(Photo Montage Credit: Ralf Böllhoff at Rusted-Moon)
It took us awhile, but we finally finished reading Neil Young’s epic autobiographical book Waging Heavy Peace. And, as you might expect, we have a few thoughts about it. We now know that Neil Young’s favorite new band is the Pistol Annies for one thing.
But the two main things that struck us most about the book, were Neil Young’s easy, matter-of-fact writing style and just how surprisingly forthright he is with regard to his own self-assessment — both as an artist and as a human being.
Neil Young seems to have become much more aware of his own mortality in recent years, perhaps owing to his recent brush with fate after a brain aneurism a few years back, or maybe because of his own genetic predisposition to health issues ranging from polio and epilepsy, to Alzheimers (which killed his father).
In any event, much of what Neil writes about in Waging Heavy Peace seems to be part of a recent, but nonetheless ongoing effort to get his house in order.
It is a work that is, by his own admission, very much still in progress. He expresses grief over losses (Danny Whitten, Ben Keith, Larry “L.A.” Johnson); as well as some regret over how he has handled relationships — from family and friends, to those he has worked with over the years — often while pursuing his own self-interested obsession with “chasing the muse.”
When judged by rock star standards, Neil Young has historically been very private, and particularly protective when it comes to his personal life. Yet, in Waging Heavy Peace, Neil talks more openly about these things than he ever has before. Which makes this book even more fascinating, especially for the diehard fan. The fact that he does so in such a no-holds-barred, warts-and-all manner often makes for a reading experience that is more like a peek into Neil Young’s personal diary.
Written in the same non-chronological, random style that one might find more suited to such a personal journal, Waging Heavy Peace jumps around from topic to topic quite a bit. With each new chapter, Neil just talks about whatever is on his mind at the time.
Reading this book almost feels like you are sitting down, across a table from Young himself, and having a relaxed and casual, but very personal conversation with a longtime friend. Much of the credit for that has to go to Neil Young’s very breezy, but engaging writing style. For a first timer, Neil Young really does nail it. His journalist father would be very proud.
A few other things that really stick out in our minds after reading Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace:
1.) Neil Young really is an “idea guy”
…And when he is particularly passionate about one of these “ideas,” he sees it through with the same stubborn determination that has also marked his pursuit of “the muse” artistically.
In the same way that Neil has often forged and followed certain musical paths regardless of their seeming lack of “commercial appeal,” he has refused to allow any perceived financial road blocks to get in the way of his various “side interests” — from Lionel Trains and the Linc-Volt, to his most recent obsession, the Pono.
Many artists — particularly those of Neil Young’s generation — have been quite loud in voicing their disdain about today’s digital music delivery systems, and how it has affected everything from sound quality to the future viability of the album format itself.
Neil Young makes it clear in Waging Heavy Peace that he isn’t happy about the crappy sound of MP3s either.
But rather than simply pining away for the “good old days,” he wisely recognizes that where you can’t necessarily beat the advances of technology, you can join it in the hopes of making things better. To that end, Neil has put both his energy and his money behind the Pono, a device which he boldly claims restores the same sound of an original performance that is mostly lost on current digital formats and devices.
2.) Do we detect a “trilogy” theme here?
This gets back to our original point about how it seems that Neil Young, perhaps recognizing that the clock is ticking, seems to be making peace with himself these days. With both this book, as well as the recent Neil Young Journeys film with Jonathan Demme and the Psychedelic Pill album and tour with Crazy Horse, there seems to be a common thread of both coming to terms with and embracing his past.
In that sense, they really do seem to form three pieces of yet another Neil Young trilogy.
Perhaps the most obvious connection can be found in the lines of Psychedelic Pill’s longest song (and the longest of Neil Young’s career), the epic 27 minute opus “Driftin’ Back”:
“Dream about the ways things are now, write about them in my book, worry that you can’t hear me now, or feel the time I took.”
But you also get the sense of Neil Young’s rearview mirror self-appraisal in Demme’s Journeys documentary, a film that spends as much time revisiting Neil Young’s childhood past in Canada, as it does with the Massey Hall concert footage from the Twisted Road/Le Noise solo tour.
The three projects, though wildly different in terms of style, really do seem to have a common, shared connection.