When an artist as venerable and important as Neil Young decides to sit and write an autobiography you hope for something special. An immensely prolific musician, Young has something of a reputation for being gnarly, cantankerous and difficult - after all this is a man who was once sued by his own record company for making music "that was uncharacteristic of Neil Young". As it turns out, despite it's jumbled narrative and occasional cul de sacs, the easy conversational style that Young employs in "Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream" makes the book both immensely readable and enjoyable. It's like listening to a grandparent reminiscing - the stories don't come in any particular order, occasionally they take strange tangents and they vary from the fascinating to the mundane.
The book finds Young in a drug and alcohol free state and the straightest he's been since he was eighteen. Recovering from a broken toe and needing to rest a while, he decides to both write his autobiography and start planning to record again with Crazy Horse (a band he refers to throughout in the third person, as a mystic entity) worrying a little if the muse has departed and whether he'll still be able to write songs in his new found sobriety. Despite having not written a new song for more than half a year, Young knows that patience is the key, " Songs are like rabbits and they like to come out of their holes when you're not looking, so if you stand there waiting they will just burrow down and come out somewhere far away, a new place where you can't see them. So I feel like I am standing over a song hole. That will never result in success. The more we talk about this, the worse it will get. So that is why we are changing the subject."
With a new album, "Psychedelic Pill", recorded with Crazy Horse due in October, Young's patience has clearly paid off, yet he remains a deeply contradictory person. A man with such reserves of patience he spends decades compiling his legendary archive releases or working on a definitive version of his thirty year old movie "Human Highway" yet someone who knows that first or second takes with Crazy Horse are usually the best and is not averse to "spontaneous change" waking up and halting a recording or changing musicians. As he puts it "Honesty is the only thing that works. It hurts to be honest, but the muse has no conscience. If you do it for the music, you do it for the music, and everything else is secondary. Although that has been hard for me to learn, it is the best and really the only way to live through a life dedicated to the muse. The muse says, 'If it isn't totally great, then don't do it. Change.'"
If patience is one of Young's core drivers, then his obsessive side clearly is too. A keen collector of cars (many of the stories involve one of his many classic cars, or start in Feelgoods, his garage) as well as model trains, manuscripts, photographs, records, clothes, and recordings. This obsessive ness sees Young immersed in several long term projects, including his work with Lionel, the model train company where he's searching for a method of accurately linking the sound and smoke effects of the models to the effort involved in pulling their loads; to Lincvolt, a four year project to power a huge Lincoln Continental by energy efficient means; and PureTone (currently renamed Pono) a sound system designed to "rescue my art form, music, from the degradation in quality that I think is at the heart of the decline of music sales".
Spanning his life from childhood in Omemee, Ontario up to 2011, Waging Heavy Peace takes a meandering journey, and if Young's reminisces of contracting polio aged five, of his old paper round route, or of mall shopping in Hawaii fail to grip you don't worry, shortly there'll be a chapter describing how he's illegally entering the States without a work visa heading for the golden promise of California looking for Stephen Stills and readying to form Buffalo Springfield. Or describing how Time magazine's famous photo of the Kent State shooting inspired him to write "Ohio" and record it the next day. Or, how holed up in his Topanga house semi-delirious with a fever he managed to write "Cinnamon Girl", "Down By The River" and "Cowgirl In The Sand" in one afternoon. Or, yes, how David Geffen sued him for making music "that was uncharacteristic of Neil Young" after Young delivered "Island In The Sun", "Trans", and "Everybody's Rockin' (the latter delivered in the guise of an old fashioned rocker after being told to go and make a rock and roll record).
Young goes to places he doesn't need to with a disarming honesty - be it failed relationships, his son's quadriplegia, his enduring love for wife Pegi, a brush with Charles Manson, or even to accidentally poisoning the attendees at his annual birthday party with poison oak. As you might expect in any memoir from a sixty five year old, the roll call of ghosts within the book is long. Crazy Horse Guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry (both lost to heroin within a few months of each other), Ben Keith the pedal steel player, arranger and producer Jack Nitzsche, producer David Briggs and filmmaking collaborator Larry Johnson all brighten the pages when Young talks about them with love. The spectre of his own mortality also dances in the background - his near death recovering from surgery for a brain aneurysm and the worry of a potential descent into the dementia that claimed his father loom large. The book's final paragraph, which sees Young taking a nap near a creek, then in his dreamlike state enter a cafe where his departed friends Larry Johnson and David Briggs are both having a late breakfast and seemingly waiting for him simultaneously bring both a smile to your face and a lump to your throat.
Young says, "Writing this book, there seems to be no end to the information flowing through me" and this theme and enthusiasm seems to still apply to all aspects of his life, be it his music, his family, or his various projects. Happily, Neil Young has neither burned out nor faded away, and long may he continue to run.