Waging Heavy Peace: Neil Young rambles

The rock icon wanders through his memories in a digressive, long-winded autobiography that frustrates as much as it enlightens, but that will delight fans of his mercurial career.

Photo by Per Ole Hagen.

Neil Young does whatever he wants. It’s the greatest strength and weakness of his career and of his foray into memoir-writing, Waging Heavy Peace. And just as you’re never quite sure if a live show of his will consist of raging noise, sweet folk songs, something completely out of left field or all of the above, the book is a sprawling, detour-filled wander around the estate of Young’s mind, in which you’re never quite sure where your guide is leading you.

The book skirts over Young’s fascinating career while telling you more than you ever needed to know about his hobbies and pet causes. Did you know about his extensive collection of vintage cars, or his obsession with inventing a new digital sound format that will replace the sonically inferior mp3? You will after reading this book, as he grinds on these two topics at length, in between distributing comparatively tiny crumbs of info on his actual music.

He’s a complex and contradictory guy, at once fiercely loyal (to friends, family and particularly ideas) and permanently mercurial. One minute he’s gushing on at length about his love for his children (one of whom is seriously disabled and requires constant care), the next he’s talking about leaving his kids in the car while he goes on a booze and coke rampage culminating in the all-night recording of “Like a Hurricane.” The book finds him achieving a certain self-awareness about the consequences of his actions, seemingly for the first time (possibly motivated by quitting booze and drugs just before writing it).

Waging Heavy Peace

Unlike Keith Richards’ Life, which captured its author’s scattered mind but was clearly edited down by Richards’ collaborator/ghostwriter, or Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Vol. 1, whose discursive storytelling was clearly an intentional game with readers’ expectations in Dylan’s canny, manipulative manner, Waging Heavy Peace comes across as an almost pure stream-of-consciousness ramble. There’s a hint of a structure in the way Young semi-regularly returns to his early days with Winnipeg group The Squires and his first exposure to fame with Buffalo Springfield, but he never settles too long before moving on to another subject.

Over time, both the book’s form and its content give insight into the fundamental dilemma of Young’s career: he’s gotten where he is by trusting his instincts at all costs, but one of these costs is the ability to distinguish good ideas from bad ones.  As such, it frustrates as much as it enlightens, but that’s his method, and who are we mere mortals to tell him differently?

If you’re a fan, the book is a definite must-read. If you’re not, it’s unlikely to make you one. And if like me, you’re somewhere in between, as long as you can tolerate the digressive, old-hippie voice you may find that, much as with Young’s music career, the golden moments make up for all the filler. ■

Waging Heavy Peace, by Neil Young. Blue Rider Press, 2012, 512 pp. hardcover $31.50

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