Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream
- Neil Young
- Blue Rider Press
- 512 pp.
- October 15, 2012
The acclaimed singer-songwriter’s delivers an unconventional and engaging memoir.
Reviewed by Jon Sallet
Neil Young's publicists would have us believe that Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream is a lot like the most successful rock memoirs of recent years from Bob Dylan and Keith Richards. They are wrong.
Dylan placed a patina on the half-century of performance art that began with the creation of a person called "Bob Dylan." Reading Keith Richards is like watching a video of a man crossing Niagara Falls on tightrope: we know he's going to make it to the end but we're still amazed he can survive the turbulence reflected upwards from the rushing churn of sex, drugs and alternative guitar tunings. Ignoring Dylan's own famous admonition, these books do look back.
Young, the veteran rocker — with 34 studio albums, the writer of multiple rock classics (including "After the Gold Rush," "Down by the River," "Heart of Gold" and "Old Man") and membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — is up to something very different.
First is the matter of time. This is a book written in the present looking to the future, not to the past. There's a natural tendency to see Young as his own creation: an old man taking a look at his life. No. This is a 65-year-old who hasn't written a song since he stopped drinking and smoking marijuana. The question in this book is whether he will be able to create in the future as he did in his richly rewarding past. It's about the unknown he faces (and we'll all face).
The book's recollections, spanning Buffalo Springfield to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to his solo career to his friendships with fellow musicians like Stephen Stills and Bruce Springsteen and with an emphasis on lesser-known creators who helped steer his solo career, aren't designed, in other words, to shock, settle a score or show the path to happiness. Rather than appearing chronologically, his stories are arranged to cast light on the hard questions of the present, as when Young juxtaposes his contempt for the recording quality of today's MP3 files with recollections of his first analog recording session. Or how he creates the running order of an album to be a creative narrative, in contrast to today's penchant for downloading songs out of context.
Second is the matter of contrasting tones. The present-day (circa 2011) Young faces real challenges: Can he write new songs? Can he invent better technical quality for digital music? Can he market a big electric car? Can he archive his musical legacy? Can he, of course, write a book (and if he does, can he then write one about something other than himself)? Is it time to cut down on expenses? How can he best honor close friends who have passed on? These are disquieting life challenges and push the book's structure into a sharper key.
Young's language is, at the same time, disarmingly flat. He tells us (in the manner of a 19th-century novelist addressing the "reader" in the second person) that he's happy with his limited vocabulary because he prefers "to be boring." He uses words and punctuation that would be viewed as anodyne if penned by others. ("She was my biggest fan!")
The effect is contrapuntal, setting up narrative tension that covers hundreds of pages like a long suspended chord, as we wait to see if the harmonic will resolve into a smiling major or shift into a saddened minor key.
Third is the contrast between rationality and magic. Young often sounds like a technologist. He strives to find a way that the music of digital files can match the warmth of analog. (The term "Heavy Peace" is applied to his campaign to displace current technological standards for recorded music.) He wants to produce an electric car that's big, luxurious, fuel-efficient and good for the environment. He introduces his favorite Fender amplifier and preferred techniques for recording.
But behind that technophile approach lurks a paganist world in which muse and music have yet to be split apart, in which anthropomorphic cars live alongside an anthropomorphic mixing board, boat and guitar. all called by name (like his '59 Cadillac Eldorado named "Nanu the Lovesick Moose" and the tour bus named “Pocahontas”). This is a world in which the forest is a church, in which things burn and the future is heralded by smoke and flames, in which it's best to record during a full moon. It's a place where sorcerers have been banished and music is the only remaining form of magic. Where songs are written by the flow of spirits, not the demands of commerce.
Consider this portion of a passage in which Young contemplates creating new songs for his band Crazy Horse:
“Don't spook the Horse … The Horse will head for the barn if it is spooked and the music will continue but not have that magic that the Horse possesses … any ride on the Horse must not have a destination … It is okay to talk to the Horse directly, but care must be taken to have respect for the muse when discussing anything with the Horse. The Horse and the muse are very good friends.”
Timing, tone and transcendence; these are all in the songwriter's toolkit. Young describes the combination at its peak in the single day when, in quick succession, he wrote "Cinnamon Girl," "Down by the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand."
The last distinctive note that makes a full measure of content is the author's Youngian self-analysis. Young stands between two sons burdened with physical limitations and a father who absented himself from his son's early life, who returned to his son as a successful Canadian writer, but who descended into dementia, surrendering, as one does, the acuity on which he had built a career. And that chord of mortality echoes (as echoes themselves sound a passing note) in the passing of other, lost colleagues.
Now Young, writing at an age that normally signals retirement, takes up his father's pen, powers perhaps diminished, possibilities perhaps in the past, profession perhaps ill-chosen.
Yet Young attacks this challenge, the questions, the burdens and the unknown in the compact manner of verbal expression that characterizes his first musicianship. The average rock song is said to contain 256 words. By that count, here Young has written several hundred songs. He's just asking you, reader, to help him complete the chorus.
After all, what's an aging rock star to do? He (and we're talking here about a predominantly white male group) has limited career choices. 1. Go soft. 2. Become one's own greatest cover band. 3. Record an album of American standards (see 1).
Or stay true to his school of rock and roll rebellion. Few accomplish that. Compare the photos on the back and front covers. On the back a younger Young looks directly ahead. On the front, an older man looks downward, eyes in shadow, wearing a fedora festooned with the legend "Hippie Dream". But still determined.
A short coda: Young's new album with Crazy Horse, titled Americana, is a refashioning of traditional tunes that he played with his early Canadian band, The Squires. He turns songs like "My Darling Clementine" and "Oh Susannah" into folk-grunge, uncovering lesser-known meanings. Like this book, it's the new made from the old. And it's not The End.
Jon Sallet plays bass guitar in The Black Duck Boys and drives a pickup truck named "Baby Blue."