Book Review: Shakey (Neil Young Biography)

This was supposed to come from the horse's mouth. It was all lined up, a rare interview with old crazy horse himself.

Book Review: Shakey (Neil Young Biography)

This was supposed to come from the horse's mouth. It was all lined up, a rare interview with old crazy horse himself. He was in the thick of yet another tour with Crosby, Stills and Nash, and had set aside an afternoon in March to promote his own new album, Are You Passionate? It had been ages since he'd talked to the media, and ours would be the only Canadian interview. I had a non-refundable plane ticket and a hotel booked in Seattle. But just minutes before the taxi arrived to take me to the airport, the record company phoned to say the interview was cancelled. Nothing personal. Neil's voice was shot. Something about him seeing a doctor and how he'd try to do the interview another time. It sounded reasonable, until a journalist friend told me he'd had the same thing happen to him six years ago. "Why does he even bother to set up interviews if he doesn't want to do them?" I asked the record company flack, who replied, "Why does he even bother to make the record?"

Now that I've read Shakey, Jim McDonough's 785-page biography of YOUNG (Random House), I've come to realize that dropping interviews - or tours or bands or women - is just part of the Neil mystique. McDonough spent a decade writing his semi-authorized tome, the first three years just trying to get Young to talk. Even then it was like meeting Brando's Kurtz in a cave at the end of Apocalypse Now. McDonough, 42, has taken the trip upriver for every journalist who ever had a notion to interview Neil, and after reading the exhaustive results, I can only say better him than me.

Offering unprecedented access, the reclusive rocker spent 50 hours talking to McDonough, a diehard fan who became the incarnation of the Chinese proverb "Be careful what you wish for." After finishing the book, the American journalist went through two years of legal wrangling before Young allowed its publication. "Neil changed his mind; Neil changed his mind back," he told Maclean's. And although Shakey began as an authorized biography, Young won't endorse it, and never did tell the author what he thinks of it.

McDonough also interviewed some 300 friends and associates, from Joni Mitchell to June Callwood. What emerges is a sprawling portrait of an artist as a wildly mixed-up man. Young comes across as a Jekyll-and-Hyde loner whose life has unfolded like a reckless chemistry experiment - a control freak on an endless quest for the uncontrolled moment. Determined not to be packaged, pigeonholed or even understood, he keeps eluding focus. He zigzags from one extreme to another, between acoustic tenderness and electric outrage, counterculture rebellion and redneck reaction - from the Kent State protest of Ohio to the 9/11 rallying cry of Let's Roll. And with that plaintive, still-adolescent voice and ruthless guitar, Young is a survivor: among the first-generation rock stars, he - aside from Bob Dylan - is the last ragged outlaw holding the fort against pop fashion. The scarecrow cowboy with the thousand-yard stare.

Displaying an obsessive zeal that matches his subject's, McDonough traces every step, and misstep, of Young's life in staggering detail: the pain of childhood polio, his epilepsy, the wasted brilliance of Buffalo Springfield, the opportunism of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the anarchy of Crazy Horse, Young's insane movie-making ventures, the heartbreak of his son's cerebral palsy, plus a trail of messy romances, tequila binges, drug epiphanies and drug overdoses. Young, who insists that rock 'n' roll should not be a clean, smoothly produced business, is the first to admit that he's left behind "a lotta destruction ... a big wake."

McDonough likens his biography to "an action painting," and at times he gets lost in the brush strokes. Examining the arcana of Young's career with the persistence of a music weenie, he asks such irritating questions as, "Where did the inspiration come from for the hand claps on 'Cinnamon Girl'?" But while Shakey errs on the side of Too Much Information, it offers a motherlode of fascinating detail, especially about the circus of characters around Young. Like refractions of his personality, they're the stars of the book, while he remains the black hole at its centre.

Shakey contains a myriad of mini-biographies, beginning with Neil's father, legendary writer-broadcaster Scott YOUNG, and his mother, the indomitable Rassy Ragland. After marrying in Winnipeg, Scott and Rassy moved to Toronto, where Neil was born in 1945, and later to the small Ontario town of Omemee, where Scott, now 84, still lives. Drawing a racy portrait of Canadian journalism's golden age, McDonough talks to Scott, Pierre Berton, Trent Frayne - and Callwood, who remembers Neil as "a sullen, fat, dark-eyed little baby." Rassy, she says, was a "passionate" wife and "perfect" homemaker while Scott "had a roving eye all his life." After Scott betrayed Rassy for a younger woman, the couple went through a bitter divorce, and at 15 Neil moved to Winnipeg with Rassy, a hard drinker who never forgave Scott - even on her deathbed 30 years later.

McDonough traces Young's career through Winnipeg garage bands to the bars of what's now Thunder Bay, Ont. (where he first met Stephen Stills), to the Toronto folk scene, where he formed the Mynah Birds with bass player Bruce Palmer. In 1966, migrating to Los Angeles in a ramshackle hearse, Young and Palmer looked up Stills and formed Buffalo Springfield, a band that embodied the mercurial nature of the Sixties. Its performances were said to have a magic that was never captured on record. And as the band was taking off, Young's own alchemy became a problem. He began to experience epileptic seizures onstage.

Young has since learned to suppress his epilepsy. "Once you start controlling that, then you control all kinds of things," he says. "But it used to happen all the time back then, because I was running hot." There are those, however, who question whether the seizures were always genuine, including former partner Carrie Snodgress, who says, "I wouldn't put it past Neil to fake seizures."

Post-Buffalo Springfield, much of Young's career has see-sawed between the polished folk rock of CSNY and the blind chaos of Crazy Horse - reflecting the Beatles-Stones polarity that Young considers the Great Divide of rock 'n' roll. And his CSNY cohorts express pure contempt for Crazy Horse. "They should have been shot at birth," says David Crosby. "They can't play."

To hear Young's bandmates talk about him, it's amazing they can still share the same stage. Crosby says, "Neil needs the three of us like a stag needs a hat rack." And Graham Nash sounds completely spooked by him: "Neil scares me a lot. I don't understand his ability to change his mind ruthlessly ... I don't think he's ever been happy with himself." Nash is also blunt about Stills, saying cocaine has ruined him as a songwriter, and that "in many ways, he's clinically insane." But while expressing empathy for Stills, Nash seems to regard Young with moral contempt. Citing his Rust Never Sleeps lyric, "It's better to burn out than to fade away" - which Kurt Cobain appended to his suicide note - he says, "Neil must be really pissed that he's still alive."

Even Young's most admiring collaborators tend to describe him as a megalomaniac. After a tour with Crazy Horse, infamous arranger-producer Jack Nitzsche said Young treated his musicians "like slaves." Drummer Kenny Buttrey recalls that he kept ordering him to drum louder and buy bigger sticks, until a music-store employee finally said, "Son, anything bigger than this is gonna have bark on it." During one night of thrashing the kit, Buttrey looked down to see blood was "drippin' down the stick and formed a big puddle on the snare."

Two of the book's more roguish characters, both of whom died before its publication, are Nitzsche, the diabolical veteran who had worked with Phil Spector and the Rolling Stones, and David Briggs, the iconoclast producer who helped forge the "audio vérité" of Young's raw sound. Nitzsche says Young wanted to cross Bob Dylan with the Stones - "to become a meld of the two." And Nitzsche himself cut quite a swath. One of his pithier quotes concerned an allegation that he had raped Snodgress with a pistol - "I wouldn't do that to a gun." Briggs, meanwhile, was once credited with putting the fear of death into Charles Manson.

But among the crazed members of Young's inner circle, the most intriguing is his manager, Elliot Roberts, the gatekeeper behind the control freak. Roberts, who also managed Joni Mitchell, is a former dope dealer and unreformed pothead who started out in the William Morris mailroom with future record mogul David Geffen. And he offers some telling insights. On the one hand he describes Young as a lone gunman who would terrify his bandmates: "He had this vibe like Clint Eastwood - he was like death." On the other, he was physically weak and "so vulnerable," adds Roberts, "you could blow him away with a word, you could hurt his feelings with the drop of a hat." He also says that "Neil was always dominated by women," beginning with Rassy.

But because of his frailty, and epilepsy, Neil was wary of being dominated by drugs. He says he's never shot heroin or dropped acid. He's done his share of cocaine, but unlike Crosby and Stills he wasn't overwhelmed by it. Young says he remains addicted to marijuana, but "I try not to smoke too much. I don't wanna set a bad example for the kids."

Young, who has a grown son with Snodgress, lives with his second wife, Pegi, and their two children - Ben, 23, who has cerebral palsy, and a 17-year-old daughter named Amber Jean. Their home is a California ranch he calls Broken Arrow, a complex that includes a recording studio, a building for his car collection, and a barn for his model trains. (Taking a hobby to extremes, Young formed a partnership with Lionel Trains.) The ranch, meanwhile, is "his own Xanadu," writes McDonough. "Once you pass through the gates you feel you've seceded from the union."

The Canadian from that "town in north Ontario" has carved a jagged trail on America's frontier of rugged individualism. He's the hermit rock star. But when he steps into the light, there's a precarious honesty in his music that's uncanny. Torturing his guitar on the edge of an arena stage, he's like Lear wading into the storm. Alone at a piano, singing Imagine at last year's telethon for the victims of Sept. 11, he created the night's most intimate moment. Call him crazy. But Neil still knows how to keep it real.

Maclean's May 13, 2002