Saturday, October 13, 2012

The ABCs of Neil Young: Two Views of Waging Heavy Peace

This is the third or fourth book I’ve read about Neil Young. One was Shakey by Jimmy McDonough, which began life as an authorized biography and quickly ended up being done at an arm’s length (Shakey, or rather, Bernard Shakey is Young’s pseudonym). The next one was called Long May You Run (by Daniel Durcholz and Gary Graff), and it’s a good companion to have on hand while reading Young’s just-published autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace (Penguin Books), since it is an illustrated history filled with pictures, posters, memorabilia and more. Then there’ve been special issue magazines, and whole sections on Neil in books about Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. But now we have the man’s own perspective. Neil Young’s own words … and, just like Bob Dylan’s long-awaited Chronicles (Volume One came out in 2004), it puts a whole new spin on what we know about its author.

Things I learned reading Neil Young’s new book, Waging Heavy Peace (in convenient alphabetical order):

It’s an Autobiography, written completely by Neil Young. If a co-writer was involved … he was just as stoned as Neil was for much of the time. The book captures Young own personality, his cadence and odd phrasing.

The Neil Young Archives, which is an on-going project close to Young’s heart. He is a collector who never throws anything away.

Amber, Neil’s daughter with Pegi. She’s an artist, but we don’t learn too much about her in these 500 pages.

Neil, Pegi, and their children, circa 1984 (Photo: Joel Bernstein)

Lots of Bs. Ben Young (Neil’s son with third wife Pegi). Ben suffers from cerebral palsy which has left him as a non-verbal quadriplegic), but he is a big hockey fan with a great sense of humour who inspires his father daily.

Neil’s good friends Bruce (the Boss Springsteen), Bob (Dylan), and all members of Buffalo Springfield (the band he left to go solo).

Of course the Bridge School, which Pegi helped start and Neil supports with an annual concert. This school helps physically challenged children overcome their impairments through the use of technology.

Crazy Horse with Danny Whitten or without, the Horse is Neil’s band of choice. They rock!

CSN[Y] the “American Beatles” who made one brilliant album before management added Young to the mix, so they would (also) rock!

Producer and best friend David Briggs who made Neil’s best albums by bypassing the board and having all the musicians play in the same room at the same time.

Second guitar/vocals from Crazy Horse Danny Whitten who took the high part in the first recording of “Cinnamon Girl” until Neil swapped his own voice in (which he now regrets, because Danny did it better).

Drugs play a major role in the story, both illegal and medical. The story is littered with tales of ODs and serious health issues.

Ahmet Ertegun was the founder of Atlantic records whose idea it was to add Neil Young to CSN thereby creating CSNY! Just so there’s no confusion it was The Rutles who created Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Gifted & Black!

Feelgood’s Garage is where Neil keeps his cars, including a white-with-red-interior 1954 Corvette, a 1957 Jensen, a ’59 Cadillac convertible, and more. Did I mention, he’s a collector?

Genius is a word Neil throws around a lot in the book. According to him, he has been surrounded by geniuses throughout his career, including (believe it or not) Stephen Stills.

The book is subtitled A Hippie Dream. And it seems like it. Neil presents himself as a free thinking, free spirited, ramblin’ kind of guy. The book is a ramble through Neil’s life playing fast and loose with time and place as the memories come to him. You’ll find yourself with whiplash trying to follow him across space and time. But, hey, you liked Looper and Memento didn’t you?

Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Young, before a 1974 show in Denver (Photo: Joel Bernstein)

iPods and iTunes are both the future of music and the enemy for Mr. Young (see mp3). “I don’t make CDs or iTunes tracks. I make albums. That is just what I do. Call it what you like. I remember how I hated the shuffle feature on iPods because it fucked up the running order I spent hours labouring over…call me old fashioned. I make albums…”

Journey Through the Past was his first film, and a major failure commercially and critically. He still likes it. It’s also a title of a song that didn’t make the cut for the Harvest album.

(Ben) Keith, the pedal steel guitarist who could play anything, and led Neil’s bands for decades. Another best friend; he passed away in 2010.

Lincvolt, Lionel trains. Refitted 1950s-era Lincolns with elector motors and model trains are Young’s pastime, and two places where he spends a lot of money. He remains a shareholder on Lionel trains and has worked on improving audio accompaniment for train sets. He is a partner and co-founder of the Lincvolt project (creating an energy efficient comfortable car for American consumers). It has been burned out and restarted and shows promise. It’s an old Lincolnelectrified!


Neil’s hatred of mp3 as a format for music is expressed again and again throughout the book. He has his own solution, which he claims (again and again) to be better in every way.

The Mynah Birds was Neil’s early ‘60s band which featured Rick James. They recorded for Motown.

Nanu the Lovesick Moose was David Brigg’s nickname for one of Young’s classic El Dorados. A teenage girl driving a Volkswagen smashed into it destroying the side panels. 30 years later, Nanu still sits waiting to be repaired.

Omemee is a town in North Ontario, “with dream comfort memory to spare.” All Neil’s changes were there. Well, actually, it’s more accurately central Ontario, but it obviously didn’t scan as well in his song “Helpless.”

Old Black is one of Neil’s favourite guitars. Originally a 1952 Goldtop Gibson Les Paul, it’s been customized beyond recognition, including the black paint job.

Pegi Young is the current Mrs. Young, and it seems they have found true love and contentment.

PureTone is the ultimate music format, which Neil and his associates are perfecting as we speak. Although he calls it PureTone for 400 pages, on page 428 he tells us that they had to change the name to Pono since someone already owns the rights to PureTone. Pono means “righteous and good” in Hawaiian. Apparently, it’s a game-changer for listening to music.

There are several Questions which are not addressed. But there are so many other details included that you won’t care. In fact, you won’t even remember what it was you always wanted to know.

Rassy Young is Neil’s mother, who was left by father Scott, and moved back to Winnipeg. She always supported Neil in his musical endeavors.

WN Ragland is Neil’s sailboat; it traveled around the world, without Neil aboard.

Scott Young is Neil’s father, columnist for the Globe & Mail and one time host of Hockey Night in Canada. He hardly ever supported Neil’s musical endeavors.

Stephen Stills, is described as Neil’s best friend, a genius and perhaps the best musical partner he ever had. Young doesn’t mention leaving the Stills Young Band Tour after only nine dates, or writing the charming note, “Dear Stephen, funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil” Oh well … I guess we’ve read that often enough elsewhere.

Trains, Neil loves them and has actually invented or improved audio systems for model railroaders, and a remote controller for switching tracks so his son Ben could play with trains like any other kid.

Unfinished projects are numerous. Young devotes a few pages to them. For example, Human Highway a film that was released, bombed and went back in the vault, may be re-edited and re-released just because Neil likes it so much. There’s also the previously mentioned Pono project, Lincvolt, and Archives 2.

Village Recording Studios in L.A. is where Neil likes to record his vocals. Quite often he records the songs live in concert, erases the audience noise and uses that as the base track.

Winnipeg, where it all started.

Fender DeluXe, and Baldwin EXterminator combined with a Fender Reverb, the amps that Young uses to get that sound! “Yes! It goes to twelve! (Eat shit, Spinal Tap!)”

YOUNG, NEIL! It’s all about him.  

Zeke Young, Neil’s son from his marriage to Carrie Snodgress. Also born with cerebral palsy (although a milder form), he has on his own journey now after working as a sound engineer for his father. He’s now a manager at Home Depot.

Yes, the book is brimming with facts like these. You don’t get the context and the reactions of his associates to what it’s like to work with Neil Young, but Waging Heavy Peace gives you a glimpse of the man, the husband, the father, as well as the musician and inventor. He bounces around like a ping-pong ball from era to era, place to place, but it all makes sense in the “hippy dream” way he presents it. Over 500 pages, but I could have read more. Young calls it “a diary more than a memoir” and that’s certainly the way to read it. Intimate, honest and fascinating, albeit scatter-shot and at times flakey. It’s all about Neil Young. 

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.


Assessing the life and work of an artist can take several forms: visual, aural and print. It can take a critical perspective from a third party scholar or it can be told by the artist's friends, family and co-workers or it can be told by the artist in the first-person singular. The highly effective, yet slightly boring cliche of telling one's story chronologically is a choice too. The author relates a series of events as he or she remembers them, acting as the common thread linking their journey through life. For Neil Young, none of these traditional forms are sufficient as he tells his story in Waging Heavy Peace, his so-called, autobiography.

Neil Young & the original Crazy Horse
Time is not a linear experience for Young with a beginning, middle and end. His book is a series of thoughts, memories, confessionals and stories presented as spontaneous monologues that seem random, but are partially organized. Each "chapter," and there are 67 of them, isn't connected to the last. Young's writing is refreshingly unfiltered as he starts in 2011 flips back to his childhood in Omemee, Ontario then jumps forward to talking about Buffalo Springfield then back to his time growing up in Winnipeg and his first band, The Squires to his time in Toronto backed by John Craig Eaton as a solo artist and talking about his family. As a book, Waging Heavy Peace isn't particularly compelling nor is it a great literary work. It's a straight-ahead memoir that is full of gratitude for his fellow musicians, his kids, his wife Pegi and the physicians who "saved" his life on numerous occasions. To some, it could be considered one great thank you card, but what is revealed about the man is what my mother would call, "a goin' concern."

Rust Never Sleeps? Young never sleeps.

Young is a free spirit, one who's remarkable openness draws you into his life because he's experienced so much and continues to be a driven individual; an artist who's continually interested in expressing himself through music, but who's other interests, such as electric cars and a new digital sound process, are equally strong in his life. He's a man who'd be happy doing any one of these as a lifetime achievement, but finds particular joy and satisfaction by doing all of them and still finding the time to take long walks on his ranch in Southern California with his dog. The kicker is the fact that he's serious about all he does and could care less what people think. So while he rips a good yarn about his days in Winnipeg playing bars at the age of 17, he's equally honest about his collection of Lionel model trains and shopping as Costco.

Eloquence is not one of Young's strong points, but when he talks about his sons, Zeke and Ben who are disabled, he writes with such great honesty that you understand exactly how he feels, what he thinks and why he made the choices he did. The passages about his wife Pegi and his children are poignant and heartfelt. His stories about musicians, especially Buffalo Springfield and Crazy Horse, are sharp and complementary every time. (I say every time because he doesn't save one chapter for each band, they come up as fleeting memories. Remember it's a non-linear autobiography; he flips back and forth in time.)

Waging Heavy Peace reinforces a lot of what I knew about Young, the musician. I was surprised to learn that Comes A Time is one of his favourite albums and that playing with Crazy Horse continues to inspire him in ways that are "cosmic." But I already knew about his two boys, born with Cerebral Palsy and the many famous female companions to whom he was attached and his love of Cadillacs. Most of his hard core fans probably know this stuff too, but what makes Young's memoir interesting is the ease with which he shares it. And perhaps that is the best recommendation for anyone who loves the man's music, to read and revel in his story.

– John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.


  1. Does he writes why he ruined Carrie Snodgress career? and then "threw" her out on the street with hes ill son? at least he says "dont believe everything you read" well I dont. And how about firing Danny Whitten because he used drugs? only to died the next day? is that being a friend? did Neil Used H.? does he comes clean with that too? Enquiring minds want to know, Thank you and hope one day he really can come clean

  2. I’m the same person (sorry for being anonymous but you can imagine) who wrote about Neil‘s personal problems with his second wife Carry Snodgress and Danny Whitten and I have to admit that I’m a big fan of his music but I can’t close my eyes and not recognize that I felt kind of let down when I found out about Carry S. Danny Whitten and now about his son working at Home Depot which is ok but still it feels strange. Just wanted say this because I came out sounding real bad the first time around and looking back, why do I have to mess into his personal matters, I apologize to Neil and to his fans too. And to this great site, Thank you so very much for your kindness and allowing me to write this apology.