10 Things We've Learned From Neil Young's New Autobiography

Shakey has finally put pen to paper to tell his story, and far from a re-hash of tired anecdotes it provdes new insight and vital knowledge for any fan of the legendary axe-man...
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This month has seen the release of Neil Young’s Autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace. For a musician with such a complex, varied and occasionally frustrating back catalogue, I always feel that Neil Young is under-appreciated outside the realms of the “serious” muso. I am one such serious muso and have loved Neil Young’s work ever since my dad first put Harveston the turntable when I was knee-high to a crazy horse.

Here, then, are ten things I’ve learned from his confessional, together with an exclusive audio clip provided for your listening pleasure…

1. Slowing down has never been option.

Writing this memoir has clearly been a personal journey for Young and every journey begins with a tiny step. In Neil’s case, it was the tiniest part of a step that kicked the whole thing off: in summer 2011 he broke his toe. This forced him, literally, to take the weight off his feet. Never one for slowing down (this year’s Psychedelic Pill is his 37th studio album, not counting collaborations) he reached for a pen and just started scribbling. “You’ll be surprised what comes out” he says. This may be the only break he’s ever had…

2. He’s given up the sauce. And the smoke.

An early revelation in the book is Neil’s decision to give up drinking and smoking weed. In a life that has occasionally been dominated by one or the other, this represents a huge landmark. I would refer you to the cover of American Stars and Bars, or the tales of debauchery that typified the sessions of Tonight’s the Night (listen to Speakin’ Out and tell me I’m wrong), or the heartfelt lament of Barstool Blues. But now he’s been sober for a year:

“My doctor said it would be good for me to stop smoking weed because he sees a sign of something developing in my brain, and I’m listening to him … When I stopped smoking weed, I threw in drinking, too, because I had never stopped both simultaneously and I thought it would be nice to get to know myself again … I did it for 40 years. Now I want to see what it's like to not do it. It's just a different perspective.”

3. He’s contemplating mortality.

At 66 years of age, Neil is by no means the oldest rocker in the free world. But something has clearly made him turn his thoughts to the comparatively fragile nature of our time on this blue marble. This is, again, a big step for a man who was nearly ended by polio as a child and suffered a brain aneurysm in 2005. Following this latter, he discharged himself from hospital the following day to get back to working on Prairie Wind. This didn’t end well (he collapsed in the street with a brain bleed), but clearly this and subsequent events have prompted him to think about needing to leave his thoughts behind:

“I think I will have to use my time wisely and keep my thoughts straight if I am to succeed and deliver the cargo I so carefully have carried thus far to the outer reaches.”

4. His parents’ influence is still going strong.

Young’s parents separated when he was twelve, following his father’s string of extra-marital affairs. Neil’s mother Rassy has always been acknowledged as a huge influence on his life. Fiery and fiercely supportive, she it was who drove him on as a young musician: literally, in fact, since she financed the purchase of his first car (a hearse nicknamed Mort: if cars could tell stories…). But in Waging Heavy Peace, we also hear Neil give credit to his father, who was himself a writer. “It turns out he taught me everything I need to know,” he confides, “and it’s just now that I’ve got around to using my training.”

5. The history of music is missing a page.

Young’s second band (the first being his high school band The Squires) was the legendary Buffalo Springfield. Their debut self-titled album, although criminally poorly produced in its original form, has a very legitimate claim to be one of the finest long-players of the 1960s east coast scene. But it was as a live outfit that they really came into their own, apparently. I say “apparently” because, due to an unfortunate quirk of history, no one ever recorded the band live. Even Young’s own utterly exhaustive Archives project has failed to turn up anything. Perhaps therefore, the closest we will ever get is reading Young’s description:

“When we used to play at The Whiskey[-a-go-go in Los Angeles], Bruce and I would be back there with Dewey holding down a groove with our backs to the audience, lost in the music. That was magic.”

6. Ben Keith’s epitaph should be writ large(r).

Ben Keith was a pedal steel guitarist who worked with Young for over 40 years after making his debut on Neil’s most famous album, Harvest. When he died in 2010, I was moved to write an obituary for him. It’s always seemed odd to me that the man’s influence wasn’t shouted about more, but it seems that was his way. In a candid moment of Waging Heavy Peace, Neil recounts a phone conversation with Bruce Springsteen, shortly after the latter had lost his won long-time collaborator Clarence Clemons:

“Ben Keith was my Clarence Clemons. Clarence was Bruce’s Ben Keith.”

I can’t think of any more fitting praise.

7. He tried to save Kurt Cobain.

The line “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” is, arguably, more famous for it’s inclusion in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note than it is for its place in Young’s Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black). Seriously, click that link. The inclusion of the line in that final note hit Young hard: “When he died and left that note, it struck a deep chord inside of me. It fucked with me.” Young goes on to recall how he had been trying to contact Kurt in the weeks before his death: "I, coincidentally, had been trying to reach him. I wanted to talk to him. Tell him only to play when he felt like it."

8. Cars figure heavily.

Young’s love of transport, and cars in particular, is well documented. It’s occasionally reached obsessive levels: Fork in the Road is a concept album about the electric car and I for one would rather donate my ears to medical science than ever listen to it again. In Waging Heavy Peace, the reader finds many tales are focussed on the cars involved, sometimes in elaborate detail. Towards the end of the book, Young dedicates a couple of pages to his current project (one of many) Lincvolt, an enterprise working on creating cleaner, greener ways of powering cars. He may have quit smoking, but the hippie dream never dies.

9. He wrote Ohio in a few minutes.

One of the disadvantages of an autobiography is that an artist can present their version of events, and can reframe these events any way they wish. It may not therefore be entirely true that Young wrote Ohio, his outpouring of anger and disbelief at the Kent State massacre, “immediately” in a few minutes after seeing the newspaper report. But, as Tony Wilson (wrongly) quoted: “When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, print the legend”. I think this scans better than any truth might:

“The weight of that picture cut us to the quick. We had heard and seen the news on TV, but this picture was the first time we had to stop and reflect. It was different before the internet … So full of this feeling of disbelief and sadness, I picked up my guitar and started to play some chords and immediately wrote Ohio: ‘four dead in Ohio…’”

10. Much like his career, you never know what’s coming next.

“Frustrating” has often been a word used to describe Neil Young as a recording artist and a live performer. On the Tonight’s The Night tour, he and the band pissed the audience off every night by playing a mammoth extended version of the title track at the beginning and end of every show. By the end of the tour, people had stopped buying tickets to what was basically a long jam session. Albums like Trans and Everybody’s Rockin’ have seen sharp (not always great) changes in musical direction. Here in his autobiography, the sense that a knight’s move is never far away comes through strongly. Bouncing from the present to the past, from the factual to the reflective, Neil Young has produced a patchwork account of his life, his music and the influences and experiences that have shaped both. It’s a damn fine read…

Check out this exclusive audio clip of Waging Heavy Peace

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