‘You need some obsession in life, or you’re dead’
Neil Young is considered the archetypal hippy, but his new autobiography reveals him to be an off-message car-loving fan of capitalism.
Neil Young, the man who penned wistful lyrics about silver spaceships flying and about sleeping with Pocahontas, is, he openly admits in his autobiography, ‘a material guy’. After completing a project, he would ‘buy a car or something to celebrate’. He lavishes praise on Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor Company. He gushes about the disruptive nature of new technologies. And he speaks romantically about developing business plans and navigating ‘the waters of venture capitalism’. When raving about being able to buy a green card to live in the US, Young even goes as far as to announce: ‘Capitalism rocks.’
In fact recently, he tells us, he has been dreaming more. Since his life-threatening brain aneurysm in 2005, when he decided to ditch his various narcotics, he dreams ‘every night, not like before, when I induced dreams in the waking hours to snatch them in their innocence and commit them to song and melody and words captured’.
While he has far from quit songwriting, kicking the drink and drugs has given Young a new sense of mission, something that makes him feel alive – in fact, a mission that makes him question whether he has ‘been asleep’ over the past 40 years. Young is currently ‘trying to rescue recorded sound so people can feel music again’. While a huge fan of the internet, Young has become increasingly infuriated that current methods of reproducing music digitally keep very little of the quality of the original. But he is never one to sit back and moan about how things were better in the days of vinyl. He has instead become obsessed with finding a solution.
And, with additional time due to a broken little toe, he also decided to tick another box by following in the footsteps of his father, famous Canadian author Scott Young, by writing a book. In this instance, an autobiography, with a second book tentatively titled Cars and Dogs planned, but ‘no matter how many books I write, I will eventually get to fiction’. He comments on the ease of writing: ‘No wonder my dad did this… writing could be just the ticket to a more relaxed life with fewer pressures and more time to enjoy with my family and friends – and paddleboarding!’
It is immediately evident from Young’s autobiography that a life paddleboarding would never satisfy him. While at one point he observes that, in later life, he seems to spend much of his time tying up loose ends – from his endless music-archiving project to the final cut of his film, Human Highway – that process in itself seems to be an entire lifetime’s work. As he himself says, ‘a job is never truly finished. It just reaches a stage where it can be left on its own for a while.’ Young is forever restless, moving from one project to the next, and then returning and refining or musing on how things could have been done differently. And when he sees something that needs doing, even if he admits he’s not best placed to do it, he devotes his time, energy and huge amounts of money to it anyway. This can mean writing a protest album, Living With War, in 2006, because he saw that the younger generation hadn’t done so. Or it might mean trying to develop luxurious large cars that are environmentally friendly, because Americans – understandably, he suggests – won’t accept anything less than a big, comfortable car. For someone who cast himself as a ‘dreaming man’, Young comes across as a practical man, obsessive about detail and determined to realise his dreams.
Infusing the book from start to finish is Young’s current fixation on righting a wrong, which is to take on megacorp Apple and develop Pono, a superior digital product that captures the sound of the original ‘high-quality music masters’. Chapter after chapter, literally dozens of times, Young returns to this project, to the point where his book becomes part of a massive marketing campaign through which he is planning to raise awareness of the premium product he’s developed. Even the lead track of his latest album, Psychedelic Pill, does the same, with Young wailing ‘All want my MP3’, but due to the lack of quality, ‘when you hear my song now, you only get [to hear] five per cent’.
That may understandably frustrate people wanting a greater insight into what inspired Young to write his classic songs. In contrast to the thousands of words written about ambitious plans for Pono, Young spends a mere two paragraphs describing the process behind writing his songs ‘Cinnamon Girl’, ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’ and ‘Down by the River’. He was feeling ‘sick and maybe a little delirious’ and ‘the music just flowed naturally that afternoon’.
Not, of course, that Young would care less about what his audience thinks. He has never been a crowd pleaser, and he happily suggests he could end up writing for ’14 people on Kindles’. After writing his most popular album Harvest – which contained his most popular track, ‘Heart of Gold’ – Young famously said: ‘This song put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I met more interesting people there.’ In a notorious tour in 1973, he would infuriate fans expecting his classic tracks by playing the dark Tonight’s the Night album in its entirety instead, while drunk on tequila and standing next to a naff plastic palm tree. In the 1980s, he shocked liberal fans and critics alike by daring not to say only damning things about Ronald Reagan: ‘I liked Reagan for some of the things he said… I also said that the guy is the president, so someone must think he’s all right. Not everyone is against him.’
To this extent, Waging Heavy Peace is a perfect example of how Young uncompromisingly follows his muse and does what he feels is right. And if you stick with it, you get a real insight into the man.
This is not Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which was tightly and poetically written, serving to bolster the mystique of Dylan the artist. If anything it is the opposite – this is Young, in a freeflowing fashion, reflecting on his past as if in a diary, or chatting wistfully with a good friend on his ranch.
The result is a greater sense of down-to-earth intimacy, coupled with some beautiful, heartwrenching moments – such as when Young recounts a time when he saw his wife in tears and he mistakenly thought his son had died, before realising it was instead one of his closest friends: ‘I felt a sigh of relief, but then a different sadness came over me.’ He also writes – albeit briefly – about the death of Kurt Cobain, who quoted Young’s lyrics ‘it’s better to burn out than to fade away’ in his suicide note, and his frustration at not being able to get through to Cobain beforehand. Equally, his sadness over the death of his friend Danny Whitten from heroin still lingers: ‘Years I can never replace, music the world will never hear, all gone in the turning of a second.’
Young can also lightheartedly reflect on the banal – such as tactics for calming down his overexcited dog, Nina. He also freely admits that he ‘deserved the shot’ that Lynryd Skynrd gave to him in the song ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, a retort to Young’s song ‘Alabama’, which cast the state’s residents as KKK-supporting rednecks. And often it reads like Young has finally gotten round to what he promised to do in his 1992 album Harvest Moon – to sit down and ‘write a long letter, to all the good friends I’ve known’. Living or dead, many of Young’s friends and collaborators – from Buffalo Springfield bandmates to the first girl he ever kissed, Marilyn LaBrie – are singled out for thanks.
And Young’s non-linear style of writing and reminiscing means he can discuss his current great passion at length: declaring war on what he once termed in a song ‘an anonymous wall of digital sound’ by developing a higher-quality digital version of the MP3. As he puts it, ‘I can reach more people than I ever have by helping to bring all kinds of music to them in a way that is superior to anything that has ever been presented in the history of recorded sound’.
Anyone who makes it through Waging Heavy Peace will certainly be intrigued enough to sample Pono when – and it’s probably when, rather than if – it finally launches. Young is almost certainly on to something. But his endless plugging of Pono in his book shouldn’t be seen merely as an insertion of adverts for his forthcoming product. Rather, it reflects something important about the man himself – his dogged, obsessive qualities that time and time again drive him forward to be consumed by trying to realise his projects. Young quotes a friend telling him about his newfound fascination with the corporate world: ‘Business is not like a song, Neil; there is no last note. It just keeps going on and on, and there is conflict almost constantly.’ His friend seemingly forgets Young’s famous retort to someone jeering from the audience that all his songs sound the same that: ‘It’s all one song.’
In all of Young’s projects, it seems, there is never a last note – he relishes the ongoing conflict and challenge. As he says, ‘I love to watch and try to guide what is happening, expanding the goals and reach of a project as it unfolds’. It keeps him moving while others fall by the wayside, run out of ideas or retire, and, as he sings in his epic ‘Ambulance Blues’ from On the Beach, end up ‘just pissing in the wind’.
As Young told an interviewer recently, ‘I think if you don’t have some obsession in your life, you’re dead’. To paraphrase Young himself: long may this obsessive run.
Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.