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'Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography' by Jimmy McDonough

Portrait reveals Neil Young as a brilliant musician who holds fast to his antisocial ways

Tuesday, June 04, 2002

By Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette


Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography

By Jimmy McDonough

Random House


At the outset of this authorized biography, Neil Young refers to himself as a “B student” of Bob Dylan. One of the things Young aced in Dylan’s class -- I’d bump him up to an A-, by the way -- is how to harvest an air of mystery.

He has remained an enigma to everyone from his fans to his closest associates, not an easy trick when you’re out there for four decades putting out albums year after year.

What drives Young remains a mystery even to himself, but Jimmy McDonough does an exhaustive job of sifting through the clues in this tome of a size more befitting a world leader.

Howard Sounes was able to dig into Dylan in 300 fewer pages last year in “Down the Highway,” a treatment that’s now looking anemic by comparison. McDonough spent far longer -- more than a decade -- getting to the heart of Young, and he had significantly less material.

He moves at a slower pace, leisurely introducing the many fascinating characters that have inhabited Young’s inner circle since he left Toronto in the 1960s to become a cult hero with Buffalo Springfield, a superstar with Crosby, Stills and Nash and a mercurial legend as a solo artist.

What’s been obvious for decades is that, like Dylan, Neil Young does things his own way -- everyone else be damned.

His family, his bands, his handlers and his record companies have been frustrated trying to get Young to do what they want him to do when they need him to do it, to the extent that Geffen Records sued him for not sounding like himself.

Longtime manager Elliot Roberts likens Young to the Pale Rider pulling into town on his steed (only in Young’s case, it was often a hearse he was driving).

“He had this vibe like Clint Eastwood -- he was like death. You saw him ride into town. You didn’t know a thing about him, but you knew not to [mess] with this guy. Everyone was petrified of Neil.”

Young also would pull out of town quite a bit, abruptly abandoning tours with Buffalo Springfield, CSN and Crazy Horse with little or no warning. In 1976, he caught a plane home and ditched a tour with friend/rival Stephen Stills, leaving only a callous telegram: “Dear Stephen, funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach, Neil.”

As tour manager Bob Sterne tells us, “Neil’s not gonna do what you think he’s gonna do or what he said last week.”

“Neil scares me a lot,” offers Graham Nash. “I don’t understand him. I don’t understand his ability to change his mind ruthlessly.”

Young rationalizes his thoughtless behavior by saying that the energy he would have wasted working through relationships went into writing songs.

If Young has excelled at frustrating his associates, life wasn’t always that easy for him, either. A bout with polio when he was 5 left him in frail health throughout his childhood. During his run with Buffalo Springfield, he was plagued by so many onstage epileptic attacks, it came to be part of the show.

Amid the drug-crazed ’60s, he had little need for anything mind-altering, as he frequently felt like he was on LSD without ever having to take it. (At other times in his life, we should note, he would make regular use of marijuana, tequila and cocaine.)

But Young’s eccentricities are inseparable from the makeup that turned him into one of rock’s most vital and enduring artists. His gift for writing songs has been one that’s kept on giving, inexplicable to Young himself. He’s just a vessel, he tells McDonough, admitting that he rarely edited what came to him, and that at times, some lyrics didn’t even make much sense to him.

Talking about the song “Tell Me Why” and the line about it being hard to make arrangements with yourself, Young says, “It sounds like gibberish to me. I stopped singing that song because when I get to the line, I go, “What the [bleep] am I talking about?”

McDonough guides us through Young’s childhood, his first interests in music, his restless troubadour days, Buffalo Springfield, CSN&Y and those golden “Harvest” years when he could do no wrong artistically.

The hardest times come with the birth of his second son, Ben, who suffers severely from cerebral palsy. As Young finally had to give of himself, his art suffered, and reading about all those records he made in the 1980s is only slightly less tedious than having to listen to them. Happily, he finds his way out of it.

Aside from some repetition -- OK, we know Young’s difficult to get along with; yes, we understand that Crazy Horse was brilliant but couldn’t really play -- “Shakey” is rarely dull, thanks to Young and McDonough.

The biographer pores through Young’s life with vivid prose and blunt detail, and he is clearly a character himself, unashamed to insert some stinging opinions. In his probing conversations with Young, presented here in italic, he challenges the formidable artist in ways that few others would dare.

To use Young’s favorite word, it’s a life that’s always “innaresting.”

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