By Neil Young
Blue Rider Press,
384 pages, $37
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This article was published 17/10/2014 (2403 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Neil Young published his first memoir of a life in music, the 500-page Waging Heavy Peace, barely two years ago. This second very similar offering, Special Deluxe, hits the shelves just 24 months later. Not even the top dogs in the rock pantheon -- the Rolling Stones, the Beatles or Led Zeppelin -- tested the book market with such haste.
In some cases, the life and the career of the star or artist is framed well enough by the written word that a rock biography will stand on its own merit: Patti Smith's Just Kids, Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Volume I and Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan) definitely represent this category. Young's first memoir, published to massive sales and mixed critical reviews in 2012, not so much. And this second memoir in less than two years, not at all.
If Waging Heavy Peace was mostly a heartfelt look into the rearview mirror about his life in the music business, this one, in Young's own words, is "a book about cars and dogs." No lie. Cars, it turns out, are his first passion in life -- they have souls, and they talk to Neil. You will learn more about the veritable junkyard of old cars that Young bought, drove, repaired, stored in warehouses or abandoned through the last four decades than you would have dreamed possible for one man to recall, never mind write down and publish. There is a Jeep pickup truck, an Eldorado, a Bentley, many old Buicks and a number of hearses similar to the one that functioned as his first band's tour bus.
At a certain point, reading about the cars -- and the dogs -- you'll ask yourself: who cares? What's the point? Well, the target audience is clearly the brother- and sisterhood of Young Nation which, given the commercial success of his first memoir, is quite an army. He is still a force that the publishing world will support. There is no other reason for Special Deluxe to exist.
Special Deluxe rambles over a lot of ground -- reminiscences about growing up in Canada, life with his wives and children, the houses he rented or bought, the people who've worked for him and the name-checking of endless bandmates and musical lineups. And, of course, his dogs.
There is also plenty of heartfelt digression by Young, the old hippie environmentalist, into political rabble-rousing, and many sincere words about his philanthropic endeavours such as The Bridge School, which helps physically challenged children overcome their impairments with the use of technology.
But it always returns to the cars, including 75 pages on the Lincvolt, his endeavour to invent a modified electric car based on a 1959 Lincoln Continental.
In fairness, Young's book will make Winnipeg fans happy, with fond recollections of the years spent here in Winnipeg. Randy Bachman was an early idol, Jim Kale a willing mentor to other musicians, a girl named Pam Smith was his "first love," and the community-club scene made Winnipeg "the rock 'n' roll capital of Canada." He recalls the evolution of his first real band, The Squires, and his home at 1123 Grosvenor Ave. with his single-parent Mom, Rassy.
Despite the local content, Special Deluxe has the depth of a middling high school essay. The language is strangely simple and flat, and the storytelling developed with all the inspiration of a police report on a traffic accident. Chapter One begins "Skippy was a Labrador mix." Chapter Two opens with the sentence "It was a dark and stormy night on Labour Day weekend and the traffic was intense." There is chapter after chapter of barely structured stream-of-consciousness remembrance and puzzling digressions.
A review of Waging Heavy Peace in the October 2012 New Yorker magazine by critic Alec Wilkinson caused quite a controversy and even outrage among Young loyalists when it was published. Neil had revealed to Wilkinson in an earlier interview that he didn't read books because reading would distract him from writing songs.
If true, it would certainly explain a lot about the way he writes.
There is no doubting Neil Young's rightful place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He's had a legendary four-decade run as a musician and an undeniable impact on rock music. There is a treasury of fine music -- his output with Buffalo Springfield, selected solo albums such as Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Harvest and After The Gold Rush, the first collaboration with Crosby Stills and Nash, and some of the gritty rock 'n' roll with Crazy Horse are five-star classics.
None of this musical legacy makes him an author worth reading.
"James A Millican" was a disc jockey at CFRW 1470 when Neil Young released the classic album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
By Neil Young
Blue Rider Press,
384 pages, $37
Updated on Saturday, October 18, 2014 at 8:34 AM CDT: Formatting.
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