I can’t recall with certainty when or how I heard Neil Young for the first time. It was probably through Buffalo Springfield, a short-lived yet influential group that still stands up well. I definitely recall Neil’s first solo effort in 1969, but it was the next two–“Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “After the Gold Rush”—that firmly implanted his voice and guitar into my soul. I distinctly remember Neil’s singular company while driving fast and hard through rural North Carolina late one night to visit a girl whose well-heeled parents had little interest in a long-haired kid in ragged jeans stopping by: “I was lying in a burned out basement with the full moon in my eyes…” Of course, there were quite a few people in the South who didn’t have much use for Neil after “Southern Man” hit the airwaves, particularly those still waving the Stars and Bars and fighting the War of Northern Aggression. In fact, a certain hardcore Southern band sent Neil a return message via “Sweet Home Alabama.” Maybe Neil was a little harsh, but he did portray a time and place many of us wanted to forget. Anyway, it didn’t change my appreciation for his work.
And then something surprising made things clear in the course of reading Neil’s finely turned memoir, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream (Blue Rider Press, 2012). Yep, he passes as a Canadian, but damn if his roots weren’t set in the lowland South. Neil reveals, almost in passing, that he named a boat “in honor of my grandfather, Bill Ragland, a southerner who came north to Winnipeg from South Carolina and started his family there, giving birth to my mother, Rassy, and her sisters, Snooky and Toots.” That knowledge makes me believe there is a direct link from these roots to his music, which always has transcended simple definition, and also may account for his strong sense of political justice.
What truly becomes the centerpiece of Neil’s candid book is that he is a contemporary Renaissance man. Not just a songwriter and performer, Neil Young is an uncompromising artist, filmmaker, auto aficionado, model train enthusiast (Lionel Trains owes its survival to his investment) and environmentalist. One of his ongoing projects is the creation of clean automobile propulsion technology, embodied in a 1959 Lincoln Continental dubbed “Lincvolt.”
Another of his passions is Pono, a revolutionary audio system that presents to our ears the studio quality sound that artists heard when they created their original recordings. Craving “music as it should be heard,” Neil is the driving force behind the Pono technology in an attempt to counteract the convenience and expediency that, in his knowledgeable opinion, have highly compromised recorded music. “The only problem with this is music is not like that,” he writes. “It is a storm on the senses, weather for the soul, deeper than deep, wider than wide. It is more than what you see or hear. It is what you feel.”
Neil feels strongly enough about his passions and their potential that he puts his name on it and his money in it, and campaigns relentlessly while still making music. But beyond even this, the book reveals a man completely devoted to his friends and family, including in particular his wife, Pegi, and son, Ben, born a nonverbal quadriplegic. His dedication to making Ben’s life full and meaningful is beyond admirable. It’s here also that Neil fully reveals his heart, with some of the most emotional writing in the book about his wife, Pegi: “She is my life partner. My confidante. I can tell her anything. After all these years together, I am still getting to know her. I would be an island without an ocean if we were not together in our hearts.”
This is no chronological tale, but a kaleidoscopic ricochet between times and places, people known, memories and reflections. It’s also refreshingly honest and told in a voice that carries you gratefully along for the ride. Of course, if it’s mainly the man’s music and musical history that draws you, there’s plenty here, from tales about various musicians and bands and introspective insights into the origins of certain songs, to well-considered attempts to explain the metaphysics of songwriting: “Have you ever wondered what goes into writing a song? I wish I could tell you the exact ingredients, but there is nothing specific that comes to mind. It seems to me that songs are a product of experience and a cosmic alignment of circumstance. That is, who you are and how you feel at a certain time…To me, they are like children. They are born and raised and sent out into the world to fend for themselves. It’s not an easy place to be, the world, for a song.”
Thankfully, Neil Young has sent many children out into the world, and many of us adopt them as our own and treat them well—and they return the favor. You may not like everything—even Neil admits he is uncompromising in creating what feels right at the moment and letting it go, without worrying about the acceptance. But the good news for those of us who care is that the creative force continues to flow, and we still have Neil and Old Black with us on the road, wherever it leads.
And now we have a very good book by the man to take along as well.
Click here to read an excerpt.