Rocking My Life Away

Getting to the heart of Neil Young

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I've never been a Neil Young true believer. I've liked what I consider to be the "good stuff" -- and there's plenty of it, from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to Tonight's the Night to Ragged Glory. But, like Patti Smith, Young has always gotten a free pass from the rock press. A pleasant album like Silver and Gold gets hailed as some sort of homespun revelation, while bludgeoning, one-dimensional live shows of his that I've seen have been praised for their provocative rawness and edge. For most rock critics, Neil Young can do no wrong.

For those reasons and more, I approached Shakey, the 750-page biography of Young by Jimmy McDonough, with considerable trepidation. When an advance copy of the book landed on my doorstep with a resounding thud, I thought, I just don't have the will to deal with this. And all the hype about it just made me want to avoid it more. It was more than ten years in the making -- what's so encouraging about that? Young drove McDonough crazy -- sometimes he was into the book, sometimes he wasn't. What else is new, I thought? This is just going to be another hymn to Young's willingness to change his mind and follow his heart, but this version will take a week to read, not half an hour.

But when I finally started reading Shakey, it was clear that something unique was going on. McDonough understood Young and cared deeply about him, but he wasn't a true believer, either. And, to his everlasting credit, Young didn't seem to want the book to be done by a sycophant -- he could have called on dozens of well-known music writers if he did. Instead, McDonough turns out to be as cranky and irascible as Young himself, without being a jerk -- or at least without being a jerk most of the time. It's an exhilarating match-up of author and subject, and it makes Shakey a great, gripping read -- just loads of fun.

"I've already read it; I read every page," Graham Nash told Rolling Stone when asked about Shakey. "First of all it's a very in-depth look at Neil's life. He's a very complicated man, of course. The writer absolutely hates anything that CSN has ever done and he's got his head stuck well up Neil's ass, but he does get tough on Neil at moments also."

"It's a fair portrayal of a part of Neil," he continued. "I mean, he's such a complex, deep man, that you'll never get everything. But he's gotten a lot of interesting stuff about Neil, and I'm not so sure Neil's happy about it. It's definitely worth reading."

Nash and David Crosby are interviewed at length in Shakey, and both are blunt about the problems they've had with Young over the years -- as blunt as Young is about his experiences with CSN&Y. (Stills declined to be interviewed, likely because his rivalry with and envy of Young is frankly discussed by all the other members of the band.)

In fact, one of the book's many memorable moments occurs when Young bails midway through a 1976 tour with Stills, literally instructing the driver of his bus to turn off the interstate and head towards the Memphis airport while the entire caravan was driving to a gig in Atlanta. By way of explanation, Young sent Stills a note: "Dear Stephen, Funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach, Neil."

Discussing the incident, Young's long-time manager, Elliot Roberts, explains, "That was Neil. They called Neil 'Snake,' and for good reason -- if it wasn't happening, Neil would fuck you in a second. He never thought he was fucking you, he thought he had warned you, if not in reality, in actions before it. Neil's a cold guy, okay? Capable of being cold."

Just before he went on the road with Stills, Young had abruptly bagged a proposed tour with Crazy Horse, prompting that band's guitarist, Frank Sampedro, to reflect, "This was a major fuckin' heartbreak for me. I was never so hurt in my life. And after the first time Neil hurt me, I always made sure I had somethin' else goin' on for myself. I never sat around and waited for him. It was the number-two gig."

For his part, Young gives in Shakey as good as he gets -- or better. "So what the fuck's the big deal?" he says, when asked about his unpredictability. "Why don't they stop sayin' that about me? I'm not a fuckin' saint. I can be just as much of an asshole as anybody else -- and have been. But y'know -- I'm on my trip. I'm on my course, I make no qualms about it. I don't say I'm not, y'know -- I am."

Characteristically, Young worked with Stills and Sampedro many times after those events, the force of the music they were able to make together overriding everything else. Shakey is strong in that regard as well -- demonstrating that the creative fire that burns within Young is strangely inextricable from that quality of coldness Roberts described. You catch your time with him as he passes through and then, if you're smart, you move on just as he does.

Without explaining Young's complexities away, McDonough draws out the connections between the epileptic seizures that wracked Young's life when he was younger and his ability to disappear into the fury of his guitar playing, as he so often does on stage. Young permitted his parents, the women in his life and many of the musicians he's played with to speak with McDonough, as if he were on as fervent a quest for discovery as the author was. Young wanders through the book like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, providing commentary on the events of his own life and the versions of it rendered by the people closest to him. His reactions are funny, angry, incisive, evasive, bemused, but always very real. That makes the subtitle of the book, "Neil Young's Biography," all the more accurate.

The title itself is taken from the name Bernard Shakey that Young has used as a kind of alias. And Young is shaky, indeed, his music rising out of the contradictory emotions battling within him, seemingly at all times. This book dramatizes those contradictions without pretending to resolve them and, for that reason alone -- true believer or not -- Shakey is must-read for anyone who cares about Neil Young.

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