Neil Young is way too busy to spend much time contemplating his mortality, but in his vivid new book, Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life and Cars, he describes a rare exception. Last year, Young had dinner with his son Ben at the same restaurant where he first met Ben's mother, Pegi, four decades earlier. As Young pulled into the parking lot, ''I felt the passage of life and how fleeting it is,'' he writes. ''In a silent prayer to the Great Spirit, I asked to be worthy of more time. There was still so much to do.''
And what, exactly, is on that list? ''Number one: love and happiness and enjoying the Earth for what it's worth, which is an incredible place to be,'' says Young, 68, sitting on his boat off the coast of someplace he won't name on a late-September afternoon. ''And number two: protecting that Earth for the children and the grandchildren and their grandchildren, on and on. Those are the things that matter to me.'' What about music? ''Music is the offspring of all of it. Music is a conversation that happens while I'm doing these other things. I don't think I've accomplished enough, but it's been a really good trip so far.''
Special Deluxe, Young's follow-up to 2012's bestselling Waging Heavy Peace, is out October 14th, followed in November by his second studio album of 2014, Storeytone. So far this year, Young has released the low-fi, Jack White-produced covers compilation A Letter Home, led a successful Kickstarter for his ultra- hi-fi portable music player Pono and trekked through his native Canada to protest the planned construction of the continent-spanning Keystone XL oil pipeline, which he has called ''a disaster waiting to happen.''
On September 27th, he took the pipeline protest to Nebraska, playing a one-off benefit show with Willie Nelson. Young ended up bashing through an unrehearsed, guitar-solo-filled set backed by Willie's son, Lukas Nelson, and his band Promise of the Real. ''I don't think Neil's ever gonna slow down,'' says Lukas. ''He's still fairly young, really. I mean, my dad's 81 and he's still going strong.''
Young's new book is structured around recollections of the various cars he has driven over the years, a literary device that elicited more emotionally charged memories and prose than anything in his previous memoir. He writes evocatively about rough childhood moments (he once saw his father slap his mom during an argument, then retreated into the basement to play with his electric trains) and adult triumphs (he composed what ended up being Ragged Glory in an empty car barn on his ranch, sitting by himself for days on end with a joint, his guitar and his amp).
''I wrote about anything that came to mind in the history of things that had to do with a car – and that's almost everything!'' says Young, who wrote much of the book on airplanes or on his tour bus. ''These are my memories – they made me what I am.'' The book is simultaneously an ode to the glories of the internal-combustion engine and an acknowledgment that its era must come to an end – the final car in the book is Young's Lincvolt, the 1959 Lincoln he has spent years modifying to run on batteries and ethanol. ''Transportation, food, government, politics, the way we relate, corporations – everything, it all needs to change, in order for us to survive into the end of the 21st century,'' Young says.
Storeytone will be released in two versions, one recorded solo, and the other gilded with orchestral and big-band arrangements, all recorded live with no overdubs, and Young singing in the same room as the musicians, Sinatra-style. ''It's the most different thing that I've ever attempted,'' says Young – which is really saying something for a guy who was sued by his own label in the Eighties for making ''unrepresentative'' music.
The orchestral Storeytone is the first Young album where he plays no guitar or piano – he let other musicians take on instrumental duties so he could focus on his vocals. Two music-industry vets, Michael Bearden and Chris Walden, conducted, arranged and co-produced the album. ''He took himself out of his comfort zone,'' says Bearden, who worked with Michael Jackson and is currently Lady Gaga's musical director. Young gave the arrangers considerable freedom: ''He basically told us to do what we felt,'' says Bearden. Young had originally planned to take the concept even further, recording the orchestral versions with a single microphone, but he relented on that point.
''He went through some changes in his private life, which is always a fruitful time for new songs,'' says Walden, who has worked with Michael Bublé and Rihanna. ''So apparently a lot of these recent personal experiences went into these songs.'' Adds Bearden, ''It's a big ball of vulnerability, and that's what I love about it.''
Earlier this year, Young filed for divorce from Pegi, his wife of 36 years, and has since been spending time with actress Daryl Hannah, also his recent partner in environmental activism. Many of the lyrics evoke the joys of a new relationship. ''In the summertime/We met to see a threat/That came to harm something we both loved,'' Young sings on the opening ballad, ''Plastic Flowers.'' On another track, ''Glimmer,'' he sings, ''Tough love can leave you almost alone/But new love brings back everything to you/All the feelings in your heart come reawakened.''
Young is particularly focused on the album's first single, the environmental anthem ''Who's Gonna Stand Up,'' recording four separate versions – one has a children's choir, another is a fierce live rendition with Crazy Horse. (Although bassist Billy Talbot missed the band's most recent tour dates after a mild stroke, Young insists that ''Crazy Horse is still moving.'')
There have been other changes in Young's life. He's started smoking weed again, in moderation, after quitting in the wake of his 2005 brain aneurysm, but that may not matter much: ''I'm still high from the Seventies,'' he says. And he's just started painting, decorating his new book with watercolor renditions of cars. ''I sort of developed my own primitive kind of way of doing it,'' he says. ''So I don't know if that's the right way or the wrong way, but I enjoyed it a lot. So I'm going to continue doing it.'' He laughs at the idea that it might be late in the game to discover a whole new talent. ''Oh, hell, I don't know if it's late,'' Young says. ''For me, it might be pretty early.''