Neil Young: Music should fulfil its potential
Something is happening to Neil Young’s brain, which may be the onset of Alzheimer’s. His dad had it, and it killed him, so he’s mindful. His doctor suggested he kick the weed, which he loved, and the alcohol, which he wasn’t so bad on.
He says he hasn’t written a song straight since he was 18. Since early 2011, when he went straight, he hasn’t been able to write a song. But, at 65, he has been able to write his first book – if Waging Heavy Peace can properly be described as a book.
It’s more of a friendly hello to the world, with some explanations, some laments, lots of friends and plenty of obsessions, most of which relate to preserving the things he loves from the dying analogue world - such as valve amplifiers, toy train components made of real moving parts, and Lincoln convertibles - and adapting them to survive in the digital world.
I’m not sure if it’s possible to play a pretentious guitar note, but if it is, Neil Young has never played one.
He holds that form here with his chatty, conversational writing, where he sometimes forgets what he was saying and begins new paragraphs with the distinctly non-literary: “Anyway, as I was saying…”
Mostly, the book reveals a man who is very much a child at heart. Sometimes you wonder if Neil’s fascination with his heritage toy train set has a lot to do with his now—adult son, Ben, who was born to his wife Pegi with severe cerebral palsy (his first son, Zeke, whose mother was the actress Carrie Snodgress, who was born with a milder form of the condition).
You wonder if Neil’s still trying to have Ben’s childhood for him.
He has developed a whole backstory about his toy train set, which occupies its own barn on his ranch, and mirrors the history of North American development. He tells of an ongoing derailment issue on his track: “When an earthquake shattered the ancient structure in the early eighties, the railroad, having fallen on hard times, was unable to finance the reconstruction.”
The railroad company (that is, Neil) then took shortcuts with the repairs, resulting in a congested and dangerous crossing that has been the site of more than one derailment. He’s not happy with the safety standards but is able to sneakily fix a derailment before a potentially embarrassing “official inspection” is required.
“Having dodged that bullet, I sit down to continue my writing,” he says.
It’s insane. It’s hilarious.
His own childhood, in Omemee, Ontario, gets a bit of a look in, but not much. He doesn’t think himself particularly important. It’s his music, his sound, which is important.
His dad was a journalist and a book writer who left Neil’s mum early on. She was the one who supported Neil’s music, buying him guitars or loaning money for band cars.
His father wrote a book, Neil and Me, in 1984, about which Neil doesn’t say much, except to quote his mother picking it up and reading passages: “Oh for God’s sake, what a load of shit!” she’d say. She hated him for cashing in on her son. And she never forgave him for leaving. Neil did.
“He was a good dad,” Neil says, as simple as can be.
Neil Young has not exactly been compared to Bob Dylan throughout his career, but the two are certainly grouped together because there’s a fair chance if you like Bob, you also like Neil, and vice versa.
This book will not help you explain to certain friends, who accuse you of liking “Bob Dylan AND Neil Young” (in other words, you’re the world’s most crushing bore), how the two artists are nothing alike, because they will not be interested in the book, or the discussion.
For Neil, songwriting has never been about finding the music to go with his own words, which he does not rate too highly.
It is for him a complete sonic process, from scratching out some passable lyrics, turning off his brain to sit with his guitar and let the chords find him, gathering his dear friends in Crazy Horse, and then (up until his death in 1995) employing his beloved, longtime, hard-arsed producer David Briggs to capture the sound from live takes played through with old amps and recording devices run by glowing, crackling valves.
And nothing but analogue. Neil believes it sucks up sound and gives a depth that modern digital recording cannot replicate.
Much of Waging Heavy Peace is a repetitive, plaintiff plea that Apple and iTunes stop selling out kids with low-rate digital recordings and adopt “PureTone”, which he invented get a true analogue sound out of a small digital device (he later calls it “Pono”, because he finds PureTone is already trademarked).
His complaint is not with the digital format. He explains that when an artist makes an album, regardless of whether it was recorded in the old analogue or modern digital format, he or she will sit in the studio and listen through the console to a high quality rendition of what was recorded.
But by the time that music is distributed around the world on the likes of iTunes, it has become a small audio file that is so compressed, says Neil, that we only hear five per cent of what the artist wanted us to hear.
The remaining 95 per cent has been sold out in order to allow the average iPod or MP3 player to store a lot more songs.
Neil’s Pono would require record companies to open their vaults to the original masters, which people would buy and download. It would take half an hour to download one three-minute song onto his device. Big firms regard such time consumption as too high a price, and think people won’t buy it.
Neil’s argument: at least give them the choice to hear music as it was recorded.
As he’s gone around the place pitching his ideas, people have said to him: but when you released your original albums, people were listening to them on lousy AM radios. So aren’t people hearing a better quality, now, on digital, than when they first heard you?
The answer is yes, but Neil says people can have it all. He worked on the idea with Apple founder Steve Jobs, who understood (Jobs used to listen to vinyl at home) but since his death, Neil’s idea has had trouble taking off.
As has “LincVolt”, his zero-emissions ethanol—converted Lincoln Continental convertible, which he also raves about. LincVolt allows the driver to enjoy the comfort and space of an enormous dinosaur American roadster, minus the fossil-fuel guilt.
But Neil is not deterred by the knockbacks, and he continually interrupts the reminiscences on his music career for updates on how his projects are going, which is usually nowhere.
In a way, it should not be a surprise that Neil Young is demanding more from the digital world. He’s always moved quickly.
In 1970, when National Guardsmen killed four students at Ohio’s Kent State University, Neil, who was living in LA, says he was “full of disbelief and sadness”. The dead students were his people, his crowd.
He writes: “I picked up my guitar and started to play some chords and immediately wrote Ohio”:
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio
The next day the song was recorded, and within a week it was being played on radio stations across the country.
He’s a bit hard on himself over Southern Man, his attack on racism from After The Gold Rush, which had Lynyrd Skynyrd writing back to him in their hit, Sweet Home Alabama: “Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”
The band and Neil buried the hatchet decades ago, but Neil still says: “I don’t like my words when I listen to it today. They are accusatory and condescending…”
Maybe they are. Maybe they needed to be.
It was early on when he met Crazy Horse, which has basically been with him since his second album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, in 1969. Then the band was Billy Talbot (bass), Ralph Molina (drums) and Danny Whitten (guitar), who would be replaced in 1975 by Frank “Poncho” Sampedro (guitar and organ).
Whitten remains a cause of sadness for Neil. Heroin got to him as they were preparing to tour in 1972. Whitten was strung out. Neil sacked him and sent him home, after which came the call that Whitten had OD’d.
“I knew that what I had done may have been a catalyst in Danny’s death, but there was really nothing else I could have done,” he writes. “I can never lose that feeling. I wasn’t guilty, but I felt responsible in a way.”
Neil Young treats the Horse with the utmost respect. He does not expect them to play on his next album; he goes around, asking them one by one, if they will.
Together, these four remarkable musicians, Young, Talbot, Molina and Sampedro, can play the world’s sweetest country music then turn on a dime and become one of the world’s heaviest rock outfits.
The ability of the Horse to move between heavy and country, while still being the same band, can best be heard on American Stars ’n Bars, from 1977, which features Like a Hurricane, with Neil playing lead on his Gibson Les Paul, which he names Old Black.
“Like a Hurricane is probably the best example of Old Black’s tone,” he says, “although if you listen too closely, it is all but ruined by all the mistakes and misfires in my playing.” I never heard any mistakes myself. The song starts at 100mph and doesn’t slow down for eight minutes.
“The master recording I used for the final version of the track was the run—through when I was showing the Horse how the song went,” he says. “That is why it just cuts on at the beginning. There was no beginning. There was no end.”
Neil’s always been a bit of an Earth guy, but the toughness of his music is such that you’ve got to take him seriously. Like Mohammad Ali, who’d get in the ring with Joe Frazier but wouldn’t fight the VietCong, Neil’s no pussy.
Perhaps his greatest nature song is Will To Love, the seven-minute track which he recorded solo, and which precedes the blast of “Like a Hurricane”.
It’s an account of a salmon swimming upstream, and he sings with an underwater sound as the logs of a fire hiss and crack in the background. It is really the only song in the whole book that he bothers to talk about at length. He says it is “laden with my own feelings of love and survival,” which is about as self-indulgent as he ever gets.
He recorded the song alone, with David Briggs, the producer with whom he says he made his best records. Briggs was intolerant and brutal, an unforgiving critic of Neil’s and also his most loyal fan – and the biggest influence on his sound.
Briggs produced Neil on After the Gold Rush, On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night, American Stars ’n Bars, Comes a Time, Rust Never Sleeps, Ragged Glory, Sleeps With Angels and many others. One thing about all those records: whether the song used one guitar or a wall of sound, he never let Neil hide. He shoved him and his guitar right out front.
So it makes sense his last words to Neil, as he was dying in 1995, were: “Just make sure to have as much of you in the recording as you can. Stay simple. No one gives a shit about anything else.”
He’s worried about his next recording with the Horse. There will be one, but he has no songs. And he can’t think about it too much. “In the studio with the Horse, though, you have to be real careful,” he says. “Analysis is no good for the Horse. The Horse defines music without thought.”
He says the best takes are always the early ones. There are no run-throughs. Everything they do is recorded. Everything is about chancing the moment.
“Whatever you think of the music I have made with Crazy Horse, those songs are the most transcendent experiences I have ever had with music,” he says.
“Of course, I have seldom played straight with the Horse.”
He’d love to fire up some hooch, and see if it gave him a new song, like it always did before, but he’s worried. The MRI scan is not encouraging. “What the hell is that cloudy stuff on my brain?” he asks.
Neil Young believes in the Earth Mother, but for a lot of us, we have allowed him to be our Earth Father, or maybe just the high priest. He’s never unreasonable or censorious. Like he says: you should have a huge Lincoln Continental. It’s a beautiful thing. You should just tinker with it, a bit, so it uses less fuel.
He loves his friends, he loves his family, and you get the feeling, the way he talks through this beautifully unassuming and scratchy book, he actually likes all of us.
As for his songs, they are a herd. “The herd is still there, and the plains are endless. Just getting there is the key thing, and Crazy Horse is my way of getting there. I dream of playing those long jams and floating over the herd like a condor.”
He knows some people will think this is all too much. “Am I too cosmic about this?” he asks. “I think not, my friend. Do not doubt me in my sincerity, for it is that which has brought us to each other now.”
Neil Young: Waging Heavy Peace
Penguin, RRP $39.99
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