Book review: Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream By Neil Young

Neil Young, left, with Daniel Lanois. Picture: AP
Neil Young, left, with Daniel Lanois. Picture: AP
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NEIL YOUNG is many kinds of musician at once: a sloppy musical perfectionist, an ebullient fatalist, an inscrutable dreamer, a misanthropic man of the people.

Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream

By Neil Young

Viking, 512pp, £25

There’s the earnest entrepreneur trying to launch a high-fidelity digital alternative to tinny-sounding MP3s, the occasional film director, the hobbyist so smitten with model trains he bought a piece of a company that makes them, a collector so crazy for cars he’s sunk a fortune into developing an eco-friendly hybrid version of a 1959 Lincoln Continental. He’s a profoundly protective family man and solid citizen who took enough drugs to keep pace with his generation’s most renowned bad boys. Sued by his own record company for making “uncharacteristic” music, he has burned through genres like a prairie fire: psychedelia, Americana, grunge, alt-country, freak folk, supermarket MOR – he was there and back before they were even categories.

One minute Young’s the unsurpassed master of guitar feedback, the next he’s cooing sappy ditties under bucolic studio moonlight. Restless and overproductive, he has vaults full of unreleased music; he’s toured widely and often, briefly passing through greener commercial pastures on his way to the deepest ditch or most imposing cliff he can find (goodbye Harvest and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, hello Tonight’s the Night and Ragged Glory).

So don’t be surprised that Young’s 500-page memoir begins: “I pulled back the plastic sticky tape from the cardboard box… Then it was revealed: a locomotive switcher with handmade Lionel markings.” This homespun scene lets us know right off he’ll be doing this memory-lane trip strictly on his own terms, and we’re just along for the ride.

But there’s a method to his myriad eccentricities. He shows us around his “train barn,” where his humongous layout is on display behind glass (“You could count the visitors on your hand”). He explains it was built for his quadraplegic son, Ben: “He was still in his little bassinet when the Chinese labourers originally laid the track, thousands of them toiling endless hours through the nights and days.” Young drops that fabulist bedtime-story detail into the conversational flow, as he relates how the miniature world is a way “to sift through the chaos, the songs, the people and the feelings” to find (heavy) peace of mind.

In a few pages, he’s touched on his family, his fierce hobbies, and his music. All of them are given more or less equal weight in terms of his “creative processes,” a lever-and-pulley system of solitary customs and slightly wary human interactions that fuse work ethic, personal relations/fixations and spiritual aspirations into a full, quizzically off-centre life. Waging Heavy Peace is a convoluted road map to that life, drawn on cocktail napkins and pinned up with refrigerator magnets – part free-form blog, part liner notes to some future hundred-disc anthology and part loopy travelogue through one aging hippie’s expansive backyard.

The importance of friendship for the man who wrote (and personified) “The Loner” can’t be overstated. Many chapters are really extended thank-you notes, or heartbroken goodbyes to comrades in arms who have died. Looking to the future, newly blessed (or cursed) with sobriety, Young sees shadows from the past. His father, a renowned Canadian columnist and author, was stricken with Alzheimer’s. He wonders how long before something like that overtakes him

Young is haunted by the sheer tactile presence of the rock ‘n’ roll he first heard and later made, the old cars he drove (like “the Black Queen,” his “1947 Buick Roadmaster sedanette fastback”), the amps he used, the precise and irreplaceable configuration of the echo chamber at Gold Star Recording Studios, where Phil Spector built his Wall of Sound.

It’s not a dazzling literary edifice like Dylan’s Chronicles or a nostalgia emporium like Patti Smith’s Just Kids. If you own fewer than a dozen Young albums this is probably not the book for you. If you want details, though, this is the place to go. But if his ornery obsessiveness fascinates you in its own right and you perhaps count his coming-of-age-in-death anthem “Powderfinger” as an archetypal Western saga up there with The Searchers, then you’ll also have a pretty good time with this book.