If this is starting to sound random and a little irritating, that’s because it is. But as the book rolls on, it gathers heft and builds toward a vivid but disjointed picture of Young’s life. His father, Scott Young, was a famous Canadian journalist and prolific author. Neil grew up in small towns and spent his teen years with his mother after his parents divorced. Befitting a guy who wrote “Sugar Mountain” at 19 as a ballad to lost youth, he is good at wistful nostalgia: coming home from his paper route to find his dad making pancakes; traveling through Canada in a hearse with his early band, the Squires; going to a festival in the hippie heyday of Topanga Canyon (none of this in chronological order, mind you).
And every now and then, just as with his music, Young will spill out something beautiful, often related to his kids or his wife, Pegi. He describes finding a pair of old metal arrows long ago at a junk shop in Albuquerque and leaving them stuck in a wall at his house. Now when he comes back from his travels, they remind him he’s home, bring back echoes of his daughter’s footsteps, ground him in the past. “It’s odd,” he writes, “but the way Pegi likes those arrows makes me feel like she knows me.”
Young also excels at capturing that moment of innocence just before life takes off and becomes complicated. For him, it’s all caught up in his music and embodied in his long relationship with Crazy Horse. “I can remember singing that song with them in the studio like it was this morning,” he writes of “Running Dry,” from his second solo album. “There was no success, nothing to live up to, just love and music and life and youth. That was a happy time. That is Crazy Horse.”
And life did get complicated. Young has two sons diagnosed with cerebral palsy — one, Ben, is quadriplegic and has never been able to speak. It was for him that Young began, in the 1980s, spending more time designing special control mechanisms for model railroads than working on music. But true to the spirit of a man who became a famous singer with a strange and unconventional voice, who collects old broken cars and gets sued by his own record company for making uncommercial music, Young learned to appreciate his sons for what he calls their uniqueness.
Toward the end of the book, Young spends considerable time reconciling himself with the deaths of friends, from the early ones — roadie Bruce Berry and guitarist Danny Whitten, of drug overdoses — to the recent deaths of producer David Briggs, film producer Larry Johnson and slide guitarist Ben Keith. There’s a harrowing moment when Pegi calls him on the road to tell him that Keith has died, and when she says “Ben,” he thinks she means their son.
One thing that has always marked Young’s best work is its genuineness. When he was young, his anger, sadness, frustration or pleasure was there in every sloppy chord and warped vocal. Now he’s getting old, and he doesn’t pretend not to be. A fan might nurse a little worry that Young is aware of his shtick, that the strung-out hippie has become the graybeard riding a shiny Harley to the Cracker Barrel. But “Waging Heavy Peace” makes a good case otherwise. Time and again, he confronts his big fear: that he doesn’t have the spark anymore. And he’s honest enough to admit that he can’t know the answer. All he can do is keep trying.
“I suddenly realize that things have changed so much that I might be getting lost,” he writes. “The old ways I know are losing ground. My way is fading. But I still feel. No one can take that away from me. It is a gift I still have and I want my own music to feel as alive and vibrant as what I am hearing now.”
is The Washington Post’s business editor.