As a lifelong fan of Neil Young, I have to say that I never expected to see him write his autobiography. Young has never been one to talk about himself, so the odds of him writing such a book seemed remote at best. Although he does not mention it, one has to wonder if Keith Richards’ excellent Life influenced his decision to finally do it. Whatever the reason, in his sprawling 502-page Waging Heavy Peace, Young opens up like never before.
In some ways, the book has a lot in common with his music. He has pursued a number of stylistic directions over the years, be it acoustic, electric, or even the electronics of Trans. No matter what the records sound like though, they are all unequivocally his. The same holds true for the book. The many directions his life has taken are discussed, as are other interests such as cars, trains, and his devotion to improving the sound quality of online music. Young is genuinely appalled by MP3s, and a major goal of his is to upgrade it and the other online delivery formats.
In addressing the various subjects in the book, Young juggles a number of narratives. There is the basic story of the young Canadian rocker who comes to America seeking his fame and fortune. Then he will take a side-trip to talk about how wonderful life in Topanga Canyon was in the early ‘70s, and on into the meeting of his first wife, and later buying the ranch he named Broken Arrow.
It seems very much like Young just sat down and wrote as the muse struck. Unlike Richards’ Life, Young’s look back is not chronological. It seems to be more of a stream of consciousness way of writing, and this structure sets it apart. Young goes for the moments, with vivid descriptions of situations like the fevered state he was in when he wrote “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Down by the River,” and “Cinnamon Girl.” Sprinkled in between are remembrances of favorite cars, his model trains, and his work in improving sound quality.
With 502 pages to work with, it seems like he gets it all in there. But it is somewhat hard to follow if one is just looking for the “straight” story of his life. But this is Neil Young after all. Over the years, he has been asked many times about what his “real” musical style is. More than just about any major artist I can think of, he has made records in an incredibly diverse array of modes. When asked about this, he has always responded with words to the effect of it all being one, that every song he has ever written is part of the larger whole.
Fans, (and David Geffen), may not see the forest for the trees at times. One might ask just how an acoustic song like “Heart of Gold” fits in with the electonica of “Sample and Hold.” On the surface, they are quite different. But both songs reflect what was going on in his life at the time, and as he stresses over and over, that is the only songwriting criteria he has.
One thing I appreciated was his discussion of the Geffen Records lawsuit. I think we all found it a little hard to believe that Young was in such a fog that he could not even understand what the complaint was. He knew, and it is refreshing to hear him tell his side. When Young turned in Trans, he was a little pissed at Geffen. In the book he admits that he was goading the label boss with Everybody’s Rockin’. Geffen had told him he wanted a “rock and roll” album, so Young delivered a ‘50s style rockabilly record. Just to stir the pot a bit more, he followed that with the straight country of Old Ways.
He also sets the record straight about his “endorsement” of Ronald Reagan. Once again, Young was well aware of what he was doing. He was being interviewed by a reporter who figured that the guy who wrote “Ohio” was a solid liberal, so he messed with him. It was blown way out of proportion according to Young though.
In reading Waging Heavy Peace, it is the indelible moments that impressed me the most. There is a song on American Stars ‘N Bars called “Will to Love” which has been eviscerated in some quarters for its conceit of comparing a man’s will to love with that of a spawning salmon. I think it is a wonderful song, but the story behind it provides a marvelous glimpse into the heart of the artist.
Young was working up a demo of the song at home, in front of his fireplace. For anyone who has heard this track, the crackling wood is part of it, as is his fully committed vocal. The performance was never intended for release, but when he went to record it in the studio, he realized that he had captured it perfectly on that little home cassette. He decided that he could never improve on it, so he just added a few minor overdubs, and put it out.
For fans, that story probably encapsulates what it is we love about him. What you see is what you get, there is no artifice. “Will to Love” is the only song in his extensive catalog that was recorded that way, because it was a complete accident. Yet when he listened to it, he realized that he had captured it, and that was that. It is little wonder that he was later called the “godfather of grunge,” because his whole focus has been to be as honest in all things as possible.
On the printed page, Young comes across as a very engaging man. Beyond that, what he has to say about the loss of sound with these online delivery systems is something that is extremely valid, yet nobody seems to care.
I have to wonder if this issue of sound quality has to do with age. Is it really just those of us over 40 who give a damn about how their music sounds? I find myself as flabbergasted as Young is that nobody seems to be bothered by the fact that you only get 5% of the original recorded sound on an MP3.
The subject of aging is never far from the surface, especially considering the fact that Young has lost so many people over the years. For fans, the big story here is simply that he has opened up and is telling his stories. For that reason alone, I recommend the book. But there is more, such as the MP3 business, and his thoughts on the changing face of this nation.
Waging Heavy Peace is like a good Neil Young record. There are a number of intriguing levels, and what you may have passed over initially may well turn out to contain some of the most riveting elements of all. It is the most interesting rock autobiography I have read since Life, and then some.