simulacrum of being alone in a room with a sexagenarian rock star who, back in the day, ingested more drugs than Lord Byron. (The author is now clean, he assures us.) Waging Heavy Peace skips across time, moving back and forth. Young rambles disconnectedly through his memories, showing scant regard for the attractions of chronology. Endearingly, he often comments on the difficulty of writing what you’re now reading. This is a chronicle that is always aware it has an audience.
If Young, a brilliant musician, is not a naturally gifted writer of prose, his account of a childhood touched by sickness is affecting. As a shy and lonely boy, growing up in small-town Canada, he suffered polio and its painful treatments. The divorce of his parents must have been more harrowing than he permits himself to admit here. But his tact on the point is in its own way revealing. This is no tell-all memoir, no attempt to make headlines or settle scores. Young writes with scrupulous dignity about those he has loved. The book contains few accusations. The tone, almost throughout, is that of a down-home, plain-speaking family man who admired certain aspects of the Reagan presidency and is nobody’s standard-issue rebel. At other points it veers into more typical rock’n’roll territory. There are several accounts of driving through Malibu “amped on coke” with “beautiful hippie girls”, an image that will seem bittersweet to those many of us for whom Young’s music summons up the nights of our youth: the damp Rathmines bedsit, the six-pack of Harp and an eternal Good Friday of spotty celibacy.
Young claims, believably, not to understand songwriting. It’s something that happens to him. Thinking about it is fatal. Like an old bluesman or a sean-nós singer, he believes that the artist is channelling spirits. In an era when the ultimate aim of certain young musicians seems to be to have their own brand of aftershave or bra, his once-derided hippyism now seems radical. He was punk before Johnny Rotten was born.