Most celebrity autobiographies I've had the misfortune to read have been self-serving exercises in ego flexing and self congratulations. The worst are the ones where the subject confesses to all sorts of sins in an effort to portray themselves as some of sort humble person seeking redemption for their evil pasts. Not only do these confessionals smack of self-aggrandizing hypocrisy, I usually end up feeling like the person in question is trying to sell me on how brave and heroic they are for having managed to stop behaving like a spoiled rich brat. Who really cares how many and what drugs they took or how many people they slept with?
Thankfully there are some famous people out there who understand they aren't the centre the universe; not their's or anybody else's. The especially aware ones manage to tell the story of their lives as part and parcel of the events going on around them at the time. They may play a major part in the proceedings, but they're not the only player and they can talk about more than just themselves. Even when they do talk about themselves it's only because they want to tell you about somebody else or to try and share some of the wonder they have experienced during the course of their lives.
When I picked up Neil Young's autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, just released by Penguin Canada in trade paperback after a successful run in hard cover, I was pretty certain it wasn't going to be a typical celebrity autobiography. However, what I wasn't prepared for was how much he would be willing to reveal of himself. Considering what an intensely private person Young is, I was extremely surprised at how casual he was about letting readers in past his defences. I'm not sure if he's even aware of how much he's let readers into his life and how much of his soul he's left on the pages of this book.
I say this because of the wonderfully casual way the book is written. Reading it is like having a rambling conversation with a close friend. When you pick the book up after putting it down, it feels as if he's been waiting for you to come back into the room so he can pick up where you left off. No matter what he's been talking about it doesn't matter, what matters is the book makes you feel he's talking directly to you. Although he talks about the people, his friends and his family, throughout the book, you still end up feeling like your one of his closest confidants.
Like the best conversations this book covers a lot of ground. It wanders through time and geography from Northern Ontario in the 1950s to Hawaii and California in 2011. One of the first things he tells us is he's stopped drinking and smoking pot. After the surgery to repair the aneurysm in his brain his doctor recommended he stop smoking and he decided to follow his advice. We then learn this is making him a little nervous as he hasn't written music straight in over 40 years and he's concerned with what will happen. So to distract himself from worrying he talks about the various projects he's undertaken over the years which have served to give him a break from music whenever he's felt like he's needed it.
While he's no longer a majority owner of Lionel Trains he still loves the trains the company produces. Occasionally he and you will retire to his train room where he will regale you with details of his set up, the advances in train technology and his dreams for their future. While model trains have been a passion of his since childhood and is something he's quite willing to share with anyone who is interested, it's still something very personal. On the other hand the other two projects, outside of creating music and his family, which take up most of his time have the potential to be much more far reaching.
Lincvolt is the name he's given the project to create a luxury, full sized series hybrid electric car powered by biomass. Using a vintage Ford Lincoln Continental as the prototype he's set out to prove a car doesn't have to be small in order to be safe for the environment. He's perfectly aware North Americans are in love with their big cars and nothing anybody does will convince the majority to give them up. So he's made it his mission in life to sell people on the idea you can have your big car and save the environment too.
Naturally music is very important to him even when he's not making it. His biggest concern these days is the loss of sound quality caused the use of compression technology. The old analog sound we used to listen too when we bought records was much fuller than anything produced digitally. However, instead of just whinging about the good old days, Young is actually trying to do something about it by creating a new type of digital technology called PONO which will offer listeners as close to analog sound as possible with all the convenience they've grown used to from the digital age.
Of course Young talks about his other plans for the future. Every so often he mentions how he's going to prepare for his next recording with Crazy Horse. He talks about how he and the band are going to set up their gear and spend a year with the music and seeing what they're able to create. However, every time he starts to talk about this he shies away from the subject and diverts off to something else. Eventually it comes out he's worried about over thinking the music. He doesn't like to think about creating, preferring to let it flow naturally.
However, the situation as he's writing the book, having given up pot and alcohol, is making him think more about it than it seems he likes. So every time he starts to become excited by the idea of making a new album, he always manages to change the subject. He lets on he's worried about what will happen but tries to tell us he's happy with what he has. However you can tell he will be devastated if the music is gone. No matter how much he tries to convince himself and us that writing this book is a substitute for creating music, and maybe he'll write more books, or how he needs the other things in his life to keep music fresh, without music his life will be irrevocably changed.
Having been around music as long as he has Young the majority of his friends are in the business. However, this isn't either a name dropping kind of book nor a book about other people. He talks about the people he's loved as friends who've passed on, his lasting friendship with Steven Stills, and occasionally mentions his friends Paul, Bruce and Bob with the same sort of casualness you or I would talk about the people we know. It's not name dropping, these are just happen to be the circles he moves in.
These are the people who send him gifts in the hospital when he's recovering from brain surgery, who help him and his wife out when they want to raise money for a school for developmentally handicapped children like their son Ben they have created, and who can understand and appreciate the type of life he leads. There aren't many people who life in the same strata as Young, who have survived this long in popular music, and it's only natural for them to know and respect each other.
Unlike a number of memoirs, Young's book is firmly planted in the present and looking towards the future. Sure he talks about how he got to where he is now, and over the course of his book he retraces his career, but he continually comes back to the here and now. This isn't a conclusion to a life, rather a pause to refocus and evaluate before he starts out on what's next. Young has never lived his life attempting to please others by giving them what they want, one record company actually tried to sue him because his music wasn't enough like what he had done before, and he's still as mercurial as ever.
Waging Heavy Peace is a wonderful trip inside the mind of one of popular musics most enduring figures. He doesn't have any axes to grind - when someone asked him whether his trying to find a way of creating better quality digital music was a declaration of war on Apple his reply was he was waging heavy peace - he just wants to share with us his gratitude for having been able to know some incredible people and being able to do what he wanted to do. If you haven't had the opportunity to read this book yet take the time to spend some time with one of the more intriguing and interesting minds in popular music. You won't regret it.
(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young)
(Originally posted August 2013)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.