Neil Young’s new autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, largely recounts the strange career of its writer, but it contains few of the brilliant peaks that make some of Young’s frustrating releases worth slogging through.
Young has had a long and interesting musical life, filled with impulsive decisions, burned-and-rebuilt bridges and broken bands. Along the way, he also happened to collect a sizable number of vintage cars and model trains and invest in some technological projects. A reader’s interest in Waging Heavy Peace will depend to a large extent on an ability to power through some tough writing … as well as an interest in cars and trains.
When Young started making a name for himself in America (he originally hails from Canada) as a member of Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, he played rock and roll pulled heavily from country and folk. Electric guitars occasionally gave the music an edge, but sugary harmonies and acoustic picking generally kept things pleasant. On the cover of Waging Heavy Peace, Neil Young sports a hat emblazoned with the words “Hippie Dream,” and the work he did with the early bands fits that description. That work commented on the events of the times with songs like “For What It’s Worth,” “Woodstock,” and “Ohio.” It showed energy, but it stayed sweet and relatively unchallenging.
When Young struck out for solo waters, he began to transform his music with a startling run of albums between 1969 and 1975. His second solo album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, recorded with Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina, and Danny Whitten (the band dubbed Crazy Horse), looped and smashed guitar lines together, casually destructive, but never breaking a sweat. Young stretched out his songs, as if it took too much effort to stop playing. His music conveyed an illusion of remarkable relaxation, despite immense precision and power. In Tonight’s The Night, recorded in 1973 after two close friends of Young’s had died from overdoses (one was Danny Whitten), Young sounded pissed off and depressed. He no longer bothered with the pleasantries that endeared him to fellow hippie dreamers, and he apparently recorded most of Tonight’s The Night while completely wasted on tequila. The session produced lines like these:
I’m singing this borrowed tune, I took from the rolling stone
Alone in this empty room, too wasted to write my own.
Young reveled in his blues, and created some of his most affecting music.
In the late ‘70s, Young’s music began to swing between wild highs and lows. He gave a few good albums, several really bad ones, and one that involved modulating his voice through a vocoder, an experiment that prompted his record label to sue him for “making music uncharacteristic of Neil Young.” At the start of the ‘90s, Young went on tour with Sonic Youth and got hip again. Afterward, he settled into a position of rock and roll royalty.
From this newly eminent position, Young gets to take advantage of one of the principle perks of being a successful rock ’n’ roller—writing an autobiography.
He says at one point during Waging Heavy Peace, “I am not interested in form for form’s sake.” More generally, he doesn’t appear interested in narrative clarity. When the book starts, Young writes at his ranch in the mountains near San Francisco, or in Hawaii. Then he’s a youngster in Canada, then drunk at the Tonight’s The Night recording sessions, then recording with Pearl Jam in the ‘90s, then starting with CSNY in ‘69. Young plays with time the way author David Mitchell plays with it in Cloud Atlas. Honestly, it’s difficult to figure out what has happened at any given moment.
For a man whose lyrics consistently earn praise, Young writes like a tank, powering in whatever direction he chooses with little revision (he claims that he only rewrote one paragraph in the book). He’s direct and sappy, and while direct lyrics often translate well when paired with pretty melodies—think of heartrending songs like “Helpless” or “Heart of Gold”—such lyrics don’t necessarily fly off the written page. Young tends to describe things he particularly enjoys (a certain sound, or the scenery) as “like God.” When he finds events hard to explain, he favors one-word sentences: “Life.” “All good things must pass. Why? . . . Life.” He comments frequently on his relationships and those that exist around him, at one point going so far as to list his best friends, which I guess will qualify to some as childishly endearing. He says of his current wife, “I would be an island without my ocean if we were not together in our hearts.” The Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot got married a few years ago, and Young approves, saying “I think that it is beautiful. . . Love.”
When not stuck in sentimental mode, Young often operates as a salesman, repeatedly returning to his two principle technological pursuits: PureTone and LincVolt.
PureTone devices will apparently allow listeners to hear music in its full, unadulterated power. Young constantly tells the reader that MP3s only contain five percent of the data present in a “masterfile, or even a vinyl record,” and that the weakening of sound goes hand-in-hand with the weakening of the importance of music in society. He hopes to reverse this process with PureTone technology.
LincVolt refers to Young’s electric car project; according to its website, LincVolt hopes to “inspire a generation by creating a clean automobile propulsion technology that serves the needs of the 21st Century and delivers performance that is a reflection of the driver’s spirit.” Young plugs these projects heavily throughout the book, and he even makes fun of himself for doing it. He’s sincere and enthusiastic, but like any advertisement, the impact of repeated exposure diminishes rapidly and becomes annoying over the course of a 497-page book.
LincVolt relates more generally to Young’s love of old cars. At one point, he owned some 35 vintage cars. He describes many in depth—“Point is, there were a lot of cars.”
Young also produced a lot of music, which we hear about occasionally, but not necessarily in much detail.
For example, the story of Harvest, one of Young’s most successful albums, submerges itself in a tale of medical problems. And there’s little information about the break-ups of Young’s various bands. “We broke up because we were broken,” he says of Buffalo Springfield. He acknowledges rumors that he can be hard to work with, but all his “decisions are made with the music in mind.” We do find out that he wrote “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By The River,” and “Cowgirl In The Sand” (three of the most famous songs on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere) in a single day—while he had the flu. Still, the book almost feels like the work of an enthusiastic hobbyist who happens to pick up a guitar now and again.
Most musicians’ autobiographies do not strictly stick with the music. Inevitably, and often by explicit design, personal history slides into place next to the tunes. Sometimes events become inextricably tangled in hindsight. Sometimes sex and drugs sell more books. Sometimes, musicians want to square vendettas.
The personal details can add an essential dimension to a life story, helping a reader learn about the artist and the environment that helped form works. They can be immensely entertaining. But in Young’s case, the non-musical details tend towards the commercial—PureTone, LincVolt—or appeal mainly to the interests of a few avid collectors. They end up mostly a distraction.
If you want to learn more about Young’s private life and various non-musical pursuits, Waging Heavy Peace will do the trick. There’s a certain charm to his non-musical enthusiasms, and it can be interesting to hear about the wild stuff that people do with their money when they hit it big. But the book doesn’t do much to illuminate Neil Young the musician, aside from demonstrating what any fan already knows – he does whatever he wants, for better or for worse.
Elias Leight is getting a Ph.D. at Princeton in politics. He is from Northampton, Massachusetts, and writes about music at signothetimesblog.