Touring the Mind of Neil Young

By Jesse JarnowOctober 29, 2012

Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young

THE TRUEST OBSERVATION one can make about Neil Young's new memoir Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream is that it is a book by Neil Young. It is ornery and messy and irrepressibly enthusiastic, the book one might write if he was also the kind of person prone to, say, spending three million dollars to rent a Hollywood soundstage in order to make a bizarre comedy about nuclear destruction co-starring Dennis Hopper and Devo. Or develop a mid-life obsession with model trains and end up buying a major share of Lionel.

They are the same whims that have also borne the 66-year-old Young through a five-decade career, careening between mournful folk and silvery feedback sessions, and define the central mystery of his music. Using his 37 proper albums and endless bootlegs to try to reverse-engineer the person behind them, one might end with a somewhat reasonable idea of just who Neil Young is. But even that probably can’t adequately prepare a reader for the experience of spending nearly 500 pages inside Young’s head. For reasons having little to do with sex or drugs, Waging Heavy Peace might be the most authentically demystifying rock memoir yet ever penned.

"There is a lot here to cover, and I have never done this before," Young notes at one point. "Also, I am not interested in form for form's sake. So if you are having trouble reading this, give it to someone else. End of chapter." And the chapter ends.

Indeed, Waging Heavy Peace batters relentlessly at the structure of a memoir and what we might expect out of one — short chapters, long chapters, some titled, some not, chapters on end that read like diary entries detailing his current projects, a vastly jumbled chronology, occasional pronouncements about other books he'd like to write (Dogs and Cars, some fiction, a biography of producer David Briggs), characters introduced without context, and no index. Where we might yearn for personal reflection, Young is more apt to provide the details of the car he was driving at the time. Like the best (and worst) Neil Young albums, all of Waging Heavy Peace's quick-reading pages capture Young's mood at the very moment of creation, and — to that end — capture Young himself. It is Young’s first and best take philosophy in book form. Anything less would have been a disappointment anyway.

Rarely, though, does Waging Heavy Peace match up with the power of Young’s best music. Neither the high, quivering tenderness of his voice nor the loose transcendence of his jams with Crazy Horse come through in anything other than homeopathic quantities. In some ways, Young’s inability to translate his most renowned qualities to print only underscores their beauty. At its best, Waging Heavy Peace conveys a much deeper part of Young’s personality.
For all its chaos, the book has several remarkably sturdy plot lines — and more than a few mundane ones — keeping Young's tumble between past, present, and future in the air with spurious grace. There's the present-tense year-in-the-life of Neil, which involves the writing of Waging Heavy Peace, trips to Hawaii, and adventures with the family dog. "This book is one thing that I am doing to stay off the stage," he admits.

As a storyteller, Young is, of course, holding all the cards, and he's got a lot of past to parcel out. Eventually. In doing so, he ably covers most of the major points of Jimmy McDonough's 739-page 2003 tome Shakey: Neil Young's Biography, if not with quite the same level of precision. Besides the Ducks — the Santa Cruz bar band he took up with briefly in the summer of 1977 — he touches on pretty much everything: his brief marriage to Carrie Snodgrass; Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s coke-zooted ridiculousness; the booze-soaked Tonight’s the Night sessions; his synth dalliances on Trans; his epilepsy, and on and on. But much of the problem is Young’s reluctance to connect the scattered Yayoi Kusama-like dots of his life.

“Lying on my back on the pavement, I saw the faces looking down at me,” he writes movingly of his first epileptic seizure, at the Hollywood Teen Fair in 1967. “It was like I had just been born, and I recognized no one. I didn’t really even know my own name […] I felt it onstage, I felt it in crowds, I felt it in grocery stores, this unreasonable anxiety all the time waiting in the wings to come out and envelop me. It had an effect. Eventually I could not even go to the Laurel Canyon Country Store, which was near my place, to buy food. There were too many aisles and too much produce, too many choices for me.”

But Young is typically non-committal when it comes time to tie his epilepsy to anything else in his life, never addressing the fact that some of his Buffalo Springfield bandmates suspected him of faking, nor acknowledging the possibility that these experiences might have unfolded in any particular way in the fragility of his songwriting. “In my life I have had various health threats: polio, seizures, a brain aneurysm,” he assesses almost dismissively. “None of these things has really changed me, although it’s hard to say for sure.”

One explanation for Young’s reticence comes early in the book. "I am currently tired of my musical self," Young admits. "I have reached a point where I have OD'd. When this happens, it is temporary, but my capacity to enjoy music disappears totally. Everything I think of musically is a joke and I reject it completely." He returns to the theme over and over. "We need a real reason to believe in what we're doing," he says about a then-upcoming reunion with Crazy Horse. "I hope it's still there." In other words, if Young was feeling in touch with the part of himself that channeled his particular heartache into strummed folk tunes, guitar explorations, or anything else, he'd probably be writing songs instead of a book.

What Young is enthusiastic about, though, is the contents of the seemingly endless barns at his ranch (for, you know, model trains and vintage autos and video editing suites), the Lincvolt electric car, and the high-end MP3 alternative he's helping to develop and for which the book sometimes seems like a print infomercial. “And Now, Another Word from Our Sponsor, PureTone,” he titles one chapter, with some self-consciousness. By turns, it’s annoying, hilarious, and — finally — meaningful.

"The next thing model trains need to do is abandon modeling the sounds by user input and become real," Young declares during one reverie on model trains. "The effort involved in pulling a load needs to be measured, and algorithms that used to be based on user input need to be newly based on the locomotive's effort measured to pull the load or perform the task," he continues, and carries on as such for another half-page or so.

To dismiss any of the above as digressions or somehow inessential to Young's book (or his life) is a mistake. They are Young at his purest. Like Patti Smith's Just Kids or Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Volume One, Waging Heavy Peace mirrors its creator entirely. It is clearly a work without a ghostwriter. At least, one assumes a professional ghostwriter wouldn't suddenly use a popular Internet acronym to describe Neil's father's spaghetti recipe — a genuinely LOL-worthy and surprisingly effective literary moment. The occasional jerkiness of the text would seem accidental if it didn't happen frequently enough to suggest that it might actually be highly instinctive on Young's part.

"[My mother] never forgave [my father] for leaving us," Young writes. "I did." New paragraph. "Anyway…" and he's back to talking about the purchase of his first hearse. He comes back to the topic of his father a few times, and though he never fleshes their relationship out too much, his treatment of the topic likely says far more than Young could in words. The specifics of the story are covered by Shakey, anyway, and some of the emotions in Neil and Me, written by Neil's father Scott, a preeminent Canadian newspaper columnist and television personality. Perhaps inadvertently, Young the Younger adheres at many turns to creative writing 101 — show, don't tell — and each of these turns spiral deeper into his psyche.

"I was into [cocaine] so much that I would end up having the same dream very often, just being there amped out of my mind, wondering if and when I would be able to sleep, wishing I were on an island with the big green lawn and the palm fronds rustling, feeling that gentle wind." Revealingly, this segues into a present-tense anecdote about staying at his Hawaiian home and going on a trip with his friends to wander around Costco for two hours. If Young sees this as a triumph over his younger self, who would feel the rising of an epileptic seizure when entering a grocery store, he doesn’t share it.

Though he repeatedly points out that he's stopped smoking pot, the wide-eyed openness with which he experiences the Costco is another example of the doofy and ingrained stoner wonder that has so long defined him. "Costco and Sports Authority are like cultural centers here on the Big Island," he observes wistfully. "You might get a similar feeling from walking around in them for a few hours, looking at the displays, as you would in a big museum in some forgotten culture."

It's doesn't exactly compare to Chronicles's enduring image of Oh Mercy-era Dylan piloting a Harley into bayou country and getting into a two-page conversation with the proprietor of a backcountry gift shop about the Chinese origin of Native Americans. But unlike Chronicles, any given page of Waging Heavy Peace seems more likely to be true in the literal sense of the word. In that regard, there is a key historical story that Waging Heavy Peace tells differently than Shakey, and the difference is significant.

Both Shakey and Neil and Me recount an incident between Young and Elliot Roberts, the Buffalo Springfield's temporary manager, then crashing on Young's couch, circa 1968. In Roberts' telling (via McDonough), he drove Young to the band meeting in which they were scheduled to formally hire Roberts for the job. When the vote was called, however, Young was the only negative-voting member, and subsequently reduced Roberts to tears. Several days later, Young quit the band, and quickly hired Roberts to handle his solo career, which Roberts has guided ever since. It is a keen story to deploy in order to demonstrate that Young is far more calculating than his spontaneity lets on. Young denied it to McDonough and he goes out of his way to deny it again.

"I was totally committed every step of the way and had no idea what I would be thinking the next day," he claims in Waging Heavy Peace. "This was not planned. I was just completely crazy and fluid, changing from day to day, adapting to my feelings and acting on them immediately." Given the way Young's subsequent career has continued to bear itself out, right up through the text of Waging Heavy Peace, Young's telling is far more consistent with his character.

It is also an explanation for why Young isn't fully capable of accessing his musical past with the ease of other rock memoirists. It's not merely that he's no longer the guy who recorded Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, it's that he never was that guy to begin with, excepting the 40 minutes it took to perform the takes used on the album. Unlike Dylan, Young never needed to invent or reinvent new pasts or presents for himself, and he doesn't now either.

In this way, Waging Heavy Peace stars a Borges' story worth of infinite Neils, all reacting, deciding, and living as the days demand. It is both a plea and a testimonial for Young's way of life, way of thinking, and way of producing music. It's surely a cliché to ascribe so much to the "unpredictability" of a privileged male rock star living in the bubble of the hippie hinterlands outside Santa Cruz with barns filled with cars and model trains. But Young's choices seemingly extend beyond privilege to something more pathological.

What Waging Heavy Peace's unfussy prose reveals is how uncomplicated that mechanism really is. Young’s enthusiasm is simultaneously the most mystical and demystifying thing about him and, by extension, Waging Heavy Peace. Not even Young seems to understand it. "We had such a great time!" he enthuses guilelessly about one section of the documentary-in-progress about his Lincvolt project. "I am so glad to have that memory and a recording of it. It is a beautiful thing to have, and it makes me feel so happy.” But then, immediately, he continues, “All of the footage surrounding the Wichita build may end up on the cutting-room floor, though. Looking back, it doesn’t make me feel very good, because the task of building the car became so difficult.” The sequence passes from Young’s favorite part of the documentary to the scrap-heap in less than a paragraph.

Documentaries-in-progress seem to be a typical condition of life around Young. "Devo was like the crew of the starship Enterprise — we just watched the behavior of the people in Los Angeles and couldn't believe it," Devo's Gerald Casale once noted about their time in Young's orbit.

For Young, his enthusiasm simply is, and the truth is that even his most head-scratching detours have produced entirely unpredictable and sometimes wonderful results. The occasionally unwatchable Human Highway, filmed in 1978 and for which Young doled out three million dollars, also features a jaw-dropping nine-minute jam on the then-new "Hey Hey, My My" with Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh singing lead in full Booji Boy drag while Young unfurled one of the gnarliest guitar solos of his career.

Waging Heavy Peace is in no sense a head-scratcher, though it's as uncivilized as Young is. Perhaps the biggest reveal comes near the end, when Young casually mentions that his book-in-progress doesn't yet have a publisher. Like everything else he has ever done, he's doing it because he feels like it. While he refers to the book as “the goose that laid the golden egg” and revels in the cash influx it will bring, the result is anything but ambivalent, even as it frustrates, repeats itself, and fails to yield any bankable secrets about Young’s Toronto days spent rooming with Rick James when the two were the Mynah Birds together.

It is often said that a first-time author will throw everything he knows into his first book. Given all that Young leaves out, as well as his career-long commitment to river-like change, one hopes that he’ll hold true to his promise to pen another, and that it will be as different from Waging Heavy Peace as one of his albums is from another. He didn’t really get good until his second record, anyway.


Recommended Reads:

LARB Contributor

Jesse Jarnow is the author of Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock (Gotham, 2012) and hosts The Frow Show on the independent Jersey City radio station WFMU. His writing has appeared in the Village Voice, the London Times, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn and tweets via @bourgwick.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!