‘Cause there are very few of us left my friend/ From the days that used to be Neil Young, “The Days That Used to Be” from 1990’s Ragged Glory album
Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young (Blue Rider Press, $30.00, 502 pages)
Where to begin. Let’s try with Neil’s own words. How about we work backward from page 409?
“About twenty years later, in the mid-nineties, Briggs and I were making an album. I still call it an album because that is what I make. I don’t make CDs or iTunes tracks. I make albums. That is just what I do. Call it what you like. I remember how I hated the shuffle feature on iTunes because it f—– up the running order I spent hours laboring over. Having tracks available independently and having the shuffle factor sucks as far as I am concerned. Call me old-fashioned. I make albums and I want the songs to go together to create a feeling. I do those things on purpose. I don’t want people cherry-picking the albums. I like to choose the singles. After all, it’s my s—.”
That, in a nutshell is Neil Young’s amazing autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace.
The title comes from a query directed at Neil in which he was asked if he was waging war with Apple. He replied, “No, I’m waging heavy peace.”
Neil has been working on starting a company (originally PureTone, now Pono due to an alleged copyright infringement) – Neil is always in the middle of some project or another – to restore digital music to something resembling its original sound. In what I will call a companion release, whether accurate or not, the album sans CD Psychedelic Pill, a project with Crazy Horse, now leads with the song “Driftin’ Back”. A key verse starts off, “When you hear my song now/You only get 5%”. His web page contains a message touting that in 2012 record companies will release High Resolution Audio. Neil is nothing if not passionate, and he is overtly committed to doing all he can to ensure the next generation does not forget what music is supposed to sound like.
This book is as close to honesty as one can get without it becoming too uncomfortable. Yes, Neil likes cars and trains. He loves his wife, Pegi. But, how about finding out he needs brain surgery only to go to Nashville to record one of his finest works, Prairie Wind, while waiting for surgery on the aneurysm because he can’t sit still? How about vacillating between being a young guy who strands a woman in New Mexico to find her own way home because she is grating on his nerves, matter-of-factly describing incidents and leaving compatriots dead in the manuscript due to various indiscretions, and describing incidents such as David Crosby visiting with a yacht disguised as a meth lab, and yet revisits such scenes with candor, honesty, tenderness, love, and loyalty, that he comes across as eminently noble and likeable?
This is some book. Neil has two children with handicaps. Many people know this. Throughout the book, he continues to refer to his son Ben as Ben Young. Always Ben Young. At first this seems as quirky as Neil himself, until the reader eventually discovers the respect behind the moniker.
Neil tells you he’s writing the book as he writes it. He confides that he is attempting to produce art sober for the first time in his life. He has tremendous allegiance and affinity for fellow musicians, explains why Buffalo Springfield could never continue in its burst of brilliance, and admires Jimmy Fallon for doing a better Neil than Neil.
Some have compared this book to Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. Understandable, I guess, but Bob is Bob, and Neil is Neil, and this book is so captivating and fascinating that I cannot compare it to anything.
I rarely lapse into first person in any formal writing, but this book moved me. It hit me in the gut and remains stuck with me somehow, like Neil’s music. I could refer to Neil as Young, or Mr. Young, like The Wall Street Journal would. But I cannot. Neil is too personal to me. I’ll never meet the man, but if he goes first, I’ll never forget him.
Thanks, Neil, for staying true to your art in good times and bad, and creating such moving and unique tales of humanity that will last forever – and for writing one helluva book.
Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.