Author: Neil Young
Type: Non-fiction, memoir
Full title: Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream
I read it: April 2013
I read up on this sort of thing, and the worst thing you can have is a book that is too long. That doesn’t help the publisher. There is a lot here to cover, and I have never done this before. Also, I am not interested in form for form’s sake. So if you are having trouble reading this, give it to someone else. End of chapter.
This take-it-or-leave-it conversational tone makes up the entirety of Neil Young’s autobiography. Expect a semblance of narrative wrapped mostly in the wandering style of a daily journal. Ever the individual, Young launches more into trains and cars in the first several chapters than he does into music. Just as it sometimes takes a patient listener to transform into a Neil Young fan, it can take a patient reader to get into his groove. But the book is best viewed not so much as a tell-all into the life of Neil (although you get plenty of stories and insights) but as another piece of artistic work that happened to be necessary for him at this time in his life. He constantly illustrates his obsession and frustration with half-finished projects: a classic car left in a garage, a film never released, an album left on the cutting room floor. To him, “a job is never truly finished. It just reaches a stage where it can be left on its own for a while.” With a sad wistfulness he makes vague plans to tie up various loose ends, even though he and the reader know between themselves that it cannot be, given his age.
Young does spend use a lot of space trying to put rhyme and reason into his earliest musical days, as if even he, even now, cannot believe his launching success. Of running around San Francisco with Stephen Stills and other bandmates, he recalls a feeling of celebration and urgency in the air. “Something was happening, but we didn’t know what it was. It was fucking Buffalo Springfield, that’s what it was.” Young does not hesitate to emphasize just how good this band was (and fortunately we know that the music can back up that assertion) and throughout the book he works to come to peace with simply enjoying that they had success at all, while also wondering what could have been if the group had managed to stay together and thrive after those early outings. He writes plenty about being a budding hippie, and loathed crossing paths with belligerent cops. He was constantly vigilant because he did not have a U.S. license despite multiple attempts at procuring one, and was in the country illegally for a good amount of time. He describes Hollywood police not uncovering his alien status: “They weren’t thorough, just brutal.” He recalls when he was beat up in a holding cell with his face getting slammed around and getting kicked on the floor. He sums it up wryly: “That was traumatizing.”
Aside from the Springfield, Young has immense joy in playing with Crazy Horse. It is this incarnation of his music, more than any other, which he reminisces about in full detail. (At the time of writing the book he was contemplating getting back into the studio for sessions that would become Psychedelic Pill, so that sound was on his mind.) Of Crazy Horse, he quips: “So we ride together, but we also ride alone.” Crazy Horse songs have long been a space for exploring the churning base from which the various guitars can bounce off each other and build into uniqueness, a rough and alive place which has always seemed the most direct route into the heart of Neil: “[I] can find myself there and go to the special area of my soul where those songs graze like buffalo…I dream of playing those long jams and floating over the herd like a condor.” Crazy Horse is his “window to the cosmic world where the muse lives and breathes.” Listen to a full Crazy Horse album, and you can believe it.
In keeping with his wake-up-and-write-what-you-feel style, much of the book is centered on Young’s current obsession: PureTone (now Pono), his audio device which is meant to combine the quality sound of vinyl records with the mobility and convenience of modern music players. He talks about this a lot at the beginning especially, but readers should not be turned off too soon. Young at least has the humor to title a three-page chapter about this subject “And Now, a Word from PureTone,” as if the project itself is providing book sponsorship. Another labor of love is Young’s remodeling of a classic car into being fuel efficient (and, not coincidentally, being able to provide a super-high fidelity sound system never before seen, something like, you guessed it, Pono). With these subjects, Young muses on business and music and his ignorance about venturing into other areas of commerce (at least he has rich, connected friends). His characteristic contradictions surface when he asserts: “I have learned that taking less is not that good. It’s not the money; it’s the respect. And the money.” Young seems to be a pragmatic entrepreneur and romantic visionary in somewhat equal doses.
Indeed, it is his foray into promoting PureTone that lends the book its title. Young knew he was challenging nothing less than iTunes/iPod with his musical device, and opened his ideas to the biggest manufacturers and businesses he could find. A friend asked if he was making war on Apple and he said, “No. I’m waging heavy peace.” Some might call this a diplomatic response, but I read a more innocent, genuine purpose to his project. He really does want to use the arena of capitalism for one of its better qualities: the ability to make connections, share ideas, and get the best product out there using combined resources. Young wants to see a unique and quality project actually come to fruition, not just for the thrill of seeing his name attached to a gimmicky device.
For those more interested in young Neil than old Neil, there are plenty of factoids around his early career, such as the video of the famous Massey Hall recording is footage from a different show, with the sound synced up. He was also wearing a back brace at the time due to a serious medical condition. Throughout the book he relives several intense medical stories, and it is unnerving to picture Young laid out on various hospital beds throughout his career, something seriously wrong with his back or brain. He is the first to comment on his great fortune in having survived these things when so many others do not. It was actually during a serious bout of flu when young Neil was delirious in bed that he picked the first few notes of “Cinnamon Girl”–then went on to write “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” in the same sitting. They were rehearsed as a band and put to a record not long after. It makes a kind of sense that this trio of tunes seems to live in a ragged, precious parcel of musical landscape all their own, having been birthed in that peculiar instance.
The most direct autobiographical entries seem to come from Young simply writing about what is on his mind while at the breakfast table. For example he works through the problem of an upcoming concert: musing over how to construct a one-off 40-minute solo set is just as taxing as how to put together songs for a full-on tour. He worries it out over the course of a couple pages, and you get to read about him deciding among specific songs and styles. Acoustic with harmonica in a Bob Dylan impersonation (although he notes that Dylan never does this anymore)…creating a backbone with modified versions of Le Noise tracks…pulling in some older stuff like “Powderfinger” or “Comes a Time”…or perhaps fitting in some “Vampire Blues”…but “maybe not.” This was simply a recent day in the life of Neil Young, before he went walking through the woods with his dog or drove to meet some old buddies for lunch. From these musings he may swerve into other topics I have not mentioned, such as his family or his peers (he says to Bruce Springsteen, “there aren’t many of us left”), that you will just have to explore yourself.
Because it seems to have been written pretty much from start to finish without a focus on re-ordering the chapters, the reader does get a nice sense of things winding down toward the end. This is the reward for hopping all over Young’s psyche in such a non-chronological fashion. While the events of his past are delivered in a scattered and uneven way, you undoubtedly get to know what is going on in his present. This is a much brighter appeal for me, and I was attracted to the writing at its most prophetic and poetic:
I am doing this for them [young people], and me. Let’s not forget me. I want to feel the sounds again like I did in the beginning, or even better now, because technology is supposed to improve life…This is my cargo. I chose it myself, and it has gone undelivered for what seems like decades…It is the time to gather this and make something of it, or it is not that time. There is no clue. Just the clear sound of waves on the wood as the ship moves dutifully toward delivery of the cargo…Let yourselves go now. We approach safe harbor.
It just happens to be he is talking about delivering quality music through a marketable device, but the nautical metaphor could be extended to any album, tour, or band he might have been building during some particular set of years. You can tell that for Young there is little, if any, separation between life and art. Everything is a project to be tried and tested, but only those you give your full energies to are worthy to be pursued. All else will fall into the sea, and it is a wonder and a challenge to simply stay afloat in this life.