Waging Heavy Peace is not your usual rock star memoir. To call it haphazard would be an understatement. To begin with, there’s no chronological structure. At times, Neil Young seems unable to complete even a paragraph without going off on unrelated asides. Many chapters take the form of chatty diary entries. A lot of pages are devoted to Young’s beloved model trains and vintage car collection. There are many impassioned and thoroughly unabashed plugs for Pono, the digital music player designed to provide album quality sound, and Lincvolt, the custom designed electric luxury car. Those are Young’s pet projects, which he’s labored over (and funded with his own money) for years. Recollections come up in random order and give way to vague philosophical speculations. But what this book lacks in the polished blandness of ghostwritten memoirs it makes up for in personality. Once you get used to the narrative unevenness, it quickly becomes charming.
Neil Young is an artist with a reputation for integrity. He’s steadfastly followed his muse with little regard for commercial success or critical acclaim, and remains unperturbed that many of his projects have met with neither. In characteristic fashion, he writes only about what he finds important, and if that happens to involve talking about cars a lot, so be it. Given that Neil Young’s most notorious act of rock star depravity was appearing in The Last Waltz with cocaine refuse visibly dribbling from his nose, it’s no surprise that the anecdotes he chooses to share aren’t the kind that make tabloids. Most involve some combination of cars, children and pets. The booger incident is mentioned only jokingly and in passing. Unlike many notables who take up the pen as a means of settling old scores or picking over the bones of failed relationships, Young has only kind words for old cronies and former flames alike. If he has any festering feelings of resentment, he’s keeping them to himself. Nor is he interested in drumming up pathos. He’s matter of fact about his lifelong health woes. Where anyone else would be tempted to affect the tone of a righteous martyr for having raised two disabled children (and one able-bodied one), Young is nothing but proud of his family. He adores his wife and finds his children delightful. In fact, he finds a lot of things delightful, and his joie de vivre is winning.
Besides integrity, Young has a bit of reputation for being a grumpy old man, and difficult to work with. He freely admits those things, and is quick to shoulder his share of the blame in many situations. His perfectionism stems from passion, and he is bursting with enthusiasm when it comes to things he cares about. His favorite adjective is ‘really great’ and he likes exclamation points a lot. He describes one old buddy as “a real G-man” and helpfully explains that “the G stands for genius!” Young doesn’t possess an especially grand vocabulary, which he is the first to admit. He comes off as a bighearted country yokel who made it big, slightly squeamish about fame, but sincerely and deeply grateful for his good fortune. If he’s not bent on documenting every detail of his life for posterity, that’s understandable – he’s already been biographied thoroughly enough. He’s more interested in sharing his thoughts than documenting events, and what he shares is a wealth of undramatic but revealing personal tidbits. Did you know that Neil Young enjoys shopping at Costco? Yes. He loves hiking, paddleboarding and long road trips. He favors Team Coco and appreciates Jimmy Fallon’s impersonations of himself. He approves of YouTube and online music streaming. He still fondly recalls the time Bob Dylan complimented him on his cool hat. The Mists of Avalon is one of his favorite books. He is the kind of pet lover who remembers the names of other people’s cats.
Waging Heavy Peace may be short on concrete information; it may appear to have gone to print with only the bare minimum of editing done; it may lack literary ambition. But it achieves one thing than most celebrity memoirs fall far short of – it makes you feel like you’re actually getting to know the real Neil Young.