Just exactly what makes Neil Young tick always has been one of the great
mysteries of popular music.
Now, the rock icon has gone from enigma to open book.
Mr. Young, who performs at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Tuesday, has managed the rare feat of simultaneously releasing an autobiography and a new album.
It shouldn't surprise anyone that the 497-page "Waging Heavy Peace" takes a rambling, nonlinear, episodic approach to his life. Like Dylan's fine "Chronicles," it certainly doesn't begin with "I was born in Toronto in 1945" and proceed chronologically from there. He jumps around through his life and career, sometimes stopping to rant about the poor quality of MP3s, rave about a favorite artist, offer a requiem to an old car or clear up a long-standing misconception -- like his alleged support for Ronald Reagan, which he claims was exaggerated by a pair of pushy AP reporters.
The book, clearly edited with a light hand, offers a world of insight into the artist's restless creative spirit and his deep-seated insecurities.
What was it like to be Neil Young living out the rock 'n' roll dream in Laurel Canyon in the late '60s?
This man, who could get on stage in front of thousands of people, was so wracked with anxiety he couldn't even conquer the Canyon Country Store. "I would go down there and stand in the parking lot," he writes, "working up the nerve to go in, hoping I would not get anxious and paranoid and freak out, leaving whatever I had chosen to buy inside and bolting for the door."
Acknowledging what a private person he is, he recalls a hipster party at his home in Topanga Canyon, when married to his second wife Carrie Snodgress, where he became so anxious he literally climbed out the window.
With his genius came a body that often refused to cooperate. When he was 6, he nearly died from polio, a condition that would later require having vertebrae removed from his back. In his prime years, in the midst of a crowded Hollywood record store, he experienced this: "... the sky started to spin a little and I felt a bit sick to my stomach. I started to fall... Lying on my back on the pavement, I saw the faces looking down on me. It was like I had just been born, and I recognized no one. I didn't really even known my own name." It was the first of his epileptic seizures that would continue to plague him, sometimes even on stage.
But, he pushed through it, driven not only by his love of music but his passion for innovation -- from his campaign to save Lionel (which grew from his therapeutic use of train layouts for Ben, one of two sons with cerebral palsy) to his efforts to build an electric car to his latest crusade, the "sound" of music.
Years ago, he famously equated CD technology to taking a shower with ice cubes. He's equally unimpressed with MP3s, claiming that the compressed sound quality has squeezed the spirit out of music, lessening the emotional impact on the listener. His response is to take it upon himself to launch a company called Pono, which will issue digital music with the warmth of analog.
Mr. Young doesn't leave any ground untouched. He writes openly about his relationships with his parents, spouses, children, band mates, cars and guitars. He talks about song inspirations, like writing "Ohio" after seeing the famous magazine photo, and getting the title and chorus of "Rockin' in the Free World" from a comment made by a Crazy Horse band mate.
Here are a few highlights:
On hearing "Like a Rolling Stone": "It changed my life. The poetry, attitude and ambience of that piece are part of my makeup. I absorbed it."
On David Crosby: "Crosby was forever the catalyst, always intense, driving us further and further. Just looking in those eyes made me want to deliver from the heart."
On Stephen Stills: "Although Crosby and Nash love him and his music, I always felt they never completely got the point with him, and he became a little reclusive in his creativity because of that, in my opinion. No one really knows him like I do, though. He is my brother."
On Jimmy Fallon: "He does me so well, I don't have to bother anymore. He looks great, and I am an old guy who doesn't want to be on TV, so Jimmy has done all of my television performances for the last year or so. Thank you, Jimmy!"
On his trademark Gibson guitar: " 'Like a Hurricane' is probably the best example of Old Black's tone, although if you listen too closely, it is all but ruined by all the mistakes and misfires in my playing."
One of the reasons he got around to the book now, besides being sidelined by a broken toe, was a piece of advice from his doctor: quit smoking weed.
That, along with tossing aside all alcohol as well, gave him the clarity to write "Waging Heavy Peace," but he notes in the book, "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."
In the wake of 2010's "Le Noise," his acclaimed electric solo album with producer Daniel Lanois, he found his way back to Crazy Horse for the first time since 2003, but ended up biding time with an album of traditional songs called "Americana."
Of his bout with songwriter's block, he told Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air" this week, "I'm not into trying to make music if I don't feel like it," adding, "I go through cycles where I'm sick of myself, where I feel like I don't have anything to offer."
That didn't last long, as he is about to release his 35th album, "Psychedelic Pill." Like any project with Crazy Horse, it's an opportunity to unleash Old Black. The first song clocking in at 27:36 tells you all you need to know about what the boys are up to here.
That song, "Driftin' Back," which shifts from acoustic to electric, begins like an endorsement for Pono and "Waving Heavy Peace": "Dreaming 'bout the way things sound now/write about them in my book/worry that you can't hear me now/feel the time I took."
The album explores some of the personal themes of the book: "Born in Ontario" reflects on his hometown and his parents; "For the Love of Man," the slowest, dreamiest and most delicate song on the album, subtly references son Ben's condition; "Twisted Road" expresses his joy of listening to Dylan and the Dead.
Defying his age (66), the title track is a metallic Crazy Horse stomp a la "Ragged Glory," and "Walk Like a Giant," expressing disappointment with his generation, ends the album with explosions of feedback.
The tour will be the first time he lets Crazy Horse out of the barn since 2003-04, when they rolled into venues like the one in Burgettstown (in June 2003) and confounded audiences by performing all of three songs the audience knew. The focus of the show was a bizarre staged production of his yet-unreleased concept album, "Greendale."
It wasn't too much of a shock, as Mr. Young had done previous tours, such as the infamous Shocking Pinks run, where a new album dictated the course of the show.
His only visit here since then was a 2006 CSNY show, during which he railed against the Bush administration with "Let's Impeach the President" (He notes in the book that Mr. Stills thought the political diatribes were a bit over the top and acknowledges that it divided audiences).
We missed the Chrome Dreams tour with wife Pegi and the late Ben Keith (2007), the similar Neil Young and His Electric Band tour (2008), the solo Twisted Road tour (in 2010, documented in the recent Jonathan Demme film "Neil Young Journeys") and the Buffalo Springfield reunion (2011).
Those looking for a comprehensive set list should check those expectations at the door. It will be more like 15 songs with long torrid, string-busting jams.
"Any ride on the Horse," he writes, "must not have a destination. History has shown that is the best way to spook the Horse ..."
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