Waging Heavy Peace with Neil Young

How to describe Neil Young's new memoir, Waging Heavy Peace -- A Hippie Dream?

Well, for one thing it depends on whether or not you are one of Young's legions of fans and cognizant of the iconic rocker's eccentricities and modus operandi, as it were. If you are, Young's 504 page rambling stream of consciousness will be a delight to read. If you are not, it may be tough slogging.

In fact, at several points, Young even suggests that readers who aren't into what he's writing put the book down and move on.

Perhaps what is more important, is what the book is not. It is not an "untold story" behind the scenes tell-all vanity project. Nor is it a "let's set the record straight" attempt at damage control - although Young's antipathy towards the press and media, especially his would-be biographers - is well known. Nor is it a "picture book." Indeed, photographs are few and far between in the book. To be sure, readers looking for a traditional autobiography should look elsewhere.

Eschewing a chronological approach, Young's book can be best described as a candid look at what makes the multi-award winning musician, film-maker, philanthropist, inventor, environmentalist, and entrepreneur tick -- and what motivates him to continue taking on numerous projects like his PureTone/Pono music delivery system in his mid-60s.

Written in a conversational first-person narrative, the memoir meanders (the verb Young uses to describe his writing style) through past and present, touches on questions related to life and death, deals with tragedy and comedy, considers loss and grief, and presents brutal self-reflection.

On several occasions, Young uses one word - Life - to explain why certain things happened when they did and why they turned out the way they did. There have been many "forks in the road" for Young, including his childhood brush with polio and the other health scares he has experienced in his 65 years, the split of his parents Scott and Rassy, the birth of two children with cerebral palsy, the deaths of close friends and fellow musicians, and his move to LA after a less than successful solo career as a folksinger in Toronto's Yorkville area in the mid-1960s. This latter event being the one that launched him on his long career as a renowned singer/song-writer.

One of these "forks" -- Young's decision to stop smoking weed and drinking -- is partially responsible for his writing Waging Heavy Peace. That and the fact that he accidentally broke his little toe.

In a chapter entitled, Why This Book Exists, Young writes "…we were together celebrating Father's Day and all was cool. That's when I stubbed my toe on a rock and broke it. So I have to slow down. That's why I am writing this book now. Or maybe it's because I'm not smoking weed anymore. I am a lot more focused now. That's odd. On one hand, I am wondering whether I can write songs straight, and on the other hand, I am  saying that because I am straight I am probably writing this book."

Several character traits re-appear throughout the book, including Young's love of his wife Pegi and his children, his fondness for big old American cars and building things (he calls himself a "material man") like his electric eco-friendly Lincvolt car, his restless spirit, perseverance and drive for perfection, and his attention to his muse, among others.

But, it is Young's loyalty to his close friends and associates that rings loud and clear. People like the late David Briggs - his long-time producer and best friend, his Crazy Horse band-mates, his late film-making collaborator Larry Johnson, his manager Elliot Roberts, and designer Gary Burden, just to mention a few. Readers will no doubt notice Young's numerous first-name references to musical contemporaries like Bob (Dylan) and Bruce (Springsteen). In some else's hands, this would seem like shameless name-dropping -- when Young does it, it feels natural.

One does get the impression, however, that being on Young's wrong-side would not be desirable. He has nothing but disdain for the Hollywood publicity/celebrity machine, singling out People magazine for an unflattering story it once published about him. "I have never talked to that magazine since and don't plan on it," he says.

In short, Waging Heavy Peace is very much like its author -- rambling, meandering and equal parts brilliant and frustrating. If nothing else, it gives readers a glimpse into the psyche of one of our time's greatest singer/song-writers. And we are all the richer for it.

An Index would have been helpful and some editing would have cut down on the obvious repetition; but hey, it's Neil Young, the self-proclaimed "rich hippie" and what you see is what you get.

One final caveat. At the end of a well-known 1975 interview with Rolling Stone magazine's Cameron Crowe, Young purportedly said "Keep in mind, I may remember it all differently tomorrow."

That's reason enough for a second book.

(Out of 4 Stars)

Richard Young is the Publisher/Managing Editor of The Beat Magazine.

[Editor's Note: Neil Young with Crazy Horse appears at London's John Labatt Centre (somehow I don't think Young would approve of the new name. Remember his satirical This Note's For You?) on Saturday, October 6, 2012.]


Talbot Centre