Wednesday, August 13, 2003

The Soul of Mr. Soul

Shakey: Neil Young's Biography by Jimmy McDonough. Anchor Books. 786 pages. $16.95

It’s probably about as hard to sum up Neil Young as it is to sum up Jimmy McDonough’s fantastic biography of him, but one incident comes close.

The year is 1975. Young is touring with Stephen Stills, former bandmate from Buffalo Springfield and of course CSNY. Stills, whose obnoxious disposition cranks up a few notches when he’s high, loudly bitches at Young’s crew at a show in Charlotte. Later, with the two stars in separate buses heading for the next show in Atlanta, Stills gets Young on the CB radio and starts tearing into him personally. Young decides he’s had enough. After ripping the CB out of the wall, he tells the driver to take the Memphis exit. Stills arrives in Atlanta not only to find no Neil, but – with 21 sold-out dates to go – no tour. All he has is a telegram: “Dear Stephen, funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach, Neil.”

Rash decisions, snap judgments, sudden bail-outs at the worst possible time; Neil Young seems to have done a lot of living by the seat of his pants, and he makes records the same way. This is not to say he has no regrets; the guy who once sang “Why do I keep fuckin’ up?” has apparently done a lot of it and put other people at risk in the process – like his manager, who had to make good on all those missed shows. His art is that of never staying in the same place very long. He makes reputedly great albums he won’t release, releases dreck that never should have seen the light of day, and – like Bob Dylan, the only major rock star to whom he compares – suddenly uncorks a masterpiece just when you’ve counted him out; sometimes, as in the case of his 1975 disc Tonight’s the Night, a masterpiece that sounds like dreck the first time you hear it because it’s too twisted and idiosyncratic for you to get a grip on it – or, maybe, because it starts spontaneously and ends that way.

“I like it if people enjoy what I’m doing,” Young tells McDonough, “but if they don’t, I also like it. I sometimes really like aggravating people with what I do. I think it’s good for them.”

It probably is – and God knows Young has provided enough sides of himself for everyone to love or hate. How many Neil Youngs have there been over the last 30 years? Well, let’s see. There’s the singer-songwriter who – with or without Crosby, Stills and Nash – wrote pleasant, slightly obscure ballads and rock classics that have become oldies staples: “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “Helpless,” “Southern Man,” “Ohio,” et al. There’s the Crazy Horse Neil, a hard-rock warrior leading a rag-tag band through soaring, sonic chargers like “Like a Hurricane” and “Cortez the Killer,” where the lyrics are sparse and Young’s blistering Fender tells more than words can say. There’s the techno Neil who tried to harness digital sound, and the retro Neil who went back to basics. There’s the politically incorrect reactionary who thumbed his nose at the hipoisie and voted for Reagan, and the voice of the common man who helped get Farm Aid off the ground. And there’s the elder statesman Neil, grunge before grunge was born, still cool enough when he was pushing fifty to be quoted in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

“If Neil Young admires that sentiment so much,” John Lennon said not long before he died, “why doesn’t he do it? Because he sure as hell faded away and came back many times, like all of us.”

With 738 pages of text, Jimmy McDonough covers all these sides of Neil Young and more: epileptic, dopehead, devoted father of children with mild to severe forms of cerebral palsy, and – a total surprise to me – a co-owner of Lionel Trains. All rock biographies are, in a sense, about the same thing, really, morons with money, and McDonough is guilty at some level of the usual excesses of the form, but the book has so much more on its mind. McDonough's focus isn't merely to create a comprehensive apologia that tracks down every last concert, business deal, broken friendship or broken heart. Instead, he goes for broke. The book combines detailed reportage, the author’s own feisty, no-bullshit personal voice, and generous interviews with everyone involved – including a few obsessive fans – as well as Young himself; interviews where McDonough asks all the right questions and Young digs deep into himself for an answer. It’s an authorized biography (the copyright is held by both author and subject) but it doesn’t demand an excess amount of skepticism, as both McDonough and Young freely criticize the music, life and choices, sometimes in fairly harsh terms. It becomes fairly clear that Young is a totally mercurial control freak who, as his manager Eliott Roberts said recalling the Stills debacle, can “fuck you like a snake.” And yet, he seems to inspire rather than command the totally one-sided loyalty he gets from his inner circle of renegade enablers.

“I’m tough, but I’m fair,” says Roberts, who immediately corrects himself. “No, I think I’m way tough, but I don’t think I’m fair at all. Fairness comes into the equation sometimes, but when I deal with Neil for Neil, I don’t care what’s fair – I only care what Neil wants. Not what’s fair.”

What Neil wants; it’s the refrain you hear over and over. “Neil tells everybody what to play, note for note,” says occasional drummer Kenneth Buttrey. “If you play somethin’ he doesn’t like, boy, he’ll put a look on you you’ll never forget.”

This is as good an explanation as any why Young continues to play with Crazy Horse, by almost universal accord the shittiest band in the business. Detractors say Young plays with the band only because he can dominate them, and Young doesn’t exactly disagree: “If a good musician plays with me, they play too much. They always play too much. Always trying to show me how great they are.”

As a musical illiterate, I’m in no position to fault Crazy Horse, but McDonough provides a helpful litany of abuses: “Muffed changes. Tattered harmonies. Tempos that slow down, speed up or collapse altogether. Guitar passages that last longer than a lifetime. Songs about nothing that never end. Repetition to the point of lunacy.” David Crosby is more blunt: “They should’ve never been allowed to be musicians at all. They should’ve been shot at birth. They can’t play.”

According to Young, they don’t always bring out the best in him, either, but they bring out something he can’t get with any other group: “[I]t’s such a special thing, because none of us can really play. We know we aren’t any good. Fuck, we’d get it in the first take every time, and it was never right – but we could never do it better.”

Besides being a great and somewhat heroic story, Shakey is also a great listening guide. McDonough goes deep into the music, pulling out odd facts – “Harvest” is apparently about Young’s suicidal former mother-in-law, for example – and fresh interpretations that had me diving into the record stack. I must have snoozed through early songs like “I Believe in You,” which turns out to be a gorgeous song about doubt, and I either completely forgot about the beautiful ringing guitar lines of “The Loner” or never paid attention to begin with. Young’s battle with epilepsy may have inspired both “Mr. Soul” – “Stick around while the clown who is sick does the trick of disaster” – and “Expecting to Fly,” of which McDonough writes: “the out-of-kilter sense of time in the arrangement captures the je ne sais quoi of Young’s electrical system.” Knowing the full story of Young’s doomed guitarist, Danny Whitten, gives an added poignancy to an album like Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Young later said that “every musician has one guy on the planet he can play with better than anyone else,” and his guy was Danny Whitten. Listen to the way their guitars meld on the dark moody drama of “Down by the River,” and you know what Young’s talking about.

Throughout, McDonough’s critical acuity is balanced and usually sharp. He can nail some things perfectly. On Tonight’s the Night: “Young knew the attractions and rewards of being wasted out of your skull, and had no illusions about the price paid, which for some was the boneyard.” On Rust Never Sleeps: “American history by way of a bong hit.” His assessment of Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done,” that in the early 1970s “next to no one (at least in song) was writing about the death-trip flip side of feelin’ groovy,” perhaps should have been qualified by noting that on that score the Velvet Underground beat everyone to the punch by several years. Also, McDonough found more to love in “Will to Love” (from the 1977 American Stars N’ Bars LP) than I ever will – it’s about a salmon, fer heaven’s sake. One is grateful to Young for having sung that endless song exactly once, which is about as much as I’ve ever played it.

McDonough refers to the book as an “action painting.” I think of it as one of Young’s own great guitar solos: it wanders all over the place, never loses its way, and hits raw moments of glory in the strangest places. Casual fans may feel it overstays its welcome in parts, and sometimes I did, but generally I found it continually integrated every new development into the story.

Young’s sound and vision depends on people like Roberts, producers like David Briggs and Jack Nitzsche, and a band like Crazy Horse, all of whom are totally committed but also fiercely unique. Young’s life requires no less, and in Shakey, he gets it. The best rock biography ever written? I don’t know. But it sure obliterates the memory of all others.

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