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Book Review: Neil Young FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Iconic and Mercurial Rocker by Glen Boyd

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Everybody knows that a standard issue rock biography or online lists of stats and facts is nowhere near being gratifying enough for a fervent fan, especially when it comes to the expect-the-unexpected but prolific and almost willingly perverse Neil Young. There are other artists and examples just as confounding to the fair-weather fan that spring to mind: Bob Dylan with his restless penchant for perennial retooling, Elvis Costello’s spice-spiked variety platters, the hejira and hissing of some free-spirited promise by Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed’s ever-new sensations and metal-machine maneuvering, and the chameleonic David Bowie doing his, oh, chameleonic thing, among others.

The long-haulers among the Neil Young faithful, however, know that though there may be detours and ditches, all roads really lead to an iconoclastic and individualistic adventurousness seemingly ingrained within the fierce independence of this uncompromising artist. Forever young and still rockin’ in the free world (well, 28 countries, to be precise in what must be a frequently answered question), Neil Young has released, in the span of his career since his 1968 departure from the Buffalo Springfield: 34 solo albums, eight live albums, 33 studio albums, 59 singles, and four soundtracks. He has also released five albums with Buffalo Springfield; 12 albums with Crazy Horse; five albums with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and one album each with Graham Nash, The Squires, The Stills-Young Band, the Shocking Pinks, the Bluenotes, and the Restless.

As for his performances, according to one statistician, Young has logged 88 tours, 1800 shows, with nearly 29,600 songs played live. And this isn’t even including the concerts with his various bands and side projects, and, of course, his Motown years with the pre-braided, super-freaky Rick James.

Can’t forget the Motor City – and a short-lived early stint with the early-‘60s group the Mynah Birds fronted by Young and the also short-lived punk-funk pioneer. However, after the American naval authorities got in touch with the can’t-touch-this, AWOL Ricky James Matthews, the music world would have to spin without – as author Glen Boyd puts it in his exhaustive, and no doubt exhaustingly researched treasure trove of all things Young – the “world’s first ever folk-rock-punk-funk supergroup.” Though I’m not sure that Young was inclined to  master the “Temptation Walk,” or bust some other choreographic moves, the prospect would have at least made the Mynah Birds, minus-Rick James, one of Motown’s first all white groups—and if you think that that distinction falls to the chartbusting Rare Earth, you’d be wrong.

As suggested by the wide range and all-embracing approach that takes in everything from Canadian beginnings to California boom, the hearth and heart of Young from “Mr. Soul” to Motown soul—the latter a relatively little-known part and parcel of Young’s career – Backbeat Books‘ informative and entertaining FAQ series (which also includes such rock subjects as the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Doors, and Led Zeppelin), Neil Young FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Iconic and Mercurial Rocker might be a bit of a misnomer. Or at least—given the bursting at the seams quantity in apt complement to the quality of this rewarding resource—there could’ve been a titular amendment to include the detail that IAQ’s—to coin an Infrequently Asked Question—exists cheek by jowl with the more familiar stats and facts answerable by more standard-issue books, magazines, and online sites.

This balancing act between the arcane and the more eminent entries is by design. Sensibly, Boyd’s intention in creating a reference that “takes the reader through [Young’s] recorded work album by album,” is to offer up the “sort of facts known by few of the most devoted fans and serves as an introduction for the initiated Neil-phyte.” The latter may appreciate NYFAQ as a kind of Neil Young 101 survey course, piecing together from the embarrassment of riches a portrait of Young as a man and artist. But Boyd, a Seattle writer and music journalist who is a former music editor at Blogcritics Magazine, did not set out to write a definitive biography, and this is certainly not a hagiographic work: more referential than reverential, Boyd’s evaluations cast a critical and incisive eye to the events and episodes the casual fan may be hazy on, whether it’s Farm Aid, the “Ditch Trilogy,” Shakey’s shaky and wavering political perspectives, or the “Southern Man” kerfuffle and the damage done.

The more ardent fan will desire more than these high-profile gateway essentials, intent on seeking out under-the-radar the particulars, minutiae, and back stories to the more generalized familiarities. He or she will come away tantalized, scandalized, or bleary-eyed with wee-hours reading. For example, beyond the refresher course reiterating that the 1985 Philadelphia Live Aid—and an off-hand remark by Bob Dylan – provided the genesis for the Farm Aid concerts and charity, lies the confirmation of any less-than-positive assessment that may exist concerning Young’s two sets, one with the International Harvesters, and – though I missed the day in grammar when they covered consonants – one with CSN, and sometimes Y.

About the Live Aid event, Boyd contends that “Crosby, Stills Nash, and Young were hardly memorable on a day that also included the cream of the era’s superstar rock-‘n’-roll talents. CSN&Y’s set was particularly horrendous.” I’m personally glad that Boyd addressed this issue, because I was at Live Aid, and my memory of those Young-involved performances are indistinct, though I do seem to recall some pitchy moments from America’s reconstituted counterculture idols of the ’80s.

Speaking of the ‘80s, the less said about the albums Trans and Everybody’s Rockin’, the better, perhaps, but Boyd gamely and discerningly rummages amidst the details of the David Geffen years—when the head of the label infamously sued Young for breach of contract for failing to serve up any actual “Neil Young records.” Condensed drive-by reading is fine with me, though. It leaves more time to explore the nooks ‘n’ crannies of some particular Neil Young faves, afforded by going into-the-black of the bolt-from-the-blue Rust Never Sleeps, and the stellar Live Rust, which contains a groove-worn sequence of back-to-back powerhouse tracks (I think they comprised a whole side on LP): the evocative “Powderfinger,” the provocative “Cortez the Killer,” and the propulsive “Cinnamon Girl.” Hey hey, my my.

Moving on in our Journey Through the Past (page 124), Boyd gratifyingly provides a chunky chapter—“There Was a Band Playing In My Head and I Felt Like Getting High” – to 1970’s After the Gold Rush, the bestselling precursor of sorts to the even bigger blockbuster Harvest. The author examines one of Young’s “more naïve attempts at a political statement,” the controversial “Southern Man,” with its “blunt, and perhaps somewhat misguided, lyrical bombs.” The song notoriously triggered the ire of the understandably indignant Lynyrd Skynyrd, who aimed back with “Sweet Home Alabama’s” trenchant rebuke that, concerning Mr. Young, “southern man don’t want him around anyhow.” What may not be as well-known is that, while familiar with the fact that vocalist and lyricist Ronnie Van Zant was a Neil Young fan, I hadn’t known the tidbit that Van Zant – who died in a fiery plane crash in 1977 with two other members of the band – was buried in the same “Tonight’s the Night” T-shirt that he wore on the disquieting flame-lined cover of the Dixie stalwarts’ posthumously released Street Survivors album.

Also included in the chapter is an astute and fascinating analysis and speculation—Boyd’s and others’—regarding the of the haunting and inscrutable but beautiful title track—which has implications touching on the fate of Crazy Horse guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Danny Whitten, whose 1972 death from a heroin overdose inspired the bleak but brilliant Tonight’s the Night. Jarring fun fact: Whitten was the writer of the song “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” popularized by Rod Stewart!

Now any inquisitive and nonlinear-minded Neil Young devotee worth his or her salt would probably be prompted by the above references to Whitten and his death to check out chapter six, “Sleeps with Angels (Too Soon): Departed Bandmates, Brothers in Arms, and Sisters in Song,” which also has an distressing account of Bruce Berry, “the worker [who] used to load that Econoline van.” (Not-so-fun fact: Berry was the unofficial drug dealer for the CSN&Y camp!) From there we may leapfrog over the classic Harvest hubbub of 1972 to read about the harrowing Tonight’s the Night. Which will land us fully mired in the “Ditch Trilogy” of 1973-’75, rounded out with Time Fades Away and On the Beach as an anti-Harvest response of sorts to terminal mellow-osity. The culminating Tonight’s the Night, considered by many to be, Boyd notes, Young’s “first true masterpiece,” is a highlight of the low expectations offered (though Boyd presents the “rallying cry” made for Time Fades Away, and asserts his own bid for On the Beach). According to Boyd, the album provides “glimpses into Young’s darkly troubled soul. Stark, raw, and ultimately beautiful, his vision of what he has since described many times as ‘audio verite’ is captured with a breathtaking sort of minimalist beauty…”

In citing just a few examples of Boyd’s expressive and well considered—and comprehensive – accounts, we’ve still barely scratched the kaleidoscopic surface. There are so many aspects, angles, and avenues to Neil Young’s life and career, that each exploration and exhortation sparks a search for more aspects, angles, and avenues. A retelling of, say, Young’s Rust Never Sleeps as “the story of Johnny Rotten” that saluted and signaled to the punks of the late-70s and early ‘80s that they had a kindred spirit in Young, might in itself inspire an FAQ and follow-through on the possible parallel to his status as the “Grandfather of Grunge” (spinning homilies about how it’s better to burn out than fade away, perhaps). Furthermore, does the portrayal of “Ohio” as a quickly marshaled record and statement spurred on by the Kent State shootings correspond with a reaction to another galvanizing tragedy, namely the events of 9/11? Well, yes, and no: this note’s not always for you.

Whatever the case, any thirst for, and answers to NY’s FAQs (and Infrequently Asked Questions) is readily and initially slaked with a mere gander at the gamut and the gap-filling qualities of the ample ABBA-to-Zappa Index, while more delayed gratification comes courtesy of the Selected Bibliography of books, magazines, and websites. Moreover, the variegated Table of Contents listing the 42 memory-jogging chapters may short-out your attention-span circuitry with impulsive-inducing tangents. How could you see such enticing chapter titles as “Hey, Ho, Away We Go: We’re on the Road to Never: Neil Young’s Most Underrated Albums,” “Piece of Crap: Five Essential Neil Young Bootlegs,” or “Words (Between the Lines of Age): What Other Artists Have Said About Neil Young” and not get senselessly sidetracked?

The latter chapter includes a quote from Randy Newman, no slouch in his songwriting stint himself: “Most people did their best work when they were younger,” he begins. “Neil Young is as good as he ever was, which is quite an accomplishment … it seems like there’s no tricks to him. I don’t know if you could name anybody better who came out of rock and roll.”

When you couple that endorsement with the fact that, as Boyd notes, “Young continues to crank out records at a rate that would kill most artists half his age,” you have to say – no question about it – long may he run.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • theusername

    better to have been there. just buy the albums, download the boots.

  • Greg Barbrick

    Great review Gordon. And to the erstwhile Rockologist: Come back, all is forgiven!

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    The Rockologist is always here, Greg. Hell, he is everywhere. By the way, call me, will ya’? I’ve been trying to call you, but the line is always busy. Social life picking up, eh?

    -Glen

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/gordon-hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Thanks, Greg– I appreciate it.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thanks for the nice review Gordon. I enjoyed reading this a lot, and found it interesting to be on the “other side” of a review for a change…LOL. Seriously though, appreciated this a lot. Thanks again!

    -Glen

  • Jimmy Nelson

    Just bought this on Amazon. Unfortunately, as talented a writer as Gordon Hauptfleisch is, even he can’t paper over the poorly conceived, even more poorly executed mess that this book is.

    First off, it’s sadly obvious that Glen Boyd is as close to his subject as anybody else who bought the albums — and no more than that. He provides no new information, having clearly gathered what little he knows from elsewhere on the internet, from liner notes and from previous books on Young.

    Secondly, and far more disastrously, his writing is hackneyed, repetitive, and sometimes confusingly constructed. I worried, going in, that he’d composed the book in an episodic fashion because he was too scattered, lazy or distracted to adequately make any salient points. All of my worries bore fruit.

    My only frequently asked question, as I completed Glen Boyd’s book was: Why did I buy this?

  • mellenhead

    I was about ready to order this book when I found this. Whew, thanks for saving me some money, Jimmy!