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Waging Heavy Neil


I was at Oskar Blues in Lyons the other night, and an acoustic quartet performed an exquisite version of “Harvest,” introduced by the singer asking, more than once, “what does this song mean?”

I felt a little like that after finishing Waging Heavy Peace (Blue Rider Press), a generous, rambling slog through the peculiar brain of Neil Young, filmmaker, model train guru, hater of mp3 sound, lover of old Cadillacs, and, oh, yeah, one of the foremost songwriters and singers of his (my) generation, and the author of “Harvest,” which he doesn’t explain.

I have read a lot about Young and listened to countless hours of his music, and, back in the rockcritter days, alternately praised and thrashed him over the years. (Full disclosure: I’m a big enough fan that I once wrote a column “The 15 Worst Songs Neil Young Ever Wrote.” And here are a couple of recent reviews of Denver shows, at Wells Fargo Arena in 2007 and Magness Arena in 2009.)

But Waging Heavy Peace just tickled the shit out of me, all five hundred often repetitive, desultory pages. Young is obsessive, impatient, curious, difficult and impulsive, often at the same time. He ambles through his life like a locomotive through one of his massive, museum-quality toy train layouts on his California ranch. He writes with great passion of trying to gain perfection in the way model trains slow as they climb hills, of the power of sound and intricacies of his electric guitars and amplifiers, of the biomass fuel that will allow all those old Cadillacs we’ll be driving around in to get 100 miles to the gallon or his Pono sound system that he argues will give digital music the same power as analog vinyl album once did. And yeah, he shares a few stories about the music he made that all of us carry in our DNA by now.

Given the meandering style and day-to-day detail in the book, I’m guessing there was no editing involved. If you’re expecting a chronological dissertation or explantion of his songs, you might be disappointed. “If you are having trouble reading this,” he even warns at one point, “give it to someone else.”

His arguments about sound quality and how digital files fail listeners are persuasive, even if their frequency makes them begin to sound like commercials. But this issue particularly bothers Young. “I can’t go anywhere without the annoying sound of mp3s or some other source of bad sound grating on my nerves and affecting my conversations,” he writes. “I will not rest until the impact has been made and Puretone (later Pono) or something like it is available worldwide to those who love music.”

The title even refers to his battle against bad sound quality. When someone asked him if he was waging war on Apple, he said no, but he was waging heavy peace.

In a sense, Young’s is testament to the notion of being able to control your own life. All of us want to do that, but few have the option to actually make it happen. “I will use my own money when I shouldn’t because I hate waiting,” he writes. “That may be why I spent so much money and built so many things. I just like to do it myself. I hate waiting for approval, because I have my own Approve-o-Meter. It works like a charm.”

But what I really admire about Young is his sense of nostalgia, his respect for the past and his absolute devotion to his family, his collaborators, his friends, and his infatuation with trying to make things better for himself and others. He writes warmly and openly about long-time collaborators he has lost along the way, especially Danny Whitten, Jack Nitzsche, Ben Keith and David Briggs. I knew of his model-train obsession and association with Lionel, but his stories of building a transformer so that his son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, could run a model train are more moving than any of the revelations about the music.

“I accept that I cannot have every dream come true at once. Life is too shoet for that,” he writes.

That doesn’t mean he won’t stop trying.

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