If anyone was going to place a bet several decades ago whether the era’s popular musicians would be writing intriguing autobiographies many years later, the odds would have been rather long. Nonetheless, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Keith Richards and more recently Pete Townshend and Neil Young are cashing in with worthy efforts.
Young says he enjoys writing (his Dad was an author); “it is very convenient, has a low expense and is a great way to pass the time.” He recommends it to any old rockers who may need money.
Young’s tome almost reaches 500 pages, but breezes along. Someone likened it to a campfire chat, which is apt. Much like Dylan’s first autobiographical installment, Young bounces around in non-chronological order. He follows the writer’s first rule by sticking to what he knows. Hence, we get a bounty of great insights about his early days becoming a musician and his forays into areas like quality sound reproduction and modes of transport: boats, trains, buses and lots about cars. Intriguingly, what we don’t get is much insight about the songwriting process. But the insight we get is extremely pithy and astute. He cuts short a discussion about where his songs come from because he recognizes that too much analysis might forever change the process. Without mentioning it, he thereby affirms the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal.
He mentions Springsteen and Dylan “and a few other singer/songwriters; we are in a silent fraternity of sorts, all on similar paths writing and singing our own songs around the world.” Young invariably returns often to the influence of Dylan. A particularly great sequence is about first hearing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1964 or ‘65, over and over and then in the late 60s or early 70s Young gets to the point of cease listening to Dylan “because I would assimilate so much I would be copying him.”
Young talks about McCartney as a modern day Charlie Chaplin, apparently for Young it is something in the way McCartney moves and the attention McCartney pays to his art. Young and McCartney both love music, but both have to get away from music to stay vital with it.
Young writes tellingly about Stephen Stills, who he calls a genius, often misunderstood. And although Crosby and Nash loved Stills’ music, “I always thought they never completely got the point with him. No one really knows him like I do, he is my brother.” Stills is his oldest friend and often confides with him about how loyalty to friends and loyalty to the muse can often be in conflict. Certainly that was the case when Neil pulled the plug on the Long May You Run Tour with Stills shortly after their gig in Niagara Falls, although Young does not mention the incident.
Young speaks with wisdom about the early days when his first band The Squires come south (from that little town in North Ontario) and play in Ft. William: “There is nothing like having no preconceptions to live up to or down. Today my past is a huge thing. Everybody has an expectation of what I should I do. There comes a time when these things start to get in one’s way. Expectations can block the light.”
He mentions his audition in NYC at Elektra Records at about the time he met Richie Furay and “flunking the audition.” He also mentioned that incident at a wonderful benefit concert in Central Park recently, where he donated his performance to help eradicate polio.
After gigging around Canada in the 1960s in a hearse, the perfect vehicle to move their equipment around, Young describes hooking up with Buffalo’s own Ricky James Matthews. They head to Detroit and improbably record at Motown with some backing vocal help from the Four Tops. But Rick James got busted for avoiding the draft “and all that was over.” Young later describes an encounter with another felony convict, Charlie Manson.
In describing his move to Los Angeles, Young was undoubtedly grinning when he wrote about crossing the border into the US while telling the Customs Officer “we’re just dipping south because the roads are better, but we are heading to Vancouver.” Young finishes the tale by acquiring his green card many years later.
He first arrived in Los Angeles on April 1, 1966 and desperately wanted to find 77 Sunset Strip as that TV show epitomized the scene. Driving Sunset Boulevard from downtown west remains the best introduction to the city. He ended up at the Pacific Ocean, full of wonder. It was the first time he saw open water, as he later sang in the highly autobiographical “Hitchhiker” from 2010. That song may indeed be the best distillation of his book. On the drive back on Sunset he recognized the building , but it was not numbered 77. “That was one of my first lessons about Hollywood; the numbers are not always what you think they are.”
After some blazing days with Buffalo Springfield, Young moves from the Chateau Marmont in LA to the Broken Arrow Ranch, where he wrote “Old Man” about the ranch’s caretaker Louis Avila. Young returns to his more rustic roots by living outside the city. He tells an intriguing tale about picking the redwood planks at the lumberyard and fitting them just so in his new living space on the ranch; “a job is never truly finished…it just reaches a stage where it can be left on its own for a while.”
Young returns often to tales of being on the road. He discusses his many tour buses including the infamous Pochahontas, but he offers no discussion about the tour buses he commissioned from an intrepid builder in Virginia (who also built buses for Willie Nelson and others). There is a nice sequence about buying a huge sailboat, renamed WN Ragland in honor of his South Carolina born grandfather (who eventually moved north to Canada). Much of the aquatic of Long May You Run emanates from those days when Young set sail.
Young writes about how much he likes to walk and how important shoes have become for him. During one of the many stretches of guitar soloing at the recent Central Park show, the video monitors tellingly lingered on Young’s stomping foot. There are several nice oblique references to Devo and Booji Boy, regarding the sandals Neil was instructed to wear by his doctor. I would have liked more confirming history about Young’s connection with Devo, portions of which I got from the Devo camp over the past years via Bob 1 and Jerry. “Rust Never Sleeps” was an ad jingle the Devo guys wrote for the Ohio-based Rust-Oleum paint company, and Young later appropriated it for a successful live album. It was not the first time Young grabbed ideas he encountered.
He talks often about his delight with recording in Nashville, and repeatedly references his favorite hotel http://entertainmenttoday.net/travel/12407/2008/08/nashville-more-than-expected/
Tonight’s the Night was the tequila-infused aftermath of two heroin overdoses, its delayed release partially due to Young’s three year old son practice of threading the master tapes through his toy tape recorder. But it was finally the late Rick Danko upon listening to the tapes (in the John Belushi bungalow of the Chateau Marmont) who insisted the album should be released. Death clearly surrounds the album.
Young deals with surprising equanimity about the various health threats he has faced: polio, seizures, a brain aneurysm. “The events are part of my life. They make me who I am, I am thankful for them. They are scary.”
He has a similar yet far more innocent sense of wonder than David Byrne or Brian Eno about the music-making experience and life in general. Young consistently gives gracious thanks to the musicians and friends he has met along the way, with a special focus on his wife Pegi.
With regard to PureTone and any of his other ideas, of which he has many, Young realizes that he is going to give up his own absolute control one day which he hates, but he also hates waiting for other people “to OK what I want to do. Ideas are the driver. There is nothing worse than having a great idea and losing because it because you can’t control the process. Working with me must be hell working under those circumstances. I don’t feel bad about it though. I know I work well with people who want to get things done.” Young has been generating interest with artists and labels about PureTone (since renamed Pono) by demonstrating the way that music is presented by different recording media, much like the great demonstration booth in the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Although not described in the book, Pono undoubtedly built on Young’s experience with the short-lived, much-loved, sadly dormant DVD-Audio format. But Young provides no business discussion on who will pay to prepare the music for his advanced 192 kHZ Pono resolutions. Artists like the idea of having their music heard in the best possible mode, but generally believe it is the record labels which should be responsible for doing so. The labels are loath to incur costs for a new format if there is no attendant demand, and so the cycle repeats and we are left with the egregiously tinny sound of MP3 for digital. In the 27 minute “Driftin’ Back” from his latest album release, Young ruminates on the crappy sound on MP3. “You used to get it all, now you only get 5% of my music,” he sings between loping guitar solos.
Perhaps my favorite part of the book was his description of shopping in Costco. In rather Byrne-like fashion he provides bemused descriptions of overwhelming choices of product. Thereafter Young visits a used book store which also carries used CDs. His friend steers him to the Y section, where Young dispiritedly flips through 30 or 40 used titles from his catalog, giving him a perspective on his life’s work that he hadn’t anticipated that day.
As one of the few artists who has provided compelling music in each decade since the 1960s, garnering new generations of fans along the way, Neil Young is a force to be reckoned with. His autobiography is a surprisingly humble insight into how he made it happen.