Can singers write books? Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace
- By Greg Rose -
- Oct 18, 2012
Whatever expectations have ever been placed upon Neil Young's back over the past five decades, he has done his level best to confound them. Just when Buffalo Springfield were garnering real interest, he diverted. When Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were becoming a supergroup worthy of such a silly title, he departed. When his electric guitar virtuosity gripped, he side-stepped into acoustic mastery, before skipping back into early grunge. Now, when he's going through a musical hot streak with two new Crazy Horse albums in a matter of months, he springs a book upon us.
Waging Heavy Peace is not likely to follow convention any more than the man who wrote it. We're talking about a guy who plans his diary arrangements around the moon cycle, and spends most of his time offstage enjoying automobile maintenance. Autobiographies of ageing artists - well, ageing anybodies - are often written for financial reasons. There's surely some truth in that, as latest Young's records aren't topping any charts, and new business ventures such as taking on iTunes don't fund themselves. Nevertheless, you get the feeling he has written it because, like most of his other decisions, he simply felt like it.
Don't expect chronology, intricacy or even accuracy. Look for a quirky breed of honesty, unparalleled anecdotes, a fair amount of garbage and moments of brilliance. The book format has tripped up most musicians who have tried it, but as a lifetime of songwriting has amply illustrated, Young can tell a story. Why should it be any different in long-form? Bob Dylan, his long-time friend, peer and the subject of Crazy Horse's new single, worked a similar groove on the first of his Chronicles books. Rather than try to cement a definitive history (read that in a thousand other books), he spins a yarn that is playful and personal. There's no need to get hung up on dates or every detail if you've got a lifetime of extraordinary experiences to put down on paper.
There isn't a great deal of understanding Young can count on from his listeners. His famous lyric "Old man take a look at my life, I'm a lot like you," doesn't apply; nobody is like him. He can count on familiarity from a lifetime in the spotlight, or at least shuffling around in the shadows the spotlight is leaning towards. Plus he can bring a closer angle to some infamous chapters of music history. What was it really like in Laurel Canyon's pomp? Who said/snorted/slept with who, where and when? Gossip works just as well in books, whatever we like to believe. Of course, Young is aiming higher. Prose like "Sacred things I need to protect from pain and hardship, like careless remarks on an open mind," remind you this is a man usually operating at the thoughtful end of rock, regardless of how many guitars he's got plugged in.
The uncanny ability to surprise makes this enduring figure so compelling. On his album Live At Massey Hall 1971, Young does that thing nobody audience ever really wants: plays mostly new songs. 'Heart of Gold', 'A Man Needs A Maid', in short the songs that turned 'Harvest' into the following year's global smash, are aired in turn. Even early staples like 'Cowgirl In The Sand' are stripped of their usual bombast and form. The peerless 'Needle And The Damage Done' passes by without so much as a cheer until its conclusion. To the crowd's eternal credit, as the show builds you can hear their collective realisation that they are witnessing a future classic in early form.
Earlier this month in Central Park, Young was at it again. It was a charity gig for Global Citizen and the bands were playing ball. The Black Keys belted out their most popular pop, Foo Fighters stuck to the hits, K'naan waved his flag and John Legend even turned up to croon (delightfully, I must add) 'Imagine'. Then Neil Young brought his old Crazy Horse compadres out and blasted a new song for well over 15 minutes. They jammed around for an hour before let the gawking kids (Dave Grohl, Dan Auerbach and the guys) join in on 'Rockin' In The Free World'. None of it was particularly brilliant , but the point stands: Young is going to do what he feels like and it's up to us to decide what we want to do with hit. Waging Heavy Peace is the same deal, with more information about old cars.