Rocking-chair reminiscences of
Waging Heavy Peace
By Neil Young Viking, 497pp, $39.95
IT has been a boldly productive year for Canadian rock veteran Neil Young. An album of covers, Americana, and a double album of originals, Psychedelic Pill, both recorded with his band Crazy Horse, have been released in recent months. This autobiography (of sorts) is just one of several projects that have occupied his time away from the stage and recording studio in the past 12 months.
Just as Young’s music has traversed many genres in the past 45 years — from countryrock and folk to retro rock ’ n’ roll and paintstripping metallic grunge — so too this book ducks and dives through a variety of topics and eras, with little thought to chronology or narrative thread.
One minute he’s in Winnipeg in the early 1960s trying to make a living with his band the Squires, the next he’s in the family retreat in Hawaii, present day, banging on about the poor quality of digitally formatted recordings and playback and how he’s going to turn that around with his own patented technology, called Pono. Early mentions of his revolutionary product — which he claims will replicate studio recording quality to about 95 per cent — refer to it as Puretone; that’s until he finds out the name has been used already and has to change it.
Young hopes Pono will enter the market next year and if it doesn’t it won’t be for the lack of spruiking it here. He is obsessed by it, or at least by the idea that he can eradicate bad digital playback quality, what he considers to be a blight on the recording industry.
Waging Heavy Peace is part reminiscence, part diary, part manifesto and just as often a postcard to close friends, alive and dead, who have entered the singer’s heart for one reason or another during his 67 years.
‘‘ Writing this book, there seems to be no end to the information flowing through me,’’ Young writes on page 139. Such a rush of inspiration can be a good thing. There are some wonderful moments in this book as Young dips into significant times and important foundations of his life, from his early years growing up in parts of Ontario including Toronto and in Winnipeg, Manitoba, through to the Broken Arrow ranch that has been the Young family home in the Woodside Hills of California for decades.
There’s mention also of his ships-in-thenight rock ’ n’ roll encounters with women and more detailed accounts of his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress and with his wife of many years, Pegi.
He writes with love and compassion of his artist daughter Amber and his sons Zeke (from his relationship with Snodgress) and Ben and of the difficulties and triumphs both sons have encountered because of their cerebral palsy.
There are vivid descriptions of pivotal moments in Young’s career. In particular, he appears to enjoy delving into that formative period after he moved to California in the 60s, when he and Stephen Stills broke through with Buffalo Springfield during a crucial stage in rock’s development, both men teaming up soon after with David Crosby and Graham Nash. One can pick up on the sense of excitement as opportunities open up to him just when popular culture is going through a radical change.
On the downside, many of his reflections on phases of his recording career are fleeting; as are his observations on songwriting. A twopage chapter (none of them are very long), sums it up thus: ‘‘ I have written a lot of songs. Some of them suck. Some of them are brilliant and some are just okay. Those are other people’s opinions. To me they are like children. They are born and raised and sent out into the world to fend for themselves.’’
Those looking for more enlightenment on Young’s craft and the background details of his extensive output would be better served by Jimmy McDonough’s thorough 2007 biography, Shakey.
In Waging Heavy Peace, Young indulges himself, jotting down whatever comes to mind. The result is often charming, if not particularly revealing. He goes off randomly,