Neil Young ‘Waging Heavy Peace’ en route to Hollywood Bowl this week
Neil Young recently described writing his first book, “Waging Heavy Peace,” as “really a different trip,” invoking the vocabulary reflected in the subtitle of his tome: “Hippie Dream.” The phrase is written on a card tucked into the band of the ragged-edged fedora he wears on the book’s cover photo.
Young’s book does move more like a dream than a linear autobiography, bouncing without warning from past to present and back again. He hopscotches from in-the-moment projects like the current Crazy Horse recordings and his passionate pursuit of a new high-fidelity audio playback system called Pono all the way back to details about his childhood in Omemee, Ontario, his parents’ divorce and his brief tenure in an R&B; band called the Mynah Birds, which also featured one Ricky James Matthew, who later became ’80s funk and R&B; star Rick James.
In the present day, Young, 66, has recently reunited with Crazy Horse, returning to the band that’s been a touchstone — even a cornerstone — throughout his life. He’ll play the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday and has a new record with Crazy Horse out at the end of October.
“Generally speaking, it’s really encouraging,” Young said over the phone of the response to his book so far. “Some of my friends have written personal notes saying that they’ve enjoyed it, and that makes me feel good. That’s the thing that means the most to me, when I hear back from the people I think of as the target audience for the book.”
“Waging Heavy Peace” has been generating positive reviews from literary critics who have praised its non-chronological structure, akin in some ways to Bob Dylan’s impressionistic 2004 memoir “Chronicles: Volume One.” Young’s book is selling strongly, with more than 300,000 copies in print, and it ranks in the Top 5 nonfiction bestsellers nationally by the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and several other publications.
Not surprisingly, Young is a fan of Dylan’s book, which includes an anecdote about the celebrated songwriter searching out Young’s childhood home in Canada so he could see the place that helped form Young’s music and overall vision of life.
“For guys like Bob and me,” Young said nonchalantly (as if there is a large contingent of people on the same musical plane as Dylan and Young), “this is probably the only way to do it and keep it interesting.... I never really wanted to write it in the regular way from beginning to end. That’s not the way my brain works. That would make it into a job, and I’m not looking for another job.”
Young has been gainfully employed for nearly half a century as one of rock’s most respected songwriters, singers and guitarists. He first rose to stardom as a member of Buffalo Springfield, then worked with a variety of ensembles including Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Stray Gators, the Stills-Young Band, the Shocking Pinks, the Bluenotes and, of course, Crazy Horse.
In “Waging Heavy Peace,” he reminisces about his days in a lesser known band, the Squires, and another Canadian rock group that played the same club/hotel/restaurant circuit in Winnipeg, the Thorns.
“Tim Rose, leader of the Thorns,” Young writes, “was one of those credited with writing ‘Hey Joe,’ later made a big hit by Jimi Hendrix. The Thorns were really great. I don’t know what happened to them. They should have been huge. But we know life has her ways. Nothing is obvious, and you never know what is going to happen. The Thorns and Danny and the Memories were great bands that could have been huge, but just disappeared. Who knows what is next or why it isn’t?”
The immediate impetus to write a book came last year when Young broke a toe, which sidelined him from many of the activities that normally occupy his time. He found he enjoyed a process that connected him in a new way with his father, Scott Young, a celebrated Canadian sportswriter and author of books including 1984’s “Neil and Me,” about his role as the father of one of rock’s biggest stars.
In his book, however, Young notes that his mother was the chief supporter — emotionally and financially — of his musical ambitions, noting that “She got really pissed when my dad did not help me buy my instruments. When my dad’s book ‘Neil and Me’ came out in 1984, she was incredulous beyond description. She would quote from the book and then say, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, what a load of …’ noting that he didn’t have any relationship with me compared to her and had done nothing to support my musical life.
“She never forgave him for leaving us,” he adds. “I did.”
Stepping into the milieu of his father, who died in 2005, carried “no pressure,” Young said this week. “I think he’d be very happy that I’m doing this, and I think he’d agree that it’s a good thing for me to do.”
Young does look inward here, describing how recent life changes have affected a creative process he’s relied on for decades.
“Not that it matters much, but recently I stopped smoking and drinking,” he writes. “I am now the straightest I have ever been since I was 18. The big question for me at this point is whether I will be able to write songs this way. I haven’t yet, and that is a big part of my life. Of course, I am now 65, so my writing may not be as easy-flowing as it once was, but on the other hand, I am writing this book. I’ll check in with you on that later. We’ll see how it goes.”
Apparently the inspiration did come. The forthcoming Neil Young & Crazy Horse double album “Psychedelic Pill” (due Oct. 30) is a recording that dovetails with his writing adventure. It opens with the lines, “Hey now now / Hey now now / I’m drifting back … Dreamin’ ‘bout the way things sound now / Write about them in my book / Worry that you can’t hear me now.”
Young is continuing to write prose and is working on another nonfiction book in addition to pondering a third in which he might delve into fiction. “I think it’d be fun to create some characters and see what happens with them,” he said.
Between continuing to promote Pono, a high-fidelity portable music playback system he’s developing, to the world as a cure for many of the music industry’s ills, finishing his long-gestating LincVolt electric car project (“We’re 41/2 to five weeks away from everything being ready,” he said), overseeing reissues from his extensive catalog and his recent collaboration with filmmaker Jonathan Demme on the concert film “Journeys,” it indeed wouldn’t appear to an outsider he has all that much down time in need of filling.
“There are a lot of things coming to fruition at the same time,” Young said, “but there are still times in the day when I’m not doing anything. That’s when it’s nice to have this writing there. I can do anytime, and it’s something I can do without anyone else.”
That brings him to another family member who played a role in his latest artistic outlet. “‘The idle hand is the devil’s playground,’ my grandmother used to say,” Young said. “I do think it’s good for me to stay busy and not to have too much idle time on my hands.”
Follow Randy Lewis on Twitter: @RandyLewis2
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