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Sunday January 20, 2013

When the music was real

‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away’ goes one famous song. Well, these three grand old men of rock ’n’ roll are still flaming away and far from fading, it seems.

Waging Heavy Peace
Author: Neil Young
Publisher: Viking, 497 pages

NOBODY tells legendary singer-songwriter Neil Young what to do. He hasn’t played by the rules throughout his music career. Yes, he doesn’t suffer fools. And Young certainly isn’t going to bend over for any publisher – in fact, he didn’t bother to have one when he started writing these kitchen-sink memoirs, Waging Heavy Peace.

“Give a hippie too much money and anything can happen,” Young promises as he cranks up some of his best-loved music adventures from the 1960s and 1970s. As you flip the pages, you get a real flavour of how a shy, idealistic young Canadian singer-songwriter ended up a cranky and defiant rock legend.

As with his music, so with his prose – first-time author Young follows his own whims and fancies across nearly 500 pages. At times, he stops abruptly on a story thread, blows up with a rant, and then returns calmly to where he left off. That could be good or bad news depending on how much patience you have with this 67-year-old rock star’s life story.

In Waging Heavy Peace, the focus is very much on his music-making and on family (especially his sons Zeke and Ben), while littered throughout are snapshots of Young’s interests in vintage cars, electric model trains, tour buses, plaid shirts, and the real-life challenges of managing his long-time home, Broken Arrow Ranch, in California.

Just like Bob Dylan’s illuminating Chronicles, Vol.1, or Patti Smith’s remarkably honest Just Kids, this book echoes Young’s ragged voice and raw attitude from front to back. His writing, for want of a better word, is relentless.

The book opens with Young’s beginnings in Canada, with a catalogue of small town gigs, life as a destitute working musician with too many failed auditions. Then came the move (on a whim) to Los Angeles and a career taking flight. Pain, it seems, has also brought out the best in him. Polio, seizures and a brain aneurysm, as he movingly claims, have made him the man he is. Later on, he takes readers down the winding halls of friendship, and there’s a fair bit on his spiritual kinship with Stephen Stills (of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, or CSNY) and how he reckons that they both still have a lot to offer.

At the heart of this book is a hurricane brewing, as Young takes a swing at rock music and how it has lost its soul in modern times. Then again, he also sounds like a salesman with his PureTone music format project and admits liking English folk rock band Mumford & Sons. Outside his rage against the digital age and a workshop of chrome dreams, Young can, rather pedantically, remember the wood panelling in his homes in great detail (rough-sawn A-grade redwood, anybody?). Mundane enough?

Thankfully, he describes life on the road with great vigour and fondly reveals how he recovered parts of his tour bus Pocahontas, which caught fire on the road, and took the wreckage back to his ranch to be buried in a eucalyptus grove.

Often enough, Young’s eccentricity can be hilarious and infectious. He also effortlessly interlinks his early ego-tripping days in Buffalo Springfield and CSNY (David Crosby receives a few humorous pokes here), his solo career, his peculiar hoarding habits, a lost album (Homegrown) and how he thrived in the Laurel Canyon scene.

Young possesses a good memory despite the hallucinatory times. Rust never sleeps, indeed.

Sobering accounts of how much he misses his dearly departed friends – bandmates Danny Whitten, Ben Keith, and record producer David Briggs – lends this book a heartfelt tug. Not to mention the sombre reflection on the subject of Kurt Cobain’s suicide note quoting Young’s lyric, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”.

The book isn’t big on juicy gossip. The reclusive Young admits he wasn’t too hot when it came to the groupies (“I was not very confident in myself and probably not an impressive lover to be sure. We would call it performance anxiety.”). He lovingly pays tribute to two ex’s in his life, Susan Acevedo (first wife) and Carrie Snodgress (partner) while the beloved Pegi Young (his second wife) is still very much the object of his affections.

Mid-way through Waging Heavy Peace, which he wrote at home while nursing a broken toe, Young issues a warning: “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.”

If you managed to get past that caveat on page 173, then consider yourself signed up for Young’s long run.

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