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Not so Special

Special Deluxe Amazon

Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars by Neil Young (Blue Rider Press, $32.00, 383 pages)

“I see cars as reflections of the American dream through the ages, a mirror of the culture. They are the art of their time, a mirror through which you can see American culture.”

Neil Young’s Special Deluxe might have been called Long May You Run: Cars, Drives and Life. While his earlier memoir, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, was an excellent work recalling Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, this is a weak collection of slight, random memories. These are stories you might have heard from Young during his drinking days.

In theory, this is a look back at the cars Young has owned. “In theory” because there’s not much detail about any of them, they’re simply stepping off platforms for him to write about his personal relationships, musical experiences, etc. And his dogs, for which – by his admission, he was not necessarily the most responsible pet owner.

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It quickly becomes tiring to read about old, rusted out, gas guzzling monsters. The one exception is when he comes into possession of the very first Buick Skylark – a convertible, built back in 1953. (And he later tours the ancient, decaying plant where it was manufactured.)

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When it comes to music, Young revisits some ground he covered in Peace, while taking a slap at the “blown-out drug fueled” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The Pono sound system? Yawn.

Young seeks redemption by transforming himself in these pages, from a person who has zero interest in and respect for the environment, to one who is seemingly now a courageous fighter against global warming. It’s not entirely convincing. However, it does explain how he happened to meet Darryl Hannah. References to his former wife and “best friend” Pegi come off as awkward.

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While Young professes to be “thankful to be alive…,” he sounds old, tired and cranky in these pages. (You half expect him to yell at you to get off of his lawn!) The charm of Waging Heavy Peace is nowhere to be found. Apparently, the days of hippie dreams have come to an end.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Once More, With Feeling

A review of You Should Be So Lucky, an album by Benmont Tench.

Benmont Tench

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A review posted in the April 30, 1971, issue of the UOP Pacifican newspaper (“CSN&Y Present New Album: 4 Way Street is Dishonest”) dealt with the issue of honest and dishonest recordings. Although that article dealt with the release of a band’s carefully selected and edited live recordings, the discussion might be expanded to include solo recordings. With his first solo album, Benmont Tench has defiantly issued an honest record.

From Tench’s days with Tom Petty – days that began before they formed Mudcrutch, Tench has been experiencing life and the mysteries that come along with it. Touring with Bob Dylan in 1987 and his subsequent work with Mr. Dylan certainly added to his musical experiences.

Those listening to a concert or album bring their own baggage and then try to incorporate their thoughts, feelings and emotions into a composer’s work. Some cannot enjoy a Nick Drake album while others will play it over and over. When it comes to You Should Be So Lucky, I offer the notion of sitting back and leaving the analyst’s hat on the table. Jump on the musical roller coaster, put your head back and just listen. Sit back and enjoy the ride as this album is a good one. Tench’s album is an honest recording – one free of tricks and unnecessary adornments, that should be experienced for the pleasure and enjoyment it brings.

Well recommended.

Robert Gorham

Mr. Gorham is a Sacramento resident and a past president of the Friends of the Sacramento Public Library.

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Reflections of My Life

Young nowWaging Heavy PeaceWaging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young (Blue Rider Press, $30.00, 497 pages)

“I think I will have to use my time wisely and keep my thoughts straight if I am to succeed and deliver the cargo I so carefully have carried this far… Not that it’s my only job or task. I have others, too. Sacred things I need to protect from pain and hardship, like careless remarks on an open mind.”

Joan Didion has said that we tell stories in order to live. In Neil Young’s memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, he tells stories to document the things he has accomplished in his life, to admit his failings as a fallible human being, and to remind himself that there’s still a lot he wants to accomplish before he departs this world. It’s far from a hippie dream, as Young uses cold, calm and thoughtful Didion-like language – the lines above are a splendid example – in the re-examination of a life. At times, surprisingly, I was reminded of Didion’s Where I Was From, a look back at the early years of her life spent in Sacramento; and an acceptance of the fact that – at least in Didion’s case – one cannot go back home again.

When Young refers to the cargo he has carried in his life, I presume it’s a reference to his musical talent. But here he comes to the realization that he’s inherited some writing abilities from his famous Canadian sportswriter father:

“I am beginning to see that the rest of my life could conceivably be spent as an author, churning out books one after another, to the endless interest of, say, fourteen people with Kindles. Seriously, though, this is a great way to live. No wonder my dad did this… Writing could be just the ticket to a more relaxed life with fewer pressures and more time to enjoy my family and friends – and paddle-boarding.”

Yes, Young equates the precious time he spends with his beloved wife and children with the sport of paddle-boarding, which he learned in Hawaii. It’s a reminder of his honesty, and more documentation of a statement I happened to read in an article in The New York Post: “Everything in life is big and small in equal proportions.” Indeed.

One of the charming things about Heavy Peace is that it comes across as an unscripted conversation with the artist. There’s no agenda, no script – Neil simply tells his stories as they come to mind. This is what happens when we meet an old friend or classmate for lunch, say, or for libations (alcoholic or not) at a tavern. Some readers may be troubled by the fact that the true tales about Young’s career in music are told in non-chronological order. To which my response is, “So what? He’s still given us some inside information on his times with Buffalo Springfield; CSN&Y; and on his solo career and work with, and without, the members of Crazy Horse.”

If there’s one thing about the account that becomes a bit tiring, it’s his often-repeated rants about the poor audio quality of today’s music…“I am a pain in the ass now… I can’t go anywhere without the annoying sound of MP3s… This used to be my life, music. So I need to find or create a solution. Let everyone live, including those who crave quality. Mostly so I can stop ranting about it.”

(With music CDs) “…audio quality took a dive, with a maximum of fifteen percent of the sound of a master (recording).”

What’s strange for me is that when I listen to the recent releases of Young’s work that are supposed to be vastly improved audio editions of his earlier works, I don’t hear the improvement. In fact, some of the “new and improved” reworkings – as with the song “Cinammon Girl” – sound a bit dead when compared to the original, energetic recordings. But let’s not be a pain in the behind over it.

Conclusion

When Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One was released, the world was pleased to find a new and distinctive voice on the printed page. The same is true, no doubt, with the release of Waging Heavy Peace. Young’s voice is as seemingly unique on the page as it is in the recording studio.

Let’s hope that Young continues to write, for his own sake and for ours. His reflections on the successes and failures of his life are valuable reminders of the need to reflect on our own back pages every now and then; yes, to re-examine where we came from in order to see where we might be headed.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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It Don’t Come Easy

Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Browne (Da Capo, $26.00, 368 pages)

“Half the people are stoned/And the other half are waiting for the next election.”   Paul Simon

The year 1970, as some of us remember, was the year that Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water was both the best-selling album and single of the year.   But what might not be remembered is that S&G would soon be targeted – during the very same year – as rock’s ultra-conservative sell-outs.   The New Yorker music critic, Ellen Willis, wrote of Mr. Simon:  “I consider his soft sound a copout.   And I hate most of his lyrics; his alienation,  like the word itself, is an old-fashioned, sentimental, West-Side-liberal bore.”

Not to be outdone, critic Miles Kingston (who claimed to be a fan) wrote:  “Some people hate Simon and Garfunkel because their music has no guts, because it is a middle-class look at life, because it slips too easily from idiom to idiom.”   Kingston described their fans as “the left-out kids – the loners, the book-worms… (and worse).”   And then there was the Time Magazine reporter, assigned to do a cover story on James Taylor, who wrote that, “…the people interested in James Taylor are those who never quite got over a fascination with Simon and Garfunkel.   Upon whom it is now fashionable to dump.”

Yes, David Browne has a knack for finding interesting bits and bytes of information that challenge our collective memory.   This is a non-fiction account of the 1970s – and, specifically, the decade’s beginning – in post Kent State America.   Browne writes about the softening of rock ‘n roll in a year that saw the demise of three of the world’s most successful groups – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY).   Yet, in a year that one publication initially termed The Year That Melody in Popular Music Had Died, it was to be a year of rebirth in music, of melody.

If the hard rock of the late 60s had just about killed melody (John Lennon had called Beatle Paul’s Helter Skelter, “just noise…”), it was soon brought back to life in the form of new performers like James Taylor and Elton John.   Browne’s account is actually a melding of two – one, a background look at the music of the time; second, a description of the social and political environments of the late 60s/early 70s.   In this it bears many similarities to Girls Like Us, an earlier-written account of the musical careers and times of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon.

I noted that Browne has a knack for finding interesting factoids.   Here’s another one…  According to his research, backed by Paul Simon and Paul McCartney, two of the major songs of the decade were written not for the composer’s own group/band but for the voice of Aretha Franklin.   Yes, both Bridge Over Troubled Water and Let It Be were specifically written for the Queen of Soul, who – luckily for fate – rejected them.   It’s one reason that both songs, written within weeks of each other, share a gospel soul and structure.

If you’d like to read more fascinating things that you never knew about all of the band members and performers listed in the book’s subtitle, and about others like Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Allen Klein, Mary Balin, and Billy Preston, you’ll want to run and pick this one up.   As James Taylor was to sing, “Hey, Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox!”

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Notes – Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller was reviewed on this site on February 2, 2011 (“Women of Heart and Mind”).

Elizabeth Taylor was to say that, “People don’t like sustained success.”   Which is perhaps why, in 1970, George Harrison sold more records than either Paul McCartney or John Lennon.

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Teach Your Children

Night Road by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s Press; $27.99; 400 pages)

For a mother, life comes down to a series of choices.   To hold on…  To let go…  To forget…  To forgive…   Which road will you take?

In a compelling novel of love, loss, hope and understanding, author Kristin Hannah redefines the pluses and minuses – challenges, tenderness and empowerment – of motherhood.

Jude Farrady has everything.   She lives the ideal life; a loving husband, a custom-built home, friends that support and love her, and twins that have an extraordinarily close relationship.   Her life revolves around her twins, ensuring that they have everything they need to be happy and successful.

Lexi Baill has nothing.   The orphan of a drug addict, she has grown up living in multiple foster homes, without a family, abandoned and alone.   With a heart of gold she selflessly carries hope that someday things will turn out differently.

When Lexi befriends Jude’s daughter Mia on their first day of high school, their lives are forever changed.   Lexi brings out the best in the shy sister of the most popular boy in town.   The bond between the twins and Lexi encourages the Farraday’s to treat Lexi like one of their own.   Finally finding a permanent home with the aunt she never knew she had combined with the love she is shown from the Farraday’s, Lexi feels she has finally found the life she has always dreamed of.

Yet tragedy finds a way into the lives of even those with the most fortunate of circumstances.   The resulting loss forces everyone to reevaluate the future of their relationships and life beyond the boundaries of the predictable.

Author Hannah presents an endearing and engaging story that uncovers a path of unpredictable events…  Events that will leave you laughing, crying, wishing and hoping but above all feeling fully appreciative of the love, devotion and trials that come with the territory of being a mother.

Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Night Road was released on March 22, 2011.   “Longtime fans will love this rich, multilayered reading experience, and it’s an easy recommendation for book clubs.”   Library Journal

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Carry On

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco Press; $27.99; 432 pages)

A reader often selects a book because they like the author, heard it was good, or finds the subject interesting, only to meander through the pages discovering that, for whatever reason, it was not what they had hoped for.   Many avid readers will likely read through most books at various levels of enjoyment with the hope that it is the “next” book that really lights them up, only to find that it is just another decent book which they’ve had the pleasure to read.   Then, without warning, comes that “next” book – the one they whip through so fact they are sad when it comes to an end.   For this reviewer, that “next” book is Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, the spectacular memoir chronicling her husband’s abrupt passing and the loving life they shared.

Oates’ husband, Ray Smith, dies unexpectedly from an infection after being hospitalized for pneumonia.   There were no indications that this outcome was likely, and in the process of outlining the events of her husband’s passing and her subsequent grief and guilt, Oates highlights many aspects of their life together.   They met in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, and together founded The Ontario Review, with Ray serving as editor until his death.   An interesting feature of this account is Oates’ struggle to publish the final issue, as Ray’s untimely passing left many loose ends in their lives.   More interesting, as they shared a life in letters, is her continual references to literature and their acquaintances and friends as she tries to make sense of this new life that she must elect to live.

Oates contemplates suicide continuously throughout the book, and for a time is addicted to sleeping pills/antidepressants.   She refers to herself in the third person as a “widow” ad nauseam, but just about the time the reader is inclined to say, “Get over it,” is when the intentionality of this term hits home even more.   The concept of being without her husband so dominates her life, that there is nothing else to her existence other than “widowhood.”

What is clear throughout is her undying love and affection for Ray Smith.   It is amazingly touching to be exposed, in such an utterly raw and unabashed manner, to the magnitude of Oates’ feelings for her husband.   Ironically, as close as they were, they rarely shared in their professional pursuits, and he did not read her fiction.   Upon his death, she deliberated excessively over reading the manuscript of his unpublished novel Black Mass, in which he consternates over his Catholicism, but, finally, she cannot resist the urge any longer.

If one were to debate who is the greatest living American author, it would likely come down to two, Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth.   It is interesting that Oates mentions Roth on numerous occasions in the book, especially since many women despise Roth, and that Oates comes across as a feminist in much of her fiction.   The two are similar in that, among their many works, they have written non-fiction tales of death; Roth, in Patrimony, discusses the loss of his father.   It is a lesson to all readers not to commingle the work with the writer.

There are about 50 pages two-thirds to three-quarters though the memoir, in which one begins to wonder how many times they have to encounter the fact that the author is a widow, is depressed, etc.   The book slows down a bit, before it recovers.

After someone passes, the living understandably focus on those that remain, and, inevitably, much of this memoir deals with Oates’ difficulty in dealing with Smith’s passing.   However, though people who have lost a spouse will undoubtedly identify with much of what Oates goes through, it is clear that her intent is to honor her husband, which she does here in impeccable fashion.

One of the running jokes of Oates’ career is that because she is so prolific, a reader can hardly keep track of her output.   Some posit that she would have received even greater acclaim for her work if only the critics could keep up with her.

Don’t make the mistake of losing track of this one.   It is simply too good to miss.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, and we interpret it as being the equivalent of a highly recommended rating.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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