Rock stars of the ’60s and ’70s who have lived long enough to tell their stories are having a moment: Keith Richards’ memoir, “Life,” was widely acclaimed, as was Gregg Allman‘s “My Cross to Bear”; Patti Smith‘s story of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, “Just Kids,” won the National Book Award; Bob Dylan is rumored to be writing a follow-up to his memoir, “Chronicles” and The Who frontman Pete Townshend is just out with his story, “Who I Am.” Rounding out the lineup is Neil Young, whose newly released “Waging Heavy Peace” has readers and rock fans buzzing.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, another musician-turned-writer, Wesley Stace (whose stage name is an homage to Dylan: John Wesley Harding), calls “Waging Heavy Peace” a “rambling, terrific memoir…modest, honest, funny and frequently moving.” The book’s rambling nature owes much to Young’s protean career. As Bob Ruggiero notes in the Houston Chronicle, “Sure, he’s released plenty of rock music. But he also has put out albums of country, blues, rockabilly, grunge, folk, American standards, synth-based new wave, drunken ramblings, political protests and one disc featuring nothing but guitar feedback.” This ever-shifting interest led Young’s record label, Geffen, to sue him in the ’80s for releasing music that was “not characteristic of Neil Young.”
But of course, that broad swath of interests and willingness to experiment with new forms are exactly what characterizes Neil Young. As are intense (some critics would say frustratingly) non-musical interests like model trains and electric cars. Stace admits that the book is “erratic”: “The rough pie chart of its contents would be, in order of diminishing slice: PureTone [Young’s digital music project], cars, music, family, various harrowing medical procedures (all described with Damien Hirst-like clarity—he has seen a lot of doctors), model trains and the LincVolt project (which is more cars).” While Simon Vozick-Levinson in Rolling Stone gives the book four stars and calls it “a memoir only Young could write: Honest, moving and kind of all over the place,” not every critic has been so forgiving. Kyle Anderson, in Entertainment Weekly says, “The contradictory tale of Young’s life is at times refreshing and other times incomprehensible…. a jumbled, slightly surreal narrative that struggles with momentum” and gives it a grade of B-minus. In the Chicago Tribune, Christopher Borrelli says that it “reads, even less than 10 pages in, like a random assortment of diary entries and half-remembered memories…. ‘Waging Heavy Peace’ is a sprawling, distracted big-hearted mess.”
Young made a splash when he announced that before writing the book, he gave up pot (which he smoked like others smoke cigarettes) and alcohol, making him “straight” for the first time in more than four decades. Young has survived childhood polio, lifelong epilepsy and, more recently, a brain aneurysm and subsequent bleeding that nearly killed him. In his review, Ruggiero wryly notes that this new sobriety “seems like a good path to follow.” Young appears to be doing all right, however. In a recent profile for The New York Times Magazine, David Carr visited Young on his nearly 1,000-acre ranch in Northern California. Carr marvels: “In addition to the studio, where more than 20 records have been made, there is an entire building given over to model trains, another where vintage cars are stored and another piled with his master recordings. Llamas and cows roam under cartoonishly large trees. It seems like a made-up place, an open-air fortress of eccentricity meant to protect the artist who lives there.”
Perhaps David Marchese, in Spin, sums up “Waging Heavy Peace” best: “Nearly 500 elliptical pages long, the book is beautiful, psychedelic, rootsy, ragged, terse, boring, riveting, sad, funny, nostalgic and forward-looking. Is it great literature? No. Does it include more than a casual fan probably wants to know about model trains and electric cars? Yup. It’s also a must-read for Neil fans. (Not that the notoriously independent 66-year-old cares what anyone thinks.)”