No other major rock star tends his own cultishness as assiduously as Neil Young. When Bob Dylan came out with Chronicles, longtime Dylan-watchers and literary types alike were shocked that the perpetrator of Tarantula had actually summoned the discipline to produce a real book, let alone a good one. Waging Heavy Peace is a “book” only in the technical sense that Young’s early efforts at filmmaking, such as Journey Through The Past and Rust Never Sleeps, are “movies.” It’s a handsome, sturdy-looking physical object: 500 slick pages of text, neatly divided into brief chapters, decorated with black-and-white photographs. But where Dylan wrote a book that conceivably won him some new fans, even at a point in his career where it seemed like everyone had made up their minds about him, Young’s book will more likely inspire a fresh round of breast-beating about the death of editing, and a publishing industry that will put out anything with a celebrity’s name attached.
Young writes, in no particular order, about his parents; his children; his wife, Pegi; some of the music he’s made; some of the music he’s loved that was made by others; Hawaii; the time he hurt his toe; and his “love of plaid shirts.” He writes a little about his experiences as part of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but he spends more time and passion on all the cars and buses he’s owned, each with its own affectionate nickname. Every so often, he returns to his special obsession of the moment, his efforts to create the “new gold standard” of digital sound. Young has often seemed to have a lot of anger in him, and those hoping he’ll take this opportunity to say anything less than generous about, say, Stephen Stills, will be disappointed. But he does spend three pages slagging the reporters who, in the mid-’80s, quoted him as saying something nice about Ronald Reagan. (As he tells it, the full story is that the reporters, preparing to interview Young, began talking shit about the president. Young, sensing they were doing it to curry favor with him, told them they shouldn’t be quick to paint others as black or white, and was rewarded with a spate of headlines announcing that the writer of “Ohio” was now a frothing neo-conservative.)
As a songwriter, Young has developed his own language, a mixture of charged symbolic imagery, half-finished thoughts, sudden digressions, and bold slogans, some of which (such as “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”) he may confess to not fully believing when he’s offstage. He doesn’t have the means to achieve similar effects on the printed page, so he just rambles. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take writing seriously. (His father was a prolific, well-known, respected writer.) His prose is tightly buttoned and formal, in a well-dressed schoolboy way; he seldom uses contractions. Anticipating his next meeting with the members of Crazy Horse, he dreams: “Poncho is my neighbor in Hawaii. When I get there, we will talk it over and I’ll see if he is in. Ralphie is in already. If Poncho is in, I will talk to Billy next. Ralphie, Poncho, and Billy. Drums, guitar, and bass. I am looking forward to the whole trip.” This can create the impression of a Dick and Jane reader, except that it’s a reader where Dick and Jane get a record deal, only to learn that their agent overdosed on drugs he bought with their advance money.
The book is full or remembrances of those friends of Young’s who have died, including original Crazy Horse frontman Danny Whitten and producer David Briggs, who, Young writes, worked on “my best records, the transcendent ones, the ones where I am closest to the great spirit.” This is familiar ground for Young, who recorded his first full-length grief album, Tonight’s The Night, while still in his twenties. (Briggs died of lung cancer after producing Sleeps With Angels, whose title track was inspired by the death of Kurt Cobain, who quoted Young in his suicide note.) The most touching thing in the book may be his expression of pride in his son, Zeke, who was born with cerebral palsy, for quitting his job recording Young’s live shows on tour and taking a job at Home Depot, “where he started part-time and has stuck with it to become a full-time senior employee… He is well respected at his job, and specializes in handling complaints, one of the hardest things to do. He does it with a smile.”
Neil Young has been a lot of different people over the years, and it’s good to know that one of those people is a man who sees a book deal as his chance to tell posterity how proud he is of his son for having overcome “a rough start in life” and having a good work ethic. Similarly, his reluctance to recall any bad feelings toward his colleagues and others seems not a sign of gooey show-business politics, but an honorable refusal to poke at old wounds. Waging Heavy Peace isn’t a great memoir, but it’s a great cult item, the equivalent of a bootleg recording of an obscure gig where the band hit a lot of bum notes, but there was plenty of stage patter and some covers that otherwise never saw the light of day. Those indifferent to Young will see no point to it, but Young obsessives will find it hard to put down.