For me, the single most apt description of his music is that it is honest. Young is certainly in the music business, but he seems to treat it more as means to distribute his music to whatever audience might appreciate it. The music comes first, and if there is no audience, then that's unfortunate, but not a disaster. Disaster comes when he betrays his muse which I don't suspect he has done very often. There is also an appealing innocence and vulnerability in his voice that comes through even in his most angry and aggressive songs of which there are more than a few. Of all the recording artists of his generation, Neil Young seems to have remained true to the best elements of the contercultural sensibility. Once upon a time, that sensibility tore the mask of hypocrisy from the face of a complacent and degenerate society.
Given my admiration for Young, I picked up his book Waging Heavy Peace with trepidation. Somewhere in the course of its 497 pages, I knew I'd find a few reasons to be disappointed in him. Fortunately, the disappointments were minor and few. Moreover, they paled in the presence of his characteristic honesty. Waging Heavy Peace is a random compilation of Young's memories of family, friends, and events. It is as though Young is spontaneously conjuring the roots of his past and bringing them to mind in whatever order they happen to appear. He jumps from stories about his days with Buffalo Springfield to days just one year ago, back to his childhood in Canada, and then to his days with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Some passages are about the very present situation in which he is writing. The chronological disorder is at first disorienting. He is rather like Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim who became "unstuck in time," but eventually one comes to understand that Young's past (like everyone's) is always present if we care to remember. When an event ocurred is less important than the effect it had on us and its significance in its own time. The seemingly random order of Young's stories underscores that who we were in our teens is not merely a prelude to who we will become, but it is we ourselves in a unique time and place.
Waging Heavy Peace is a meditation on a life, seemingly written more for the author's benefit than for ours. In that way, it is a lot like Young's music. Young obviously is cherishing his memories and the people who have been part of his life. At one point he writes, "Old memories are wonderful things and should be held on to as long as possible, shared with others, and embellished if need be." The passage says a lot about what is behind his writing. It is loaded with small recollections of events that are not likely to be of much interest to a fan of his music (though many of his recollections certainly are). Instead, his recollections appear to be written as a letter to the friends who appear in the story. Young is sharing his memories with the people who were with him over the years and sometimes with people who crossed his path only briefly. It is as though he is telling them, "I may be a big star now, but I still remember you and I remember you very fondly."
Young seldom has a bad word to say about anyone and he usually has a torrent of good words. At another point he writes, "I don't want to write some damning thing here about someone and have to live with that for the rest of time. I don't think that would be a very good idea." While the observation seems like he's protecting himself from guilt or remorse, there is enough in Waging Heavy Peace to understand that his real concern is for the feelings of the people he's writing about. In the rare instance when he does criticize someone, he is careful not to name them. They are merely "the two AP reporters" or "the record company executive."
His language is simple and direct. It is sometimes confessional and sometimes it sounds like he's paying off a debt or making amends, but it always rings true. A cynic might say that it is all for effect, but that's hard to square with his lifetime of artistic authenticity and his more or less unchanging stage persona that appears to be no different from what can be seen of his private life.
By the end of the book, Young becomes remarkably self-revealing. For example, he writes,
Changing the person one has evolved into is not a simple process, to be sure, but I know with Pegi's love and suppport [Pegi is his wife] and my family close, I will be able to reach out and learn to live life in a more caring and conscious way. Maybe I've never been good at that, and that's why it's so hard to find it in myself. It may never have been really there. I may be starting from scratch. I've always been told that what I'm doing is right. Maybe it isn't. Maybe just some of it is. I need to dig deep and discover some things along the way.
How do I avoid being short with those I love and respect? How do I try to make people feel good about what they are doing for and with me? How can I respect others' tastes while retaining my own? This is the knowledge I'm searching for. I can remember so many times in my life when I hurt others and hurt myself. I really need to find a way to change those patterns for good.One is left with the sense that Young is a deeply introspective man whose search for a heart of gold is really about finding the strength to be compassionate and now that he really is getting old, his search has become more urgent.
Some might find all of this a little self-indulgent and maybe it is, but no one is compelled to read his book, just as no one is compelled to listen to his music. For my part, it was an enjoyable bit of voyeurism. Waging Heavy Peace gave me the feeling that one of my musical heroes took the time to write me a long letter, telling me about his most memorable experiences and confiding some of his most personal thoughts. I'm certain I know Neil Young better for having read his letter and I appreciate him all the more. Long may he run.