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Waging Heavy Peace

by Neil Young

If you love Neil Young you will love his autobiography. If you don’t know or care about Neil Young you will still like his autobiography. You might love it. He is a writer with a distinctive and original narrative voice. And a hell of a story.

The reader of this volume is assumed to be a friend. Young’s tone is confiding, but not what I would call confessional. No sticky details (OK, maybe a couple) or bragging. But it’s still more intimate than, say, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. At times his writing is charmingly simple, as in: “I didn’t do real well in those classes . . .” So we are not talking about some academic here. Not that you would mistake him for one, if you have ever seen him in one of his flannel shirts onstage with Pearl Jam.

He begins by talking about his train set. This is not just any train set. This Lionel train set is a huge preoccupation with Young. He still owns shares in Lionel and has a huge room devoted to this train set, complete with bridges, mountains made of redwood stumps, rivers, towns and track laid down by “Chinese workers”. Almost no one but he ever sees it: “You could count the visitors on your hand.” And yet he devotes himself, on and off, for 33 years to maintaining this room and everything in it.

This is not just the working of an obsessive, Asperger-like mind, with clinical attention to detail, although it seems that way at first — he loves talking about cars, guitars and gear. But what guy doesn’t? “Only about 1,690 of that model were ever made,” he says, referring to one of his many cars, a Buick Skylark. That’s pretty precise for a wild guess. But there is humour in his approach, and a preoccupation with the feeling of things; of sound, and with the world of soul and spirit.

He spends the beginning of the book telling us that music is dying because the MP3 has killed its authentic sound. So he devotes himself to something called PureTone (now known as Pono), which is a portable music player and music distribution system that he has developed, proposing to fix what the MP3 has destroyed. The book’s title refers to this struggle with sound and the music industry as it exists today. Someone asks him if he is waging war on Apple and iTunes with his new device and he answers: “No. Waging heavy peace.”

(In the interest of full disclosure I should mention a twinge of guilt here. Karlheinz Brandenburg used my voice when refining the MP3. I knew nothing about it until a magazine called Business 2.0 concluded “When an MP3 player compresses music by anyone from Courtney Love to Kenny G, it is replicating the way that Brandenburg heard Suzanne Vega. Making her the mother of the MP3.” I apologise, Neil, for my role in the degradation of sound in your eyes. Er, ears.) As we get to know Young better, we are privy to his dealings with his family when he was growing up, his struggles with illness. His diseases “caught Neil” as his athletic brother puts it: polio at the age of 5, measles and then diphtheria. He is a man who has been severely tested, physically.

He is devoted to his wife Pegi, though there have been other women in his life: Susan Acevedo, his first wife, briefly; the late actress Carrie Snodgress, the mother of his first child, Zeke, who suffers from cerebral palsy. Pegi, we learn, gave him a 1958 Lincoln Continental to use for spare parts. This comes in useful when the LincVolt (another one of Young’s obsessive projects — a plug-in hybrid car) catches fire. “Can you see why I love her so?” he asks. He mentions that his obsession with trains strengthened when his son, Ben, born a quadriplegic, was also diagnosed with cerebral palsy — the disease was only recently recognised as hereditary. Ah: an emotional component. His children’s struggles have been serious — Ben, now 34, is fed through a feeding tube. But there is not a trace of bitterness or self-pity in his writing. Instead he is obsessed with a holy search for ecstasy and meaning, especially through music.

We also get a glimpse of his relationship with [his old supergroup bandmates David] Crosby, [Stephen] Stills and [Graham] Nash. They’re still around — they visit him and shake their heads at his train set. We get the genesis of his famous songs and lots of anecdotes about his scuffling days. The book is sprinkled with atonement and thanks. As in: “Steve Jobs was a genius ... thank you, Steve.”

This is a terrific autobiography — what keeps it from being a great one is the book’s lack of structure. For all of his obsession with chronology, there’s little of it here: it is studded with dates, names, and facts that float in a free-form stream.

But because the story of his life is so powerful it comes through nonetheless. His is a hero’s story; a man put through trial after trial who is still fighting at the end with humour, courage and rage to be the most powerful and genuine artist he can possibly be. Each detail is another dot in a pointillist impression of a life deeply, painfully and generously lived, questioned and undertaken.

He says it here eloquently: “I accept the extreme nature of my blessings and burdens, my gifts and messages, my children with their uniqueness, my wife with her endless beauty and renewal. Am I too cosmic about this?” I think not.

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