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.
That said, he seems unaware of piquant ironies that even the fondest reader will notice. A noted environmental campaigner, Young always celebrated the release of his albums by buying a gas-guzzling vintage car. There are the usual celebrity laments about what “we” are doing to the planet and not a lot of personal responsibility on that score, or on others. To be fair, he has invested heavily in developing technologies for cleaner fuel. But if you don’t like being lectured from the vantage point of a personal jet, you may find yourself skipping certain passages.
Several of his relationships with women are sketched with almost telegraphic brevity. But his marriage to the folk singer Pegi Young is beautifully described. Clearly, she saved his life. And the book bursts into colour when he writes about his children. Ben, born quadriplegic and with cerebral palsy, is “my hero, my warrior”, a constantly moving and life-affirming presence throughout this chronicle.
The book is sometimes gently funny. Young tells us that the song Horse With No Name, by the 1970s band America, was so obviously influenced by his own work that his father, on first hearing it, thought it was by him. The three great groups to which Young was central – Crazy Horse, Buffalo Springfield, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – are recalled with the coolness of the insider. He is immensely generous to his fellow musicians. Behind that, some will sense a subtle reluctance to be truly open about the no doubt mysterious processes involved in being a rock’n’roll titan. “I want to love you, but I get so blown away,” he wrote in one of his masterpieces, Like a Hurricane (a track recorded in one take, he points out, only intended as a demo for his band). This book is no hurricane, rather a smokescreen of recollections offering themselves as a story that is perhaps intended to obscure before we glimpse the contradictions that made it. On that point, it does a wonderful job.
This is not a work for admirers of Bob Dylan’s brilliant Chronicles: Volume One or Patti Smith’s masterfully evocative Just Kids, in that it regards itself as an opportunity for the assemblage of interesting afterthoughts rather than a chance to make something more resonating than a rock star’s dreamy memoir. But there are deeply touching sequences too. Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and “my friend Bob” make shadowy appearances. Departed friends are recollected with sorrow and affection. It comes as a surprise to learn that the man who wrote such wild 16-wheeler riffs as Into the Black and Keep on Rocking in the Free World is an obsessive collector of model trains. Indeed, he revels in a kind of geekiness, waving it in your face, like Lady Gaga brandishing a steak at a vegan.
Some of the book’s most likable writing is about guitars. He writes about “Old Black”, his 1952 Gibson Les Paul, with the tenderness of an old cowboy praising his sidekick. In the pantheon of great rock guitarists, there was surely never an earthier one. Young, in life a gentle and unassuming presence, on stage with a guitar becomes rock’s Incredible Hulk, a player who reminds you with earthquake power that this instrument is a lump of wood with metal wires attached and 50,000 volts flowing through it. There are moments when the sardonic might feel that his descriptions become a bit Spinal Tap. Young says the audiences at gigs by Crazy Horse were fortunate to feel “the force of the Horse”, a phrase only a legend could risk without attracting a beating. But the excesses are easily forgivable.
There is passionate, heartfelt railing against the introduction to the marketplace of digital sound – a CD, he tells us, has only 5 per cent of the sonic inclusiveness of vinyl – and against the loathsome arrival of the iPod’s “shuffle” function, in this reviewer’s opinion the worst thing to happen to popular music since Rolf Harris covered Stairway to Heaven. A generation of music fans has been robbed of the immense pleasure and challenge of discovering an album’s structure, the rhythms and chimings not noticeable on first listening. This is spreading through the culture like a ghastly Simon Cowell-faced virus, so that soon we will be able to download the bits of a novel some critic told us we might like and leave its other bits lonely in cyberspace. In the name of choice, we are enslaved to the immediate. But that is another story, worse luck.
Neil Young fans, and there are millions of those (this reviewer strongly included), will relish this elusively written and beautifully illustrated book for the unique story it almost tells. Those who feel that the memoir can sometimes be more than an ultimately self-concealing genre may be left with the faintest regret. But the good thing is that many of them will be coaxed back to the songs, those strange and beautiful stories of fractured, hopeful lives as they were lived in the era of the long-playing record.
This is a book by one of rock’s few enough truly important artists. The fact that he finds himself as elusive as the rest of us find him shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise or a problem. Long may he run.
Joseph O’Connor’s new book, Where Have You Been?, is published by Harvill Secker