Reviewing the Neil Young Autobiography

Neil Young bookWaging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream. Neil Young. 2012. Blue Rider Press. 497 pages.

Aging rock musicians and songwriters are writing again, but this time it is beautiful long biographies.  More entertainment, different format! These artists (Keith Richards, Pete Townsend, Carole King, et.al.) could grab our attention writing songs and performing; now we are seeing another side of their multi-talented characters.  Those of us from that era can take notice: retirement is time for pursuit of new talents and abilities, or slighted hobbies.  Rock on into oblivion.

Under review here is a great piece of non-fiction that is lacking for an Index, Table of Contents, and Discography. Some of the chapters have titles; others do not—a deficiency attributable to deadlines? Publishers, please educate me in the “comments” section below. However, showing good form is the inclusion of approximately forty-seven full-page non-glossy black and white pictures of people and bands, houses, cars, lyric notes, album covers, etc. that add to the fun of reading.  All things considered, this book is deserving of high marks.

For assistance in finding passages expanding upon the material and quotes I provide in this article, I am citing page numbers and chapters of the text.  Also, the quotes hopefully give you a feel for the spirit and tone that underlie this book. Young does not acknowledge the help of anyone in writing this book, but writes words of thanks to those in his life that become subject matter here.  For example, Thanks, David Briggs (music producer); Thanks, Larry Johnson (film-making collaborator); and Thanks, Elliot Roberts (manager) are just a few of the expressions of gratitude.

Note the subtitle of this book is “A hippie dream.” The songwriter Neil Young (NY) is a self-proclaimed hippie who likes to speak of dreams. NY is waging a war on the deterioration of sound quality in music products—“making heavy peace” describes that effort. “Waging war” would not suffice and does not fit his makeup. After he heard PureTone (now named Pono, Young’s new music sound delivery system), personal staff member Ben Bourdon “. . . asked me if I was making war on Apple. No, I’m waging heavy peace (p.143).” “I really feel sorry for kids with their MP3s today who can’t hear music the way we did then. What a bummer. I can’t imagine that. It really bothers me (p. 150).” Improving music sound quality delivered by CDs, MP3 players, and internet downloads is a major current project.

A dilemma today for NY is that there are two evils lurking: the first is his inability to write songs and the second is his fear of encroaching dementia. Young’s dad, a writer of books and a daily newspaper columnist, died at age 75 with dementia. A strategy has been to quit drinking and pot smoking to deal with this lurking problem; also, this behavior change is upon doctor advice.  The effect to date has been clear and real thinking for the generation of the 100,000 words that complete this fine book. “I’m not smoking weed anymore. I am a lot more focused now (p. 56).” However, quitting pot is believed to be the cause of the song-writing demise. “Smoking weed opened the door for me, and I miss that part, especially when it comes to songs and music (p.224).” In another place in the book, he declares that upon smoking a joint he writes a song; but, imbibing more than that and he is not productive. Smoking is a catalyst or spark for the creative process.

The abstinence continues—one must respect the muse, which operates in a deliberate fashion. The muse controls the distribution of songwriting and performance talent. It is the spiritual element in the art–determining who composes the great tunes and when. “When” is not now for Neil Young. Young has great respect for the muse, however; one must not push or try to force manifestation of the muse—it will stir the creative abilities in the man when the time is appropriate. Of course, he has produced great songs in the past and is now producing a fine book(s). Writing books is the direction his talents are taking him today.

The bands, the locations, and culinary delights.

The first band was the Squires out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the early sixties. The first long road trip was actually by train—up north to Churchill, Manitoba, “through Indian country.”  The trip was okay, but the venue was rough and the Squires decided they were too young and at the mercy of the locals. The decision was to return to Winnipeg unhurt and pursue the next road trip, this one a longer lasting experience in Fort William, Ontario and a gig at the Flamingo Club. The Squires were playing folk and folk rock on the hootenanny circuit, a region including Fort William, Regina, and Winnipeg.  One band to enter the circuit was the Company, a band with a guitarist and vocalist that sounded to NY like a soul singer.  Neil Young, meet Steve Stills.  They developed a friendship, these two lead guitarists that continued to this day.  But they went separate ways at the time, agreeing to stay in touch, and were to partner later in Los Angeles of course as part of CSNY.

Things got rough in Fort William: “. . . we lived on Spam and Ritz crackers we bought in a little liquor store across the street from the motel (p. 67).” The owner of the club they were playing at allowed the band to stay in a motel he also owned, Dinty’s Motor Inn. The hearse they were using as the band vehicle broke down in Blind River, Ontario. “. . . several days later we were still there and running out of money; we were living on roasted potatoes from the market. We hung out in an old junkyard/dump near the edge of town (p. 67).” The event helped lead to the band breakup–they split and scattered, NY ending up in Toronto.

About this time NY transitioned to electric guitar:  “. . . when the instrumental break came along in the song, ‘Farmer John’, I just went crazy on the guitar solo. I had just started to do that. One night it just happened, and now I was doing it all the time. . . Every note was out of the blue. . . I knew I was doing something that had just come out of me, not something I learned, but something that was me (pp. 278-279).” I credit this moment of catharsis as a manifestation of the muse so often referred to in Young’s writing.

It was the mid-60s in Toronto.  Young looked for work in Yorkville Village, the arts neighborhood. “I got a job at Coles Bookstore on Yonge Street and took a flat nearby at 88 Isabella Street so I could walk to work. I had a hot plate to cook on there; beans mostly (p. 275).” Both the job and the flat were gone before too long. He continued songwriting—the music took precedence over everything. He was writing folk songs; e.g. “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” and “Sugar Mountain.”  He slept on the floor of a friend’s place.  For a while he shared floor space with John Kay, who later starred with the band Steppenwolf (see chapter 40).

In a brief sojourn to Detroit, “. . . after one night sleeping in some girl’s basement, to the amazement of her parents, I left one morning in a snowstorm and returned to Toronto. It was cold and I didn’t have any warm clothes. That was a long trip (p. 72).” Things continued badly in Toronto, and Young had to sell his Gretsch guitar and returned to acoustic playing. During a subsequent trip to Detroit, on a recommendation he checked out a group called “The Mynah Birds.” He was hired and got back into rock and roll when the band manager bought him a Rickenbacker electric.  About this time Young began to smoke weed, “I got high and loved it instantly. The music sounded like God (p. 72).” While playing with the Mynah Birds, NY shared a basement apartment with the lead singer Ricky James Matthews. “I became introduced to other drugs. I was trying amphetamines and smoking a little hash.  Looking back, I could have gone a lot deeper. Luckily I didn’t get too far in the stronger drugs (p.73).”

The band got a recording contract with Motown and was joined occasionally in the studio by Smokey Robinson with advice and the Four Tops with backup vocals. “We were on our way to the big time! And then Rick (lead vocalist), who was a U.S. citizen, got busted for evading the draft for the Vietnam War. He was gone, just like that. It was over. Zip (p. 73-74).”

It was time for another move. Young had met Stephen Stills in Toronto and they had agreed to form up some time in the future.  The States offered greater opportunities for a folk rocker.  Without work papers, a site along the border that offered easy entry was sought.  Driving west across Canada with bass player Bruce Palmer and others in a ’53 Pontiac hearse, “we immediately headed for Sault Ste. Marie, the most nondescript border crossing we could find (p. 125).” Upon being questioned at the border as to their purpose for being there, they announced their destination was Vancouver, B. C.; and, the roads across the northern United States were straighter and smoother than Canada roads.  No problem, you’re okay boys come on through.  Actual destination: Los Angeles. For many years Young remained in the U.S. illegally, living without a green card and driving without a California license. He did not visit Canada; returning to the U.S. would again require sneaking across the border. He finally got a green card, but that also involved an illegal act—see chapter 21 for the story.

In LA, Young failed to find his friend Stills; but on a lucky day while cruising he spotted Stephen walking down the street. Richie Furay, who Young had met in a short visit to New York, was hanging out with Stills–warm greetings all around. The band Buffalo Springfield was formed and within six weeks they had a regular gig at the Whiskey a Go Go. “Stephen and Richie sang incredibly well, and because of the diversity of musical roots, the band had a blend of music that was largely unknown at the time. It was kind of folk rock, but kind of country blues with a rock and roll edge. Richie’s great voice and Bruce’s unique Motown bass style brought depth. Dewey’s smiling face behind the drums was both incongruous and appealing. It was Stephen’s soulful vocals and phrasing that set us into another class. Stephen and I would play these intricate parts off of each other all the time that were largely improvised, and people could hear that it was spontaneous. It was exciting, and we were young and very alive. Everything started moving really fast (p. 388).”

The fan base was building. “Riots were happening on the Strip. Hippies against the war, cops against the hippies. Stephen wrote ‘For What It’s Worth’ about the riots. It was a great message song of the times, with his signature vocal phrasing (p. 390).” The group carried on for eighteen months and then broke up. Bruce Palmer got busted for pot and was deported to Canada. He was given a second chance and got busted for “driving down the Pacific Coast Highway on acid without a license. That was really the beginning of the end for the Buffalo (p. 406).”

At this point in the book Young discusses the importance of chemistry for any group. Speaking of his long-time buddy Palmer, “His roots in R&B were so important. He played like Motown, but he had an added flair (p. 391).” They tried other bass players, but an “essential ingredient” was irreplaceable. Band members became frustrated with their rhythm section problems. The band dissolved. “Thank you, Buffalo Springfield. There will never be another. It’s about chemistry. Love and chemistry (p. 393).”

In LA, his first place to live was the Commodore Gardens. “The Springfield was playing the Whiskey a Go Go, and I had some cash. Some girls from the Whiskey were living there. . . I tacked up some matting on the walls that I had bought at Pier 1 Imports. I put a blue light bulb in the fridge. It was an old fridge. I don’t know what I ever put in it. Must have been Cokes and Twinkies. I wasn’t into health food yet, that’s for sure (p. 423).” Later, Young was able to rent a cabin near the top of Laurel Canyon. “It was very simple, with only two rooms, a bedroom and a bathroom, and a little add-on porch where I kept my fridge. Who knows what I put in that fridge? It was certainly not much. I think I had a hot plate, too. I used it for pork and beans . . . probably (p. 150).”

As for Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (CSNY), NY hints that his primary role was to strengthen vocals for the group while on tour. This was not one of Young’s favorite professional periods. He does have kind words for the individual work of each member of the band (see chapter 33). The product of this mix of talent was energy. “But then came the fame, the drugs, the money; houses, cars, and admirers; then the solo albums. The band did not break up; it just stopped. We were all doing our own things. . . We had a golden time, and then we lost our way. Be great or be gone (p. 242).” Young wrote “Ohio” and “Southern Man” during this period. He expresses some regret for authoring the lyrics to the latter song.

In 1968, Young had recorded a solo album, Neil Young. About this time, he began playing casually with The Rockets, a group consisting of musicians that he would later lead as members of the band Crazy Horse (CH). Young now refers to this band as his band, meaning it reflects the ideals of country rock purpose and performance standard so important to him. This group seems to be his musical backstop. They had played together for pleasure in one another’s homes in Laurel Canyon and Topanga Canyon. An early project was After the Gold Rush, which included the songs “Cinnamon Girl”, “Down by the River”, and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” At the time, Young was actually sick with the flu, “but happy and high”, when he wrote these songs in one sitting in his Topanga living room with the personnel to become Crazy Horse. Young was soon to suffer a personal and professional loss with the death of Danny Whitten, the lead guitarist and vocalist for CH (see chapter 23). This was the first of several episodes involving drug overdose described in this book.

In 1974 in Chicago for the funeral of his girlfriend Carrie Snodgress’ father, he recorded a song at the great blues shop, Chess Recording Studio, with the newly reformed Crazy Horse—Poncho Sampredo had replaced Danny Whitten. “Poncho is Spanish, Billy (Talbot) is Italian, and Ralph (Molina) is Portuguese; three Latins and a Canadian . . . There was something sympathetic about the way we played together. It felt really fluid and hot, yet funky and solid (p. 382).” Crazy Horse went back to LA, but Young went to Nashville and recorded with his Stray Gator buddies, Jack Nitzsche, Kenny Buttrey, Tim Drummond, and Ben Keith. The album entitled Harvest, released in 1972, had included personnel from this latter ensemble.

Following that trip, it was back to LA and Malibu and David Briggs’ (Young’s long-time music producer) home studio for more recording. “We (Crazy Horse) set up a Green Board control room in Briggs’ den. We played in the garage. One day Bob Dylan, who lived nearby, came along and sang a blues tune with us. On a break, Bob and I took a walk around the neighborhood, talking about the similarity in some of the paths we had each taken. It was the first time we had ever really talked. I liked him.” “Those were some of the finest, most alive days of my life . . . making some good music, and starting to get a grip on something: an open future in my personal life and a new future with Crazy Horse after Danny (p. 384).”

NY had migrated to Northern California in 1970. He was writing lots of songs and recording; but, many of these songs were not released, and were stashed away in the archives. He released a solo album and bought property he named the Broken Arrow Ranch; he increased the building footage fourfold and lives there today. Albums have been recorded in his ranch studio; he is currently working on Crazy Horse: The Early Daze. This is a project to apply modern sound technology to the early unreleased tracks of CH that feature Danny Whitten on lead guitar and vocals. “I know that if I can bring them (tracks) all back in their pristine glory with PureTone, it will be a revelation for music lovers today, to actually hear these songs the way they were with the original resonance, creating the feeling that moved a generation’s hearts in the beginning. This is getting closer with every passing day (p. 14).”

I have written here of the early days in the musical career of a person who is arguably one of the greatest songwriter/singers in rock music history. Young is considered a man of professional integrity and deservedly so. Additional subjects discussed in the book include: filmmaking projects, a vintage automobile collection, other collectibles (“I am a material man”), touring band vehicles, live performance standards, women, lincvolt (an electric car he reconditioned from a Lincoln Continental), health issues, the environment, and this:

“I don’t make CDs or iTunes tracks. I make albums. I remember how I hated the shuffle feature on iTunes because it (bleeped) up the running order I spent hours laboring over . . . having the shuffle feature available sucks as far as I am concerned . . . I make albums and I want the songs to go together to create a feeling . . . I don’t want people cherry-picking the albums. . . After all, it’s my shit (p. 409-410).” So, my readers and listeners, retain the artistic essence of a musical project by not playing individual tracks out-of-order; and, you may refer to any recorded musical project as an “album,” preferred over “CD” if you choose.

Peter Furlong, PhD, volunteers at the public radio station KUVO 89.3FM in Denver, CO, USA

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One response to “Reviewing the Neil Young Autobiography

  1. Peter Furlong

    Reblogged this on Peter on Music.

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