Monday 20 January 2020

Godfather of grunge buys himself some time off stage

Waging Heavy Peace is both illuminating and infuriating. Neil Young offers tantalising glimp-ses into a life less ordinary, but just as he has piqued your interest in one subject, he jumps headlong into another.

What he gives us are several short chapters that flit from one part of his career to his next, and while such a ploy can be wearying for those who prefer a chronological narrative, it allows him to riff on memories and preoccupations that might have been neglected in a more conventional format.

From the outset, Young is remarkably frank about his motives for writing his autobiography now. In a chapter called 'Why This Book Exists', he explains that he needs to make enough money to stay off stage for a while which, apparently, is an essential requirement for mental and physical reasons.

He also makes it clear that he feels he has been badly served by his myriad biographers. Special rancour is reserved for Jimmy McDonough, author of the acclaimed Shakey: "Just don't hire some sweaty hack who asks you questions for years and twists them into his own version of what is right or wrong."

It's not the only sour note in his rambling book, but the veteran Canadian has too many anecdotes about family, friends and fellow musicians to get bogged down in settling scores.

Many will be surprised about just how candid the singer is about his romances. He says he fell in love with the actress Carrie Snodgrass when he saw her photo in a magazine, but admits their short-lived relationship was rocky.

There's a revealing description of the moment he discovered that the patchwork jeans he wore on the back cover of After The Gold Rush had been taken apart by Snodgrass, who was unhappy with the fact that this beloved garment had been sown by Young's ex-wife, Susan Acevedo, using her own hair as thread.

"That was pretty numbing," he writes. "I am not sure I am over that. Clothes make the man."

The book is especially affecting when Young writes about the challenges he and his second wife, Pegi, face when raising their son, Ben, who was born severely disabled. Young writes matter-of-factly about life with "our spastic, quadriplegic, non-verbal spiritual leader", but there's great tenderness to be discerned.

Health, or lack of it, is a recurring theme of the book. At various stages in his life Young suffered from polio, epilepsy and a brain aneurysm. He writes about his father's debilitating dementia and his own worries that the condition will claim him too.

Like many rockers who came of age in the 1970s, Young leads a scrupulously clean lifestyle today, eschewing alcohol and cigarettes completely.

Yet, while his health has improved, he says his ability to write songs has been sullied -- not that listeners of his just-released album, Psychedelic Pill, are likely to notice.

Young's desire to remain relevant as a musician is palpable, but he seems just as keen to leave his mark as an inventor. His obsession with old American cars and emission-free fuel has led to the LincVolt hybrid vehicle which he hopes will be mass produced one day.

While his automotive ambitions may take some time to blossom, his wish for us to hear music in the highest fidelity possible will come to fruition when he launches his Pono project next year. Quite how this will fare in a world of high-compression MP3 files remains to be seen.

Waging Heavy Peace is not a literary masterclass à la Bob Dylan's Chronicles, but as an idiosyncratic trip inside the mind of the godfather of grunge it takes some beating.

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