That tension between aging and rocking is a constant presence in his new memoir, “Waging Heavy Peace.” Growing old is a challenge for anybody, but when you’re a rock star, the pressure seems especially cruel. Once you were a god of youth who embodied everybody’s tender glory, and now your wrinkles make all those worshippers kinda depressed. And if you still want to make art, you have to fight against the public’s wish for nostalgia.
For instance, is a Young classic such as “Tonight’s the Night” any less great because it’s older than some concert-goers and the guy singing it looks like a grandpa? More than that, can somebody old enough for Social Security continue to challenge listeners and influence new bands?
The evidence is pretty slim; there aren’t a lot of relevant rockers out there — ones you really have to pay attention to — who are pushing 70. That list may start with Bob Dylan and end with Neil Young.
So here’s Neil, not going gently, flogging away at the whole idea of artistic inspiration and how to nurture and sustain it through the ups and downs of life. Either that, or he wrote a book because he needs some money.
“Writing is very convenient, has a low expense, and is a great way to pass the time,” he says. “I highly recommend it to any old rocker who is out of cash and doesn’t know what to do next.”
Fair enough. Plenty of his peers have been taking that advice. But Young’s book is no rollicking pirate’s tale like Keith Richards’s autobiography, nor will it win any literary awards like Patti Smith’s. No, this is something far weirder. It’s cranky, loopy, sincere and schmaltzy at the same time. Some poor editor probably had the temptation to untangle all the twisted chronologies and aimless asides, but thank goodness that didn’t happen.
Because this is how Young works. He makes a virtue of flaws, and he’s at his best when he is most messed-up, spontaneous and human. He will sometimes bewilder concert audiences by playing all unreleased material, then record the performance and put that out instead of a studio album. He recorded one song, “Will to Love,” by himself in front of the fireplace — made it up on the spot — then never played it again. He lay in bed delirious with fever and wrote three classics at once: “Cinnamon Girl,” “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down by the River.”
He played with some of the finest musicians of the rock era, but the band he stuck with, Crazy Horse, could barely play its instruments. Still can’t, 40 years on. Ever seen one of his movies? He directs under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey, which also describes his technique.
With “Waging Heavy Peace,” Young apparently started typing one afternoon as he prepared for a business meeting and just kept going for weeks as stuff occurred to him. It’s like Uncle Neil discovered e-mail: “Anyway, now I’m polishing the glass on one of the display shelves that houses my collection,” he writes, referring to his Lionel trains. Then he walks over to his garage.