The Chaos of Creativity

An exhaustive journey through the soul of a great musician

Like Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Neil Young has become “unstuck in time.” In his long-awaited memoir, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, Young is transported, seemingly at random, through significant moments of his life. The recollections, although tangential, are rooted in the moment by Young’s concerns at the time of writing: his toy trains, the electric Lincoln Continental he has been building for years, a planned reunion with Crazy Horse and a new platform for music that promises to deliver studio-quality sound to the consumer. Young writes, “you may have noticed that a lot of my time is spent tying up loose ends, getting closure, and completing things.” And, yes, the reader does notice. In what might be the most ambitious cross-promotional effort in recent popular culture, Young has spent the latter part of 2012 promoting the book, plugging the Pono music system on network television and touring with Crazy Horse to support two new albums. All of these projects were in development during the writing of Peace.

Those expecting a celebrity tell-all yarn will be disappointed. In one revelatory passage, Robertson Davies, a friend of Neil’s father, Scott, with whom the family spent Christmases, is briefly mentioned. One can imagine who played Santa at those long-ago gatherings in Peterborough. And although Young does discuss relationships with famous and unknown collaborators, the book is largely a demonstration of Young’s creative process rather than a revelation of rumour and legend. Hoping to get on the road and anxious about an upcoming recording session with Crazy Horse, Young writes:

It is a lonely job out there performing. I have to do it because I always have. I probably always will. I love the music part. I like it when the sound is right and the audience is into it and the music is relevant. If one of those elements is missing, you are screwed. You are killing yourself slowly … With Crazy Horse, I need to perform new songs on the next tour for me to feel anything other than ancient history up close.

For those who have followed Young’s career and read the dozens of biographies, Waging Heavy Peace does not offer much new material. Readers who have not studied the life and works of the Ancient Plaid One may get lost now and again. In no discernible chronology, Young leads the reader through his boyhood in rural Ontario, his first bands in Winnipeg, the exodus to the Golden State in a smoke-veiled hearse, early success with Buffalo Springfield, the turbulent solo career, the aneurysm that nearly silenced him and the deaths of many of Young’s closest friends and fellow musicians. The perspective is new, of course. The memoir aspect of the narrative is much like a response to all that has been written about Young. The book is Young’s chance to meditate on his brand. Fans will love the book for its reader-directed narrative. It is like a long afternoon chat on the front porch.

An uncompromising devotion to the creative process is central to Young’s life. He has famously and repeatedly stated that all other matters are secondary to his art. Young’s music is art vérité in that the songs we hear on record are largely unaltered from first creation. Waging Heavy Peace finds Young between songs, in a creative dry spell after giving up a 40-year marijuana habit. Of his song-writing process, Young tells the reader:

When I write a song, it starts with a feeling. I can hear something in my head or feel it in my heart. It may be that I just picked up the guitar and mindlessly started playing. That’s the way a lot of songs begin. When you do that, you are not thinking. Thinking is the worst thing for writing a song. So you just start playing and something new comes out. Where does it come from? Who cares? Just keep it and go with it. That’s what I do. I never judge it. I believe it. It came as a gift when I picked up my instrument and it came through me playing with the instrument. The chords and melody just appeared … Now is the time to get to know the song, not change it before you even know it. It is like a wild animal, a living thing. Be careful not to scare it away.

It is a fascinating method that seems to have served Young well in his more than 40 years of creative output. It is also a method that would make most creative writing teachers cringe. Waiting for inspiration can be a long, lonely vigil for most mortals. Young applies the same technique to the writing of his book, rattling off prose in an unedited cascade.

Although Young has given up marijuana, the stream-of-consciousness style suggests an early-morning toke of something grown on the ranch. Does the story wander? The story wanders. Does the narrator repeat ideas almost word for word? Yup. Yup. In this way, Waging Heavy Peace is the in-time testimony of a brilliant and aging mind. It is a tale written before the reader’s eyes. Throughout, memories are interspersed with the present moment, the moment in which Young is writing. It is a neat trick that lends urgency to the prose.

In “One of These Days,” a lesser-known song from his best-selling 1992 album, Harvest Moon, Neil Young sings, “One of these days / I’m gonna sit down and write a long letter / to all the good friends I’ve known.” If that lyric is a promise, Waging Heavy Peace is the follow-through. In this running diary of sorts, Young thanks just about everybody who has helped, served or been injured in the musician’s dogged pursuit of the next song.

Many of Young’s fans may be surprised to learn they are not, as each one of them seems to claim, the world’s biggest Neil Young fan. No one is a bigger fan of Neil Young than Neil Young himself. But for the uninitiated, the book might seem more cloying than chatty, more self-involved than self-revelatory.

It is a strange criticism to say that a memoir is self-indulgent. Yet it is striking to read how Young has populated his world with people who live to serve his creative whims. To be generous, Young seems to be just as astonished by his success and talent as everyone else. A fan might say that Young is just honest enough to recognize the greatness of his gifts and protective enough to ensure that his music survives. Like all fans, Young has the conviction of belief on his side. No matter how weird and annoying some of his music has been over the years, Young manages to convince generation after generation that it is worth a listen. And most of the time, he has been right. We would argue which of Young’s dozens of studio albums are weird and which are annoying, and agree many times.

Reflecting on what is perhaps his most famous lyrical fragment, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” Young writes:

John Lennon disagreed with that.
Kurt Cobain quoted it in his last letter.
People have asked me about that line since I first sang it in 1978. I wrote it referring to the rock and roll star, meaning that if you go while you are burning hottest, then that is how you are remembered, at the peak of your powers forever. That is rock and roll.

Young has made a career of burning out, fading away and rising from the ashes of his former self. Somehow, through all of his musical transformations, Young has managed to maintain the spark of genius that makes him unique. Love his work or despise it, one has to admit that few artists have enjoyed such longevity. Indeed, few artists have given themselves over to the chaos of creative life with such ruthless determination.