The world’s greatest living singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan, recently gave vent to his feelings regarding the many self-styled biographers who make a living trying to define his life and art in book form. “They live in their own universe and they try to project it outwardly and it doesn’t work,” he muttered disparagingly as though discussing a bad tooth-ache. Usually, these people have a touch of insanity and they have to be knocked down to earth.
Neil Young – the world’s second-greatest living singer-songwriter and Dylan’s equally enigmatic Canadian soul-brother – would no doubt have grinned maniacally when he read the quote. In 1989, Young encountered a San Francisco-based writer for New York’s Village Voice named Jimmy McDonough. The interview they conducted turned out so well that the normally media-shy Young surprisingly agreed to a subsequent request from McDonough that they collaborate together to create a definitive Young biography.
Young went on to speak at length to McDonough during the early 1990s, as well as granting the writer access to individuals from his past whose own detailed recollections would be blended into the finished text. Then – probably because he’d become involved in something he didn’t have full control over – Young started getting cold feet about the project. McDonough, who’d already put more than six years of work into the text, was suddenly informed in the late 1990s that his hero wanted to terminate the whole deal.
Eventually, McDonough would have to take Young to court in order to get his book published. In the finished text, he sardonically hints at the scope of the growing divide between both parties in a section where he briefly recalls a conversation between himself and Young’s manager, Elliot Roberts. “How badly am I going to get fucked? ” he asks Roberts, who has been broadly insinuating that he and Young will sue if the book comes out. “Maybe a finger or a little tongue, Jimmy,” Roberts shoots back. But not full penetration.
Reading the more than 700 hefty pages of text bound together in McDonough’s weighty, finally available biog entitled Shakey (one of Neil Young’s preferred aliases for himself is Bernard Shakey, an acknowledgement of the singer’s ongoing battle with epilepsy), you have to wonder just what Young himself found so potentially threatening about the book. In the italicised sections where he gets to express his own views on any given topic, the singer often laments his own capacity for cold, ruthless behaviour towards others – particularly co-workers – and readily admits he’s a self-absorbed, generally anti-social person.
You can’t go along creating and changing without hurting a lot of people,” he solemnly informs McDonough. Yet the Neil Young who ultimately stands out from these pages is a true rarity – a genuinely decent human being who has managed time and time again to immerse himself in the potentially self-destructive world of big-money rock’n'roll without ever becoming morally, spiritually or chemically diminished in the process. As his admirers have long been aware, Young’s personal life has been riddled with terrible twists of fate and personal set-backs that would have demolished most other humans.
Stricken with polio at the age of six, Young almost died in hospital. Two years later, his parents broke up when father Scott Young – a successful journalist – left to start a new life with another woman. Neil Young was then brought up alone by his mother Rassy, a terrifyingly bitter woman and (in her son’s own words) a raving alcoholic. By the time he was 21, after fruitless years of struggling to break through on the Canadian music circuit of the early 1960s, Young lucked out in Los Angeles and found sudden success as one fifth of Buffalo Springfield.
Simultaneously, he became disturbingly withdrawn and paranoid, found himself increasingly at loggerheads with group leader Stephen Stills, and started having epileptic seizures when performing in concert. A girlfriend from that era remembers: “This guy had a heavy load, physically and emotionally. Neil didn’t fit. He never felt he fit. He wanted to desperately but it always eluded him. Neil was always bleeding inside.
Young quietly healed all that internal bleeding; by sheer strength of character and musical instinct, he carved out a place for himself at the highest peak of popular music throughout the 1970s. The 1980s were more of a struggle, mainly because the recently married singer had to experience the heartbreak of fathering a son, Ben, afflicted by severe cerebral palsy. But this only spurred Young on to attempt creating new ways to communicate with the child. In the process, he has invented and put on the market a new line of toys designed for the mentally handicapped.
Equally miraculously, he pulled off an extraordinary comeback in the 1990s as a grey-haired, cutting-edge rock’n'roller who was just as mesmerising performing alone as a fragile-voiced folkie troubadour. Jimmy McDonough does a generally superlative job of taking us deep into Young’s eccentric world in order to better comprehend the creative instincts that drive him so relentlessly. He has sound critical judgements to make on every era of Young’s 35-plus years of music-making but never lets his aesthetic assessments get in the way of telling the story of Young’s action-filled years as a successful performer.
To this end, he interviewed many, many people who have had personal dealings with Young over the years, starting with the singer’s daunting mother, whom he encountered in a typically foul mood, slowly dying of cancer in Florida in the early 1990s. Another stand-out interviewee is David Briggs, Young’s beloved producer, who can’t stop himself ruminating over all his past resentments towards the singer. Briggs died of cancer, too – in 1996 – prompting Young to remark: “I’ve lost more friends in one fuckin’ year than Aphrodite has water-holes. ” If this book has a problem, it’s that it ends too soon with a hurried description of Young in 1998.
In the four years since then, he has released three new CDs and two DVDs, and made a reunion album as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the band he recently toured America with. The man simply never stops working, and McDonough is obviously close to exhaustion from trying to keep up with his mercurial ways by the end of the book. His tenacity has paid off handsomely, though. Crammed with razor-sharp insights and mind-boggling detail, Shakey is a rock-solid literary triumph, as inspired and inspiring as the eccentric figure it evokes with such frustrated devotion. ·