Waging Heavy Peace:
A Hippie Dream
By Neil Young
Blue Rider Press
502 pages; $30
By Jeff Miers
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
More than 35 years ago, Neil Young wrote a song known as "I Am a Child."
It's a plaintive, misty acoustic ballad hovering around a D minor tonality, with occasional surprising shifts into D major. More significantly, perhaps, the tune's lyrics offer a telling glimpse into Young's psyche, his way of viewing the world, and his relationship with the Muse. ("I am a child/I last a while/You can't conceive of the pleasure in my smile.")
In "Waging Peace: A Hippie Dream," Young's first book, that relationship with the Muse is revealed to be the very thing that tethers Young to this planet. Less conventional autobiography than extended prose-poem penned with no regard for a linear sense of time, the memoir is a paean to the Muse herself, and a testament to Young's lifelong insistence on maintaining the wide-eyed wonder of a child in her presence.
It's also a book imbued with the sense of a man looking back over his life and seeking to settle accounts, while simultaneously dreaming big for the future.
"I think I will have to use my time wisely and keep my thoughts straight if I am to succeed and deliver the cargo I so carefully have carried thus far to the outer reaches," Young writes. "Not that that's my only job or task. I have others, too. Sacred things that I need to protect from pain and hardship, like careless remarks on an open mind."
This passage is a revelatory one, though it's cloaked in mildly cryptic innuendo, despite the tendency toward an economy of language and "plain-speak" Young displays throughout most of the book. The "cargo," it turns out, is both Young's spirit, (or soul, or whatever you need to call it), and the future of recorded music itself.
Young is a private man who has not suffered fools - or journalists - willingly over the course of his career.
He is not at all the type of "rock star" one would peg to be writing some sort of "tell-all," late-career cash-in. Unsurprisingly, "Heavy Peace" isn't one of those. Instead, it's a book with several recurring themes, one of which is likely the very reason Young agreed to write a book in the first place - PureTone, or as it has since come to be known, Pono, the audio system Young has developed to provide high-quality master recordings in the cloud-based digital realm.
Young's long-held disdain for the sound of digital recordings and MP3s is no secret. But, as it turns out, his real problem is with the quality of these digital files themselves - low-resolution, highly compressed little buggers that deliver even the most grandiloquent, highly textured sounds as flat, mono-dynamic representations of the original master recordings.
The technology exists for consumers to hear the music the way it was intended to be heard by the artists themselves, but very few people in the industry want to be bothered, and consumers who have known no different world aren't even aware of what they're missing.
"The record companies are sort of held hostage in a weird way by the Internet's dominance in their industry," Young writes. "But because (they) still hold the gold, their high-quality music masters, it's time for them to step up and take control of their own destiny . I think public opinion and social networking could win over money, just as it has upset the status quo in the Arab Spring and all of the other revolutions around the world organized through social networking. This is just another revolution. Quality sound can make a return and be re-established for those who want the best . The Sound revolution could bring it back, if the cards the record companies hold are played. That is the big If. Will they have the balls to stand up and take care of the music?"
Much of "Waging Heavy Peace" - its title a reference to Young's attempts to take on the music industry in the name of vastly improved sound quality - finds Young ruminating on the fate of both Pono, and the music he so dearly loves.
At the same time, Young addresses the reader in the present tense, as he wonders if his current songwriting dry spell will end soon; if his friends in Crazy Horse will answer the call to crank up the machine for a new album/tour cycle (they do, and they did); and if his relationship with the Muse will be altered now that he has given up the marijuana he employed for decades to reach the trance-states that produced his best-loved songs.
Throughout, Young writes with dry eloquence in a voice that is clearly his own, and not the product of some embedded ghost writer's tape recordings.
Like his father, the late Scott Young, a revered Canadian author and journalist, Young does not favor artful subterfuge, instead routinely stripping away the verbal fat to reveal the heart of the matter. His narrative voice is like his music - direct, emotional, hopeful, sometimes funny, willfully naïve, and often, quite beautiful.
Longtime fans will find enough Young-ian history to fulfill their needs.
The author writes graciously and with a generosity of spirit on his time with friends in the Squires, the Mynah Birds, Buffalo Springfield, CSN&Y, Crazy Horse, the Stray Gators and his various "side-bands."
His reminiscences on fallen friends - among them, producer David Briggs, pedal-steel player Ben Keith and filmmaker Larry Johnson - are profoundly emotional without ever venturing toward the maudlin. He has nice things to say about peers Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen, and treats Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Wilco, My Morning Jacket and Sonic Youth in a similar fashion.
There are plenty of amusing anecdotes, a few tales of excess and some new light cast on long-held popular myths.
But at its core, "Waging Heavy Peace" is a story about love of the enduring variety. Young's love for the music itself, and his passionate desire to see that music protected and nurtured, certainly. Even more apparent, however, is his love for his family - his wife of 35 years, Pegi, and his children Amber, Ben and Zeke.
The middle son, always referred to by the author as "Ben Young," never just Ben, born in 1978, is a nonverbal quadriplegic with cerebral palsy. Young refers to him as the family's "spirit guide," and makes it plain that this son has always been central to the Young family's conception of itself.
These passages are particularly moving, as are Young's uniformly adoring references to his wife. (None of this comes off as emotional string-pulling - Young writes in starkly honest terms, embracing once again that sense of childlike wonder that seemingly has never left him.)
Looking back over 45 years as a musician and songwriter, noting the blessings bestowed upon him both commercially and artistically, and pondering the meaning of success, Young comes to this conclusion near the book's end:
"My children are perhaps my biggest success and I share that with Pegi because without her it would not be like that."
Jeff Miers is The News' pop music critic.