Aging hippie, high-school drop-out cum rich rock star; Californian who maintains his Canadian passport; filmmaker, philanthropist and inventor; Neil Young is at 66 a shape-shifter, a mercurial, label-defying chameleon.
Where 1984's lovely Neil and Me, by his late sportswriter father Scott, was a pastoral tale of a northern California family man rocker, and Jimmy McDonough's 2002 biography Shakey was an unauthorized if detail-rich tell-all, Waging Heavy Peace finally is Neil Young on Neil Young.
Inasmuch as this memoir compares to anything, it's Dylan on Dylan in Chronicles Volume 1, and at the risk of offending, one must read it as perhaps one might the Bible: Young's reality is plastic, his prose prophetic; and myth, metaphor and madness meander through his musings.
The book's title derives from one of Neil's latest obsessions. Long vocally frustrated, and now fairly fuming about all he thinks is lost in compressed downloaded music, Neil is working with Silicon Valley cohorts to market a technology to digitally remaster and sell high-quality downloads. When asked if he was going to go to war with Apple and iTunes, he apparently answered that he in fact was going to be "waging heavy peace."
It is a beautiful book, and the sturdy stock gives it a substantial heft. The prose is conversational, peppered with sentence fragments, more stream-of-consciousness than narrative.
This in itself is lovely, as reading this book likely is a close as most of us will get to riding with Young in his bus, shooting the breeze, reminiscing.
With a sparse selection of black-and-white photographs, the book is rich with acerbic and self-deprecating wit. In a typical passage, Neil suggests that the rest of his life "could conceivably be spent as an author, churning out books one after another to the endless interest of, say, 14 people with Kindles."
And elsewhere, discussing his decades-long relationship with manager Elliott Roberts, his best friend, Neil writes, "[w]hatever deal he gets, I ask him for more.... It's not the money; it's the respect. And the money."
Young speaks not infrequently of money matters. "If you have lots of cash," he observes, "that doesn't make you successful -- it makes you rich."
The notion of relative affluence is poignantly brought home however, when he writes, of his many houses, that "five on the ranch and three on the Hawaii property, may be too much for us to handle, and the moment has come to make some choices."
The reason this elicits perhaps charitable emotions rather than the more obvious "poor little rich kid," is that for decades, among many other causes, Young and his wife Pegi have tirelessly supported the Bridge School, which they founded when struggling to find help for their son Ben.
Now an adult, Ben is severely physically handicapped, and the Bridge School is an international centre of excellence that continues to help children to interact with their environment, to communicate and move about in a world often deaf to their potential.
In many ways, this is a travelogue, and there is much beautiful talk of highways. "I love the Prairies, Canada, my life as a Canadian," he writes.
As expected, Winnipeg gets a few shouts. He moved here from Toronto in his mid-teens with his mother after his parents divorced, and played in his first bands here.
In the early '60s, he notes, "I was just getting used to being independent, looking for a reason to stay in Winnipeg and finding a reason to leave. It was very hard to get out of there."
Winnipeg's loss, of course, enriched the world, and Young's mythical tale of finding stardom in northern California is of course well rehearsed.
As he is a man notoriously jealous of his privacy, Waging Heavy Peace finds Neil at once vulnerable and affable. He unashamedly discusses the multiple substances with which he has enhanced and derailed his creative life.
He casually writes, perhaps whistling by the graveyard, of his January 2011 decision to "stop smoking weed because [his doctor] sees a sign of something developing in [his] brain," and his concomitant decision to stop drinking, "because [he] had never stopped both simultaneously and ...thought it might be nice to get to know [himself] again."
Because we care, we will remind Neil that "old ways can be a ball and chain." And in case he forgets, far better a happy and healthy Neil and family than a dozen more albums.
Like a moth beating against a porch light, in this book as in life, Neil Young is a man aflutter, consistent only in the dogged persistence with which he follows his vision(s), and the humility with which he accepts the love of his family, the adulation of his fans, and perchance his muse.
May we never pin him to a board, may we never "get" him, and long may he run.
Ted St. Godard is a Winnipeg physician. He hopes to be a writer and musician in his next life.