The idea for this Not-Book-Review was inspired by the book I just finished, and that accompanied me from Austin, Texas to Sao Paulo to New York’s JFK airport and then back to Paris, all in the last week and a half. I rarely read any 500-page book that quickly. But I did it this time. And I can’t even say that I think this book is some kind of gripping masterpiece. But I really, thoroughly loved reading Neil Young’s autobiography, memoir, tale of his life past, present and maybe future.
The title takes almost as long to memorize as it takes to finish reading the book – which is not that long, but probably longer than, say, “A Life,” as it is called “Waging Heavy Peace.” It certainly has a hippie sound to it, that title. And hippie is definitely one of the things that comes to mind when reading this book. Young is and was the quintessential hippie. Now 67, you get to see where the quintessential hippie has ended up.
But let me start writing this all over again before I sink into idiot ideas of book reviewer-dom. I had very, very personal reasons for grabbing the Neil Young off the bookshelf at Book People in Austin on practically the first available occasion – ie, just before heading off to Brazil. My reasons were that I wanted to see what Neil Young had to say about many threads in his life that have intersected with my own life: His band the Buffalo Springfield was put together and managed in the early days by the same guy who hired me to work in the circus in Canada when I was 18. That was Barry Friedman/Frazier Mohawk, who remained a life-long friend of mine and who just died in June at the age of 70. I knew from several sources, including from Frazier himself, the story of how he put together the Buffalo Springfield. But I had never heard anything from Neil Young on that subject.
My next reason was that as a boy, I had met Neil Young’s dad, who was a sports journalist/columnist at the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto, where my dad was a science journalist. I met his father probably around the time he was forming the Buffalo Springfield, so there was no “Neil Young connection” in that event. My dad had simply introduced me to his dad at the Globe, and Young’s dad had given me a bunch of hockey photos from the wire services. I would have been under 10 years old, and for some reason I have strong memories of the moment. Was it Young’s kindness? Was it a subsequent knowledge that Neil Young was Scott Young’s son? I don’t know. Perhaps it is because my brother and I had one of Scott Young’s books for young people, a novel about hockey, called: “Scrimmage on Ice.”
Once, also, when Neil Young was being awarded some kind of special lifetime achievement award at the Juno music awards in Toronto, I had been hired – this was in the early 1980s – to ride my unicycle across the stage during the awards ceremony. I never met or even saw Neil Young on that occasion. I do recall being scared out of my mind because the show was live on television too, and I thought: “I just have to ride from here to there…but what if I fall?!?!?” The way I managed to get professional about it and succeed was that I suddenly remembered that I was being paid $750 for those 20 seconds of work and that, yes, I was riding from this point to that point for $750, so I better forget everything else, and not fall. It worked. It was simple.
The final two reasons I wanted to read Young’s autobiography were because I have always loved his music, since I first heard it as a boy at Kilcoo Camp, in northern Ontario, in the late 1960s when the cabin counsellor who took care of the six or so kids including me who were in that particular cabin, played “After the Gold Rush” just about every day for the entire month I was there, and I was put to sleep with it as a sound wallpaper background almost every night that month of August in the late sixties. And finally, Neil Young was a fellow Canadian, and I was very keen to read about his life from that point of view.
I was not long into the book when he surprised me on yet another intertwining path, when he speaks of how he frequently went to Robertson Davies’ home when he was a boy, as Davies was a friend of his father. Davies, of course, is my favorite Canadian writer, along with Mordecai Richler. And I had corresponded with Davies in my life, and written about him on this blog. It was the least likely sort of connection I expected for Neil Young, the hippie musician – a complete contrast to the conservative, classical, 19th Century-like man Robertson Davies.
I later also learned that Young had delivered the Globe and Mail on a paper route as a boy, as had I. So there was much to amuse and interest me from a personal, Canadian, home background perspective.
Another thing I did not expect with this book, is the structure and writing style and voice that I found. Where the Keith Richards autobiography may well be in an effective rendition of his voice – written by another writer who worked with Richards – both it and the Anthony Kiedis book – which also seemed a little too slick to have been written only by Kiedis – followed classic, and tried and true narrative structures, this Young book was as apparently wild and unruly crazy as its writer. The Richards book took me a long time to get into because I hate biographies that basically start off telling us in the classic manner the entire 500 year history of their family (or what feels like 500 years), usually starting with… “My grand father, xxxx, came to America on a xxxxx…. he worked in a farm.” And so on for 80 pages. Kiedis did not go that route, but his narrative was pretty classically delivered. Having said that, his was very, very urgent; his story looked like it NEEDED to be told, it was gripping and profound, and I loved the book for that. Patti Smith’s memoir of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe was beautifully written and beautifully told, but again, it was a very classic narrative, coming from the practiced writer Smith is. And whereas the Bob Dylan “Chronicles” story just blew me away with its classic masterpiece style and narrative approach, with a dexterity of language and sensual description, the Neil Young book, again, clobbered me over the head with its down-to-earth simplicity and originality.
With this brave book, it seems Young decided to write it just the way he wanted to, in a manner that best served his ends, and best showed who he is today, yesterday and who he wants to be. The voice, the writing voice, was instantly recognizable as that of the singer songwriter. This is the same imperfect voice in simple language, often beautiful descriptive passages of nature and the world around him. Nor does he make any attempt to mythologize Neil Young. He shows himself as he apparently sees himself, flaws and all, and even tries to show how others see him – flaws included.
The book, therefore, floats around from his present moment of navel-gazing, to ideas he has about a high quality playback system called “Pono” to save the recording industry and enrich listeners who have had their appreciation of music destroyed by the low quality of the MP3, to the development of an environmentally friendly car, his Lincvolt, and finally, to the story of where he grew up, who his parents were, how he formed the bands he did and played the music he did and wrote the songs he did. In short, it has all we look for in an autobiography and more: IE, who the man is right now, today, in this very present moment.
Reading this, I decided that I would not have liked to be Neil Young. Marijuana and booze use all of his life until he started writing the book; two children with physical disabilities, including one requiring lifelong assistance, but another child that is “normal.” Some very bad relationships with women, followed by a great one – yes. But he himself suffers epilepsy or another illness that causes epileptic-like seizures. Many other physical ailments as well, including polio as a child, and a horrendous hemorrhage in adulthood that he nearly died from, after a brain operation.
I mean, wow! What a load of problems that is! Who would want them, even for all that talent? For talent, Young clearly has in abundance, both in songwriting ability and musicianship and singing expression. A monster of rock, folk, pop. It is in that area that I also loved reading this book, because Young gives away very little of use to songwriters – except no doubt the most important thing of all: Don’t upset the muse. Be open to when the inspiration comes, don’t go looking for it, and when it does come, don’t ignore it. Oh, he says a lot more than that. But basically, it comforted me personally in my own approach to song writing – rightly or wrongly, and not trying to put myself on his level.
Speaking of that, where I really COULD feel on his level was when he spoke of his dad and his dad’s job as a writer and journalist, which clearly gives him the confidence and desire to write his own book himself (despite his dad leaving his mother and him when he was still a boy, by the way), and ultimately, in the amazingly great stuff he says about our mutual friend, Barry Friedman/Frazier Mohawk. He spoke very highly of Barry/Frazier, praising his musical understanding, and actually saying that he regretted that the band separated from Barry/Frazier to join Atlantic. That they would have been better off sticking with him, because he knew music, and he knew what the Buffalo Springfield was….
“They bought out Barry Friedman,” he wrote of the Atlantic producers, “who regrets it to this day, and so do I. He was a musical guy with some knowledge of who we were. Leaving him was a very big mistake.”