Friday, October 19, 2012

Waging Heavy Peace

Proof of purchase.
Earlier this month Neil Young's autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, came out. It was a quick, easy read when I got around to it. 493 pages. I tore through it as I was finishing up Dhalgren, over the course of about a week and a half.

It is not a traditional autobiography. It is more like a rambling monologue of someone who refuses to logically follow any of the patterns they clearly see in themselves. It sort of starts out in roughly chronological order, but then it veers off in several directions at once, eventually circling back around to some of the many themes Neil shares with the reader. This is almost stream of consciousness writing where Neil mixes in what is happening right now as he writes about all these memories of various times of his past.   Linear time has no meaning in the book.

It is a book that will be most appreciated by Rusties, avid fans of Neil like Jennifer and myself. I'm not sure how much someone only casually interested in Neil will get out of it. He makes no effort to fully explain his life story. He sort of picks events, trends, opinions, interests like colors from an painter's pallet and mixes them on the canvas. You end up with an abstracted self-portrait rather than a photorealistic one.

With that in mind, Neil's conversational style is nevertheless an entertaining read. The autobiography is like an extended talking head video self-interview. He often writes about someone from his past and then shifts perspective to address them directly in his text; hoping life is good for them and that things are working out. These frequent shout-outs to whoever he happens to be writing about reveal the intimacy he has or used to have with dozens of people he mentions, both alive and dead.

The dead are numerous: Danny Whitten, Jack Nitzsche, Nicolette Larson, Bruce Barry, Carrie Snodgrass, long-friend Ben Keith, and Neil's best friend David Briggs, among others. There is a wide wake of death that follows Neil Young and he addresses it throughout his writing. Neil clearly feels the weight of the years and a sense of loss lingers for all his colleagues, employees, and friends that are no longer with us.

Neil doesn't run away from this, but neither does he allow it prevalence in his life. He accepts it as part of his "following the muse" and moves on. The book dwells far more on the creativity that pervades his life. His music. The multitude of his hobbies and interests. His commitment to family and friends.

Neil is not an overly extroverted, sociable guy. He has always associated himself with a huge number of people in his life. But he remains a person who prefers private walks on his Broken Arrow ranch estate, or paddling out in the ocean off his second home in Hawaii. He prefers to tinker with his enormous Lionel train collection, which fills one of the many barns on the ranch. Or toy with the continuation of his massive Archives project or sit in his editing room and continue to fine-tune obscure movies he has directed such as Human Highway. When it comes to writing and performing music, or living with his family, Neil reveals himself to be a much more private person.

Neil has an obsession for sound. All the sound contained in the music. Over the years, with iTunes and MP3s and other digital formats, he bemoans the fact that we are left with about 5% of the music that can actually be heard if it were delivered. CDs are inferior as well, while DVDs and Blu-rays approach the pristine nature of recorded sound that existed when great stereo systems played vinyl records. Still, there is no format available that can deliver the "purity" of musical sound. Neil makes a strong case throughout his autobiography that sound has deteriorated radically over the last 30 years or so. This disturbs him to his core.

Neil wants to save sound itself. So he has invented something he calls PureTone when he starts the book. But it turns out PureTone is already copy-protected so by the end of the book he is advocating the repackaged project called Pono as the future of discerning listeners of recorded music. Almost equal to Neil's passion for quality sound is his love for old cars. The book is filled with cars and car stories, most particularly his work on Lincvolt. But, in order to attempt to impress Henry Ford's great-grandson, who Neil calls a "futurist" still with Ford Motors in some capacity, Neil installs a Pono system in a 1961 Lincoln convertible that he just bought online especially for this purpose.

He hopes having Mr. Ford in a classic Ford car will make a bigger impression when he cranks up the Pono system. Just to show how portable Pono is, Neil plans to take the system out and move over to a modern Ford Focus and repeat the music for Mr. Ford there as well in a matter of minutes. Neil is seeking venture capitalists to help get Pono off the ground. Did his ploy with Mr. Ford work? Well, the book ends before we can learn more. Perhaps Mr. Ford only recently met Neil and Pono, after the publication of the book. Perhaps it never happened at all. That's not the point, really, from the perspective of the autobiography. The chapter is important because of what it reveals about the intensity and commitment to the point of compulsion of Neil himself.

When asked by someone if Pono is meant to "wage war on Apple?" Neil shrugs and answers that he is, rather, "waging heavy peace." The book is enjoyable to a long-time Neil Young fan like myself in many respects. I learned that the original pick-up for Old Black was defective when Neil first got the guitar was so he took it in to a repair shop in Los Angeles. When he went back a few days later the entire store was boarded up and closed. Neil complained about someone stealing his classic guitar pick-up. I also learned that Daniel Lanois, Neil's highly collaborative producer and namesake for his excellent 2010 album, La Noise, almost died in a motorcycle accident in the middle of recording the album at Lanois's home. Recording was delayed for weeks while the producer recovered. Neil was freaking for a moment that yet another sudden death would haunt his recording career.

There are tons of interesting stories and facts like this laying within the winding prose of the book. Neil calls the first CSN album an amazing and "influential" record. He talks about how he feels when he plays with Crazy Horse versus CSNY. There is a chapter devoted to all the different drummers he has performed and recorded with through the years. Neil likes all of them in their own way and rarely is critical of any of them. Neil devotes a chapter to Crazy Horse guitarist Poncho Sampedro's mastery of organic Korean gardening techniques at his private garden in Hawaii. The chapter might seem out of place except it does a great job of revealing to the reader the intimate relationship between Neil and Poncho. Neil calls Stephen Stills a special friend as well and devotes a comparatively long passage of the book to how Stephen and Neil can talk about anything. Of course, his manager Elliot Roberts casts a heavy background presence. Neil discusses everything with Elliott. The two talk 4-5 times a day. His wife of over 30 years, Pegi, is a prevalent topic for special praise and random recollection.

Neil begins the book with an examination of his recent decision to stay sober. He is experiencing a bit of anxiety, however, because he hasn't written any new music since his decision. The reason he is giving up marijuana and alcohol after 40 years of imbibing is that a recent MRI of his brain showed something "fuzzy" in there. Neil's father was afflicted with dementia in his 70's before he died. Neil is afraid he might suffer the same fate. So he decided not to smoke dope or drink anymore.

He writes that his sobriety gives him a different perspective. He has rarely written or performed his music without being at least mildly buzzed. But by the end of the book he has written or composed three CD's worth of material with Crazy Horse. They have set up in one of Neil's barns for weeks on end and are recording what has been and is about to be released in 2012.

It is ironic that a sober Neil ended up writing a double CD entitled, Psychedelic Pill. The album comes out the end of this month and features one track lasting over 27 minutes and two others over 16 minutes each, along with several shorter songs. I look forward to hearing his extended jams with Old Black and the Horse. At 66, Neil Young shows no signs of slowing down with his vast creative energy. I am not sure any other rocker his age has produced so much quality music this late in their career. Neil Young is definitely on a trajectory to burn out rather than fade away. His autobiography brings you some intimate understanding of this man in all his passions and his demons and his ragged glory.


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