by Michael Goldberg
Monday, June 3, 2002
Neil Young Revealed
Ten years in the making, "Shakey" shows us Neil Young at his best and worst.
Long ago, I learned that what we wish our heroes were like, compared to what they're really like, is the difference between gods and such mere mortals as you and I. To read "Shakey," the recent biography of Neil Young, is to come face to face, yet again, with that cold, hard truth.
At its best, the music Young has recorded during some 35-plus years is exceptional. Through his singing, writing and guitar playing, Young has expressed and exposed himself and his emotions. His name is on some of the best rock albums. Period. Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere, Tonight's the Night and Ragged Glory have had a deep impact on the lives of many listeners.
Young has meant a lot to me since I first heard Buffalo Springfield's "Expecting to Fly" and "Mr. Soul" as a kid in the '60s. I think I've gone through three copies of Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere (two vinyl, one CD). While reading "Shakey," I gave those three albums a number of listens they've all passed the test of time.
You don't need to read Jimmy McDonough's "Shakey" to understand why Neil Young is important. All you have to do is listen to the music, and feel. Who else communicates what it's like to be lonely, or to suffer a broken heart, as powerfully as Neil Young in one of his sad songs? Who else can make electric guitar sound so raw, so brutal, so ruthless?
When we listen to Young's music we hear his vulnerability. We hear a man who is fragile and sensitive. We also hear a man who admits that he's blown it, again and again. Who else would record a song called "Fuckin' Up"?
Young's music is about more than that, of course. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of words have been written about him and his songs. But for me, Young's music is mostly about that ache, that pain you feel when love is gone, when you're all alone, when you're down and it all seems quite hopeless. "Think I'll pack it in and buy a pick-up/ Take it down to L.A.," "Out on the Weekend" begins. Next verse he sings, "The woman I'm thinkin' of, she loved me all up/ But I'm so down today...." We all know that feeling.
If you've listened to the music, and if you're as fascinated by Young as I am, "Shakey" is an essential read. You will not be able to put it down. You will be astounded by some of the things you learn, inspired by others, and possibly disappointed at least if you've imagined Young as some kind of hero.
Neil Young has had a very hard life. His parents divorced when he was young. It appears that his mother, now deceased, was an alcoholic. He was a sickly child. He's an epileptic. He has back problems. His hearing has been damaged from the extremely loud music he's made with Crazy Horse. All of this has left him emotionally shell-shocked, or at least that's the impression one gets from this 785-page book.
We learn that Young left friends, bandmates and lovers behind, that sometimes he didn't even say goodbye, just vanished. He was ambitious, had his eye on rock stardom when he was still a teenager, and he did what he needed to do to achieve it.
When things weren't to his liking in the Buffalo Springfield, the first band he was in that achieved stardom, he simply walked out and began working on a solo album with legendary producer/arranger Jack Nitzsche (who produced the amazing "Expecting to Fly" and worked with Young off and on for decades).
Years later, after some unsatisfying days working on a CSNY album in Florida, Young decides en route to the studio that he's had enough, turns the car around and leaves town. On another occasion, in the midst of a tour with Steve Stills, he simply doesn't show up for the next gig.
"I'm just brutally fuckin' honest about goin' ahead and doin' what I have to do," Young tells McDonough. "But it's not that I can't sense people's feelings. People are hurt. Whenever you move forward, you leave a fuckin' wake. ... It's a big wake. A lotta destruction behind me. ... I'm not a fuckin' SAINT. I can be just as much of an asshole as anybody else and have been."
As a solo artist, he leaves the musicians he works with over the years members of Crazy Horse and the Stray Gators hanging again and again. Sometimes years go by before he works with them again, yet when he calls he expects them to drop everything. At one point he tells McDonough, "I've hurt [pedal steel player] Ben Keith's feelings so much I don't know if it'll ever be the same."
There is much to learn from Young about being creative. He does what he can to remain open to the muse, and when he feels inspired, he is quick to ride that feeling, writing batches of songs, gathering musicians and a trusted producer, entering a studio (or a house or barn turned into a studio) and capturing the moment.
His producers and engineers have learned to record everything. A first-time run-through of a song can turn out to be the one that Young wants on an album. When he first used guitarist Nils Lofgren on a recording (After the Gold Rush), he had him play piano. Again and again Young wants things rough, simple, unrehearsed. "Being real," writes McDonough. "This is what Young constantly strives for."
Talking about working with Crazy Horse on the amazing Ragged Glory album, Young said: "I have to write, like, 15 songs and never play them for anyone, never play them for myself. You can only get it to a certain point maybe enough of a sketch of how it goes and then not even finish the fucking thing until I'm with them [Crazy Horse].
"You can't even finish the fuckin' song, okay? That's how particular it is. And then you go in there with them, it all happens at once, and when you sing it, they actually fuckin' play it because they only play it once too. So then it's over, it's got, like, five mistakes in it, ya gotta fuckin' fix all the mistakes and edit and do all this shit to make it sound good but it's great."
The book essentially ends when, in late 1996, Young decides he's had enough of the relentless questioning of McDonough who at that point had spent six years interviewing Young and his friends, family and associates. Young's manager, Elliot Roberts, then tells McDonough that Young had suggested they try to buy the book contract from him. You can see it coming. Young, the control freak, the guy who changes his mind as frequently as others change the channel on their TV, deciding that, well, maybe an exhaustive up-close look at his life wasn't such a good idea after all.
Still, "Shakey" was published and I'm glad it was. And not because it deflates the myth of the rock star. I'm more interested in what it says about making art. "Shakey" tells of the price one man has paid to be an artist. Take it as a warning. Or a challenge.