October 12, 2012 9:04 pm

Rich harvest

A musician finds his voice in memoir

Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, by Neil Young, Viking £25/Blue Rider Press RRP$30, 512 pages

 

The “Great Spirit”, as Neil Young calls his song-writing muse, has been a generous if unpredictable mistress. Thanks to her the Canadian rocker has amassed a body of work whose combination of the sublime and the erratic is rivalled only by Bob Dylan. But sometime in the last few years the Great Spirit has mysteriously disappeared. “It has been a long time since I’ve written a song,” he tells us in Waging Heavy Peace, “and the visits from the muse seem to be lessened by something.”

The prolific Young has chosen to while away his creative block in a typically productive fashion: he has written a rambling but engaging memoir. Waging Heavy Peace – a title irresistibly redolent of one of Young’s more erratic albums – is apparently the work of Young alone, not ghosted. It has a direct, personal style that conveys an authentic sense of voice. Yet there are gaps and silences too.

Young came to fame in the heartland of rock’s golden age – California in the late 1960s. Not so much a relic of the hippie era as one of the few to carry its dreams of freedom onwards, he recounts his story as though jamming on the guitar. One moment we join him in his L-shaped bedroom in his childhood home in rural Ontario; the next he is wondering whether a recent decision to give up marijuana and alcohol will prevent him writing another song. “I am now,” he writes, “the straightest I have ever been since I was 18.”

Writing runs in the blood: Young’s father Scott was a well-known Canadian journalist, author of the 1984 book Neil and Me. Waging Heavy Peace does not dwell on the father’s abandonment of the family when Neil was 12; nor does it detail his mother’s consequent anger and heavy drinking. “She never forgave him for leaving us. I did,” he notes laconically. Does he protest too little? His restlessness and outbursts of irritability appear to stem from this fractured upbringing.

Other complicated relationships are simplified, such as his rivalry with one-time collaborator Stephen Stills, praised here as a “genius”. The musician Jack Nitzsche is similarly lauded, but Young neglects to mention Nitzsche’s 1979 conviction for assaulting his girlfriend Carrie Snodgress – who also happened to be Young’s ex-partner.

Young’s lack of interest in analysing his songs makes better sense. He believes “thinking is the worst thing for music”. Accordingly Waging Heavy Peace is more eloquent about his obsessions – model trains, cars, recorded sound quality – than his recordings. There are hints that the book was written to replenish funds depleted by his hobbies, which he pursues on an epic scale. But, typically of Young, it does not come across as cynical or contrived. At its heart is a touching portrait of his self-discovery as a family patriarch, settling down with third wife Pegi and raising a son, Ben, who is stricken with cerebral palsy.

Young has his own history of health problems, from polio in childhood to a brain aneurysm in 2005. He fears developing dementia as his father did, and quit smoking marijuana after his doctor spotted something developing in his brain. Waging Heavy Peace’s lack of curiosity about certain areas of his life is frustrating, but its urge to keep the darkness at bay is heroic too.

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic

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