Book Review: ‘Waging Heavy Peace’ by Neil Young

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Am I a Neil Young fan? Possibly. I like a lot of his music (especially the ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ and ‘Live Rust’ albums) and of the heritage artists he groups himself with in his memoir ‘Waging Heavy Peace’- Dylan and Springsteen – he is certainly the one that speaks to me the most but no, I am not going to rush out and buy his latest album (Young can cover a lot of ground – from folk to hard rock – and not all of it is to my taste, especially when he gets political) and based on the lukewarm reviews at the time I certainly did not rush out to read his 2012 book.

I picked it up recently at the library on a whim and not expecting much was surprised to find  myself quickly drawn in and unable to put it down, I polished it off in no short order. This is no ordinary memoir. It is part ‘stream of consciousness’ conversation, part-marketing tool (his Pono music player and electric car project feature prominently) but mostly it is an examination of his career and personal life, though not in any linear or completist way. Lets just say it meanders and not unpleasantly so.

The structure of the book like the timeline of events is unpredictable and often these events are examined numerous times from different perspectives. As for the music, it is well covered (as you would expect). Young radically examines his muse (pot) and gives several chapters of praise, thanks and offers numerous stories on the musicians, producers and studio technicians (not to forget roadies and various other crew and staff) who have helped him make his imaginative fancies real and his descriptions of the songwriting and recording process would stir the heart of any young musician starting out on that particular career path.

Young is self-deprecating and quick to acknowledge his faults and the lack of maturity that has dogged him most of his life, that and his tendency toward self-absorption – a trait which has caused those close to him much grief. That said, he never dwells or wallows, just puts us in the picture before explaining his evolution and growth as a person. He is also reveals himself to be an obsessive entrepreneur, materialist, model train fanatic and egalitarian Canadian. He contracted polio as a child and then just about every other preventable disease before his epilepsy kicked in. With all this in the basket he reveals that he has struggled with myriad health issues including the brain tumour that led him to give up the Herb (on Drs advice).

Young did not inhale until his early 20s and when he did the music “turned into god” and since stopping (a year and a half before completing this book) has not been able to write a single song. Narcotics feature heavily as a character in this narrative but without the accompanying specter of opinion. Young just says it how it is and has been with him and his peers and makes no judgment.

A fascinating book that leaves us with a man struggling to stay financial in light of the rapidly changing times within the music business (streaming and downloads) and struggling to stay clean and ‘sober’. He still has not decided if ‘straight’ is the right method and wishes he had never seen the brain scans which reveal the plaque buildup in his brain, indicating he might be a dementia candidate, like his father. For all his achievements Young leaves us with the impression that he always has been and remains ‘an innocent abroad’, a Hippie dreamer, an oddball who got very lucky.

As for his family life, he is very gracious and generous in his expressions of love for his wife Pegi, various ex-wives, close friends, parents and children and it is with the latter that we get our best picture of Young. Father of two disabled children, one severely so, all I could do was put myself in his shoes and wonder how I would have coped with such complexity. My answer was “not as well as he has.”

*Since reading this book I have learned that Young and Young have parted ways after 36 years of marriage which is certainly confusing in light of all Neil’s steadfast professions of love. The man is a conundrum.

‘Waging Heavy Piece’ is no masterpiece nor is it one of the great rock biographies but it has something special about it – that same and certain idiosyncratic flavour found throughout his music and career, that little something that has stood him out and apart from the crowd and coloured him unique. My visit with Mr Young was worth every second of my time.

As for my favourite Neil Young moment – Live Rust – I was thrilled by his descriptions of the concept and how that film, tour and collection of enormous songs all came together.

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