If you ask me, Neil Young is perpetually cool. I went through a big Neil phase circa 1990-1994 or so, turned on by the epic, cranky "Rockin' In The Free World" single and the accompanying stellar album Freedom. Somewhere along the way I lost interest in picking up every new album of his as they came out and drifted on to other things — not that I stopped liking Neil Young, you understand. Now, thanks to a fine book, I'm back on the Neil Young kick again.
The 2002 book Shakey: Neil Young's Biography by Jimmy McDonough is an attempt to untangle the truth about Young – and it featured the cooperation of the very private star. Star cooperation often means a book that's been whitewashed into generic, applauding prose.
But McDonough has crafted a book that belongs in the higher echelons of rock biographies – it's loose, sprawling, candid, overlong and over-opinionated, and it fits its subject perfectly. More than 10 years of work and a lot of heartbreak went into Shakey, and it shows. Through more than 800 pages, I was riveted. Those expecting a more conventional biography will be annoyed, but I think McDonough knew that Neil would confound any attempts to pin him down and adapted accordingly. Shakey acknowledges that no biography can capture every facet of a life, that there's always some myth and mystery in trying to retell someone's story. The result is a book that's as much about Neil Young as it is about trying to write a book about Neil Young.
McDonough casts himself prominently in the book as he trolls through Young's 40-year career, hunting down old friends, relatives, and enemies. The book is also interspersed with lengthy, remarkably honest interviews with Young, who comes off as a cantankerous but often brilliant artist constantly trying to break the mold: "Rock and roll … that's where God and the devil shake hands – right there, heh heh heh."