The rock & roll confidential has occupied one of the least edifying shelves in the bookstore. The hazy memories of too many girls and too many drugs were shaped by ghost-writers into versions of the same story – innocent years and first wife, early fame and women whose faces were no longer quite recalled, drug dependence, break up of the band and a new wife to comfort during the long, slow creative decline. Generally an as-told-to affair, sanitised for the benefit of the new wife. Then in the past decade, three books changed the game. The first was Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, the second was Patti Smith’s Just Kids and the third, Keith Richards’s Life. Surprisingly, Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace may outdistance them all.
Dylan’s book is notable for the elegance and the simplicity of his language. He takes the reader right back to the corner of Bleeker and McDougall streets where there was music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air. You learn more about Dylan than if he had gone through a chronology of his career. Similarly Smith’s memoir Just Kids is her story of becoming. It’s about her childhood and first years in New York with her first lover and friend Robert Mapplethorpe. Again the language is heart-breaking. The story ends as she enters the studio to record her first album. Keith Richards’s Life was an as-told-to affair but Richards’s persona came through loud and clear. The absence of regret about his buccaneer past – despite the needless deaths of children and friends – was, in its way, ghoulishly charming. And it confirmed all our preconceptions about the romance of being an elegantly wasted rock & roll star.
Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace is a book fundamentally unlike any other. It’s not until at least the halfway mark that it starts to make any sense and you can see its delicate mosaic.
There are many sides to Neil Young. The public prefers the bucolic singer/songwriter from the early 1970s when he sang the hard-bitten songs of wisdom that only a man in his twenties could write. Another side of Neil Young is the persona he adopts when fronting Crazy Horse, his occasional garage band. When in full flight, Neil Young and Crazy Horse develop jams that roll around three or four chords and snatches of lyrics and go for close to half an hour. In glorious moments such as these, Young is submerged into the music; big howling squalls of guitar ambience over the relentless march of the drums and bass. It looks simple, even simplistic, but it’s transcendental. Songs like ‘Down by the River’ or ‘Cortez the Killer’ are built from three or four simple chords churned through over and over beneath Young’s verbose guitar and can go any place before returning to the refrain.
Waging Heavy Peace was written in the context of Young reactivating Crazy Horse for the first time since 2004. The songwriter had recently forsworn all drugs and alcohol and was suffering through an extended writer’s block. Writing Waging Heavy Peace was a way to get back in touch with his muse.
The many sides of Neil Young are the meat of this book. There’s Young the rock star, with his various bands, from the Squires back in Ontario through to the dozen or so outfits he has helmed. Then there’s Neil Young the model-train enthusiast and inventor. His two new projects are the Lincvolt, an electric car with the proportions of the classic American automobile, and Pono, his method of digitally recording sound with the fidelity of an LP rather than the inferior mp3 format that is now standard. Then there’s Neil the family man, the father of severely disabled sons Ben and Zeke. These are his current obsessions, which he intersperses with anecdotes from his career.
Much of the story is navigated via Young’s reminiscences of cars he has owned. There have been many since he drove an old hearse to LA and, while stuck in traffic, found Stephen Stills, with whom he would form Buffalo Springfield and start his career. Young’s fundamental state is restlessness, and cars get him out of any situation at less than a moment’s notice.
Unlike most rock stars writing about themselves, Young acknowledges his own narcissism. He understands the destructive power that stardom can have on those in its wake. Young writes of his first marriage to Susan Young and his second major relationship with Carrie Snodgrass with an appropriate level of regret. These women are drawn as three-dimensional people and not just notches on a gunbelt.
The rambling structure of Waging Heavy Peace and the naive syntax and vocabulary take a lot of adjusting to. The constant returns to the themes of his children, his cars and his sound quality cry out for an editor. Then somewhere around the halfway mark it becomes apparent that this book, which is partly about re-forming Crazy Horse, is structured just like a Crazy Horse song. What initially appeared haphazard is reframed and is quite clearly deliberate: extended riffs return eventually to the same themes.
Young doesn’t dwell on the public moments of his career. He writes about the people who have been the greatest influences on his work – the producers, engineers and friends perhaps more than the frontline musicians. The peaks of his fame are no more interesting to him than the troughs. If you’re prepared to ride around with him on his psychic highway, you’ll get to see the most revealing portrait of a rock & roll icon yet written.
Townshend, the songwriter of the Who and the man who has done more than anyone else to give an intellectual backbone to British teen culture, is not, it appears, easily given to prose. The brains trust in the Who – Townshend and managers Chris Stamp (brother of actor Terence) and Kit Lambert (son of composer Constant) – developed an image of the band to capitalise on the contemporary Mod craze. They presented Townshend’s songs as the authentic voice of that movement. But the most interesting thing about early Townshend songs was his own confusion about identity and gender. ‘I’m A Boy’ – about a kid who was dressed in drag by his mother, or ‘Pictures of Lily’ – about masturbation bonding a father and son, suggested that Townshend could have been one of the most interesting writers of his generation.
It was this identity confusion that lay at the heart of Townshend’s 1969 ‘rock opera’ Tommy. Lambert’s Establishment heritage encouraged both men to create a rock & roll work that was more than just a three-minute pop song. So it was that Townshend conceived this magnum opus, a sacred cantata about a boy who was sexually abused and became deaf, mute and blind before being saved by his own stardom as a ‘pinball wizard’. On any reading, Tommy is preposterous. It was redeemed by the extraordinary power and unique musicality of the Who.
At the time, no one much commented on the character Tommy’s sexual abuse. No-one took the libretto seriously. Then, thirty-four years after the album appeared, Townshend was convicted of downloading child pornography. The rock star claimed that he was ‘researching child abuse’ and that he thought that he may have been abused as a child. This book, then, is essentially a massive apology; although it’s a memoir, the book is a long attempt to explain that behaviour in 2003.
For a man who prides himself on his abilities as a writer – he has written a number of ‘rock operas’, is a keen essayist and was for a time an editor at Faber & Faber – Townshend has few of the skills needed to carry off a book like this. The basic problem is Townshend himself. He has almost no interest in the characters around him – his long-suffering wife goes from angel to shrew before we ever know why. Even the other members of the Who remain a mystery to their guitarist after twenty years together. He fails to realise that the genius in the band was not Townshend himself but Keith Moon the drummer. Moon’s hyper-insane personality and his completely unique approach to the drums gave the Who their particular dynamic.
Townshend has no insight into what made the Who great or what possessed the tragic Moon. It’s all about Pete. He embarks on a solo career which never takes off. He fails to draw the conclusion that the public at large is really only interested in the group. In fact, Townshend is remarkably short on self-reflection. Perpetually buying new real estate on which to build yet another home studio, he fails to make interesting records in any of them. When in doubt, Townshend returns to his devotion to his Indian guru Meher Baba, who is somehow to blame for Tommy and another project called Lifehouse, which remains uncompleted after three and half decades. You would think that with that passage of time, the author would realise that it was really not going to happen. The quest for Lifehouse the opera is a core part of Townshend’s personal mythology and of intense interest to dozens of Who geeks. Meanwhile singer Roger Daltry continues to play Who songs to arenas of grateful fans. Townshend recently offered his services to Daltry for a tour. Daltry politely declined. After reading this autobiography, you can understand why.
Clearly Who I Am was written to address the pedophile question, but Townshend skirts the issue. He also raises and skirts the issue of his bisexuality. He thinks he may have been molested while in the care of his crazy nymphomaniac grandmother, but he’s not sure of the details. He claims now not to have been bisexual, though in interviews in the 1980s he said he was. How much Townshend wants to discuss his sex life in really a matter for him. I for one am happy if he keeps it all to himself, but if you are going to go there you should be at least be accurate and consistent. Fundamentally, though, Townshend has tailored this account to address the morals charges. Everything else is irrelevant.
At the end of Who I Am, Townshend is still the confused and desperate man he was fifty years ago. He’s a damaged personality, but it’s highly unlikely that he’s a pedophile or a threat to society. It’s a tragedy that the last part of his life will be blighted by one poor lapse of judgement – particularly in the light of the large efforts he has made for charity. It’s unfortunate that his life, which has had so many great successes, has not made him happy. But then as Bob Dylan would have told him: ‘You’ll find out when you reach the top /You’re on the bottom.’
Neil Young Waging Heavy Peace, Viking, 2012, HB, 502pp, $39.99
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Pete Townshend Who I Am, HarperCollins, 2012, HB, 544pp, $39.99
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Toby Creswell has written extensively on rock & roll in books, newspapers and magazines. His many projects include documentaries on Nick Cave, Paul Kelly, Powderfinger and various other artists, as well as launching magazines.