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article imageReview: Dull Neil Young autobiography cries out for a ghostwriter Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Nov 12, 2012 in Entertainment
As Canada's top ambassador of rock, folk and country, veteran superstar Neil Young should have a lot to offer as a storyteller. Too bad his recent autobiography, “Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream”, is far more square than the title suggests.
Honestly, you wouldn't expect a man who created something as precious and beautiful as “After the Gold Rush” to be so maddeningly boring in prose. Young seems proud of the fact that he wrote Waging Heavy Peace without the help of a ghostwriter or (on the advice of his doctor) drugs. But even the most diehard Young fan has to admit that the book clearly could have benefited from either, or both.
And that's a letdown, because there's a lot of potential for compelling stories and commentary here. Young randomly hops, skips and jumps between a ragged menagerie of subjects – including his days with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, his time living in California without a green card, his passions for model trains and vintage cars, musicians and producers with whom he has worked, rants on mp3 sound quality, the production of his 1982 film Human Highway, his failed relationship with Carrie Snodgress and his current (apparently happy) family life with Pegi Young – but the whole suffers from a lack of focus and an even bigger lack of objective distance and detail. A tougher editor would have helped a lot, too.
Not that there's anything wrong with taking a disjointed, stream-of-consciousness approach to autobiography. But a huge part of the problem is Young's lightweight voice. Most of the book sounds like one of those overlong, impersonal update letters that that distant cousin you barely know photocopies and mails out to dozens of people with identical Christmas cards. Young's blandly inoffensive, gee-whiz, aw-shucks tone, with its mild generalizations and overuse of the exclamation mark, almost never changes, whether he's writing about getting beaten up in a jail cell or about the wacky antics of his dog Nina.
On his first-ever radio exposure: “Then the big moment came, and we heard 'The Sultan' on the radio!... I felt so good. I am sure I was walking on air for weeks. The Squires [Young's band at the time] were recording artists. My mother was telling everyone she knew. I could hear her on the phone calling all of her friends. She was my biggest fan!”
On talk-show appearances: “Promoting [a new concert documentary], I could be on Colbert! Now that guy is really funny. Or Jon Stewart! Thank God for humour! Those guys are brilliant.” (Later: “How about that Jimmy Fallon? He is a classic.”)
On his childhood meals: “We had spaghetti a lot. It was really good with my dad's special sauce. Before he poured in the chili peppers, he used to heat it up in a big pot. OMG, it smelled great!”
On film director Jonathan Demme: “The guy is a G-man (G is for genius)!”
There are sections in which Young goes into interesting topics. He has a lot to say about how sound quality in recorded music has seriously diminished over the years because of digital production, and how he's trying to combat the problem with Pono, or the PureSound audio system that he's developing. Young also recalls beloved colleagues who have passed on, recounts the impact that Bob Dylan and other artists had on him, reflects on the true meaning of success and addresses the legacy of his famous line, “It's better to burn out than to fade away.”
Unfortunately, most of the more personal or revealing parts of the book either don't last long enough or still suffer from that lack of distance. And certain anecdotes – like one about a 1965 gig in Churchill, Manitoba that was invaded by a polar bear – should be a lot more amusing and exciting, but the brevity and shortage of descriptive detail don't do them any justice.
Sometimes you wonder if this really is the same Neil Young from the lyrics and melodies that you've been loving for years. Where's the righteous political anger of “Ohio”, or the compassion and wisdom of “Old Man”, or the tragic sadness of “The Needle and the Damage Done?” The sarcastic jibes of “This Note's for You”? Even the measured calm and contemplation of the more recent Prairie Wind album?
Perhaps it's just a case of a great artist struggling to express himself in a medium that isn't instinctive to him. Music is where Young shines, where he knows how to reach his full potential in recreating his thoughts and emotions. In writing a book, he seems to be labouring clumsily.
Waging Heavy Peace may work best as a curio for the iconic singer's most devoted, longtime followers. But if you want to get to know the real Neil Young, buy his music instead.
More about Neil young, Books, Autobiography, Music, Rock music
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