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Book Review: Neil Young's Wandering Journey Through the Past

'Waging Heavy Peace' is a memoir only Young could write: Honest, moving and kind of all over the place

September 25, 2012 8:00 AM ET
Neil Young
Neil Young’s memoir, 'Waging Heavy Peace.'
Platon

Neil Young
Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream
Blue Rider Press
Four stars

"Generally the best feelings are the early takes," Neil Young remarks toward the end of his first ever memoir. "First or second takes, mostly." He's explaining his approach to recording with Crazy Horse, but he could just as easily be describing the loose, informal way he writes. Penned without a coauthor, Waging Heavy Peace often reads less like a traditional autobiography than a lively blog – full of casual asides, unpredictable tangents and open-ended questions as he looks back on his life at age 66.

Watch: Neil Young and Crazy Horse's 'Walk Like a Giant' Video

Young appears to be setting down his memories in real time as they occur to him, touching in no particular order on his childhood in Ontario and Manitoba; his zig-zag path to stardom with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; a few failed relationships and one enduring marriage; assorted medical crises; and practically every car he's ever owned, among other subjects.

Young has never been one to linger on past glories, and career highs like the creation of On the Beach or "Ohio" tend to receive tantalizingly brief treatment before he wanders on to the next yarn. His free-associative riffing can feel a little repetitive when he launches into yet another chapter on digital sound quality – he sees cruddy MP3s as a crime against art – or restoring an old auto. Yet he can also be dryly hilarious, as when he feigns momentary confusion about who actually sang America's soundalike hit "A Horse With No Name": "Hey, wait a minute! Was that me? Okay. Fine. I am back now. That was close!"

By the book's final stretch, Young is in a somber mood, circling back with increasing frequency to the many friends and family members he's outlived. "Some folks think that is not a good thing to think about," he writes poignantly of death. "I envy the control they must have over their thinking processes. As you can tell, if you are still with me, I don't have much control over that." Young – who gave up booze and weed for the first time in decades before writing this book – is haunted by his late father's descent into dementia, and unsettled by the idea that he might end up the same way. "I am always getting scared that I will be in the middle of some long-winded story and forget what I'm talking about," he confesses, "and my secret that I am slowly losing my mind will be out."

Waging Heavy Peace shows that Young is still in full possession of that stubborn, brilliant, one-of-a-kind instrument. He doesn't always go exactly where you want him to, or stay long enough once he gets there, but did anyone really expect anything else? About the harshest criticism one could make is that he's already traced this story's outlines more eloquently, if less specifically, in timeless tunes from "Helpless" to "Harvest Moon." "I have been lucky and life has gifted me," Young writes. "I know who I am and what I've been part of . . . the music speaks when words can't."

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