Book review: ‘Waging Heavy Peace’ by Neil Young
By Greg Schneider,
Neil Young wrote the line “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” in 1978, and he has lived a long time since then without doing either.
He’s 67now, and yes, he has slowed down. He spends a lot of time on his ranch tinkering with model trains and battery-powered cars. But Young can wield an electric guitar like few people alive, and he’s still cranking out records as often as someone a third his age.
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.
At one point, you go shopping with him and two buddies at Costco (he looks at flat-screen TVs and buys refills for his Sonicare toothbrush) and Sports Authority. Can you imagine reaching for a pack of tube socks and running into this lanky old guy in torn jeans and a flannel shirt?
In between, Young delivers sales pitches for a new gadget he’s working on called Pono, a digital music system with super-high-quality audio. He casts it as an effort to save the music industry, and it’s interesting to hear about — once. By the fourth or fifth time, not so much.
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.”
Greg Schneider is The Washington Post’s business editor.
WAGING HEAVY PEACE By Neil Young Blue Rider. 502 pp. $30