The old joke about the 1960s goes something like this: “If you can remember the Sixties, then you weren’t there!” Well, there’s no doubt that singer-songwriter-activist-musician-environmentalist-philanthropist and filmmaker Neil Young was there.
All you have to do is tune in at any time to Classic Rock Radio and within the hour it’s likely you’ll hear a performance that features either a Neil Young lead vocal; or his background vocals and harmonies; or at the very least his guitar or his piano playing. Have you sung along lately to a radio replay of “Teach Your Children” or “For What It’s Worth” (“Hey, children! What’s that sound? Everybody look . . .”)? Go ahead. You can probably finish singing that chorus. Just as you can probably sing along with “Old Man” and “4+20” and “Carry On” and “(Four Dead in) Ohio.”
His name will be forever spoken of in league with Crosby, Stills and Nash. It was cosmic timing of the most beneficent sort when David Crosby, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills (all of whom, like Young, were moving in and out of bands like Buffalo Springfield, the Hollies, and other ensembles in the late 1960s) recruited Neil Young.
One of CSN & Y’s first gigs was the Woodstock Festival in August of 1969, and their performance as preserved on the Woodstock album and film launched their legend.
Their sound, their looks (a blend of hippie artistes and Kit Carson-era long-haired renegades), their unique admixture of lyrics that bordered on poetry and also their occasional political proclamations, combined with their deep connection to the youthful masses of Boomers who in the latter half of the Sixties dreamed of a bona-fide Counterculture, found CSN & Y serving as larger-than-life troubadours. Pronto.
And yet, before Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and after CSN & Y (in fact, even at the height of the quartet’s success in the first half of the 1970s), it was part of Neil Young’s mystique (and also an excellent career move) always to be committed as well to solo works or his partnership with Crazy Horse. By not limiting his voice or his presence or his songwriting efforts to one group only, it seemed as if Young was everywhere. Doing everything: Writing. Singing. Playing. Fundraising.
Now comes Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, and as a personal memoir and also as the chronicle of an era, it is rife with passages that validate the old joke about the 1960s. “I think it was” and “I think I was” recur often. Here’s one example:
“When I came to Topanga Canyon to live, I think I was still in Buffalo Springfield, but it was near the end. There was a lady, Linda Stevens, who was a friend of mine who put me up in her house. She knew both Stephen [Stills] and me. It was 1968, because I remember during the time I was there at her house, my dad came down to cover the aftermath of the assassination of Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. My dad was working as a columnist for The Globe and Mail in Toronto, and the paper sent him down on special assignment.”
Young’s father was a prominent writer and though his son inherited the genes of an author, there’s no doubt that Young also personified the Generation Gap that was then in the air: “That may have been the first time I saw him since I left Toronto two years before. We talked and may have shared a meal. He was just as shy as I am, so there wasn’t a lot of heavy communication. Just being together and seeing each other was enough for both of us.”
And it’s that species of low-key, self-effacing, tentative half-recollecting that gives the book its apropos “Hippie Dream” texture. In the space of the two paragraphs just quoted from, Young has repeatedly qualified his own hazy memories: “I think I was . . .” “That may have been . . .” “We . . . may have shared a meal.”
Somehow, it all works. Neil Young refuses to present himself as an icon or as an avatar of any cultural fantasia. He is not pretentious. If anything, he is both wonderfully and woefully simplistic: “Religion is not one of my high points. I do feel the Great Spirit in all that is around me, and I am humbled. The moon means a lot to me, as does the forest. All things natural speak to me with a rhythm that I feel. It is this that probably makes me a pagan.”
Young follows in the Transcendentalist tradition of Whitman and it’s no accident that the Young albums that are most enshrined (apart from his work with CSN & Y) offer titles like “Harvest,” “Journey Through the Past” and “Harvest Moon.” Themes of renewal and life’s cycles infiltrated his lyrics through the years.
Some of the book’s loveliest passages highlight Young’s stable, long-term marriage to his wife, Pegi, with whom he was married in 1978. They’re the parents of a son, Ben, who was born a nonverbal quadriplegic in ’78 and who is siblings with two other of Young’s children (Amber and Zeke). Young’s devotion to family is profound.
There is no doubt that when the author writes about his wife, he’s bearing witness to the love of his life: “She is my life partner. My confidante. I can tell her anything. After all these years together, I am still getting to know her. I would be an island without my ocean if we were not together in our hearts.”
Waging Heavy Peace is illustrated with more than 50 photos. Anecdotes abound about everyone from Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell to Bruce Springsteen and Kurt Cobain. Such a vast array of musical acquaintances illustrates why Young has been inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Once for his work as a solo artist and then again for his time as a member of Buffalo Springfield; doubtless he’ll be honored a third time when CSN & Y are inducted.
And chances are, he’ll be alive and well for that. Now in his late sixties, Neil Young tells us: “I stopped smoking weed [and] I threw in drinking, too, because I had never stopped both simultaneously and I thought it might be nice to get to know myself again.”
His memoir succeeds beautifully at allowing us to get to know him again, too.
(M. J. Moore is currently working on an authorized biography of novelist James Jones.)