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Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012

Neil Young’s ‘Hippie Dream’

Discovery, melancholy in ‘Waging Heavy Peace,’ a poetically detailed memoir

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At age 66, Neil Young is reaching an artistic zenith. Young recently released the album Americana with his longtime band Crazy Horse, and the end of this month will see yet another Crazy Horse album, Psychedelic Pill. And in between comes his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream (Blue Rider Press).

Young describes his life and art in remarkably nuanced detail: “In my life I have had various health threats… They make me who I am. I am thankful for them. They are scary.” Being grateful for them is unusual, yes, but the sudden presence of fear that receives a child-like reverie is a touch of the passionate, obdurate hidden character Young explores. “When I was young, I never dreamed of this. I dreamed of colors and falling, among other things.” We have the eye of the poet upon all that befalls him.

Opening with a detailed and poetically charged description of his penchant for Lionel trains, and closing with a drive in his Lincoln Continental, right after Young says that “I’m not sure how many more albums I will make in the future, since they’re not even called albums anymore,” Waging Heavy Peace is as much a documentary as it is a lovely work of prose that reveals the complexities of an artist’s journey from origins to current perspectives.

Vast themes of discovery and melancholia underlie Waging Heavy Peace. The former leads the author down experimental roads that seldom satisfy but can become pathways to what’s next; the latter brings as many moments of ecstasy as pensiveness. Young is filled with wonder and contemplation, and if this is “a hippie dream,” then we’d rather not wake from it.

There is a poignant moment about a quarter of the way into the book that reveals the narrator’s distinctive voice, when, of all things, we learn that Young has severely injured his toe. He neglects the break and wears sandals to avoid untreated pain, because, as he notes, “I was busy writing this book. I am not trying to make you feel guilty.” Our narrator continually addresses us in ways that at once pull us into the prose and yet create distance. From small, odd subjects such as a broken toe to loftier subjects like the quality of sound, Young crafts a philosophical voice that seems to be sitting at the breakfast table with you.

Bringing his work together is this: “Sound is very complex.” For Young, music is “a storm on the senses… It is more than what you…hear.” Citing the deficiencies of contemporary sound platforms and outlets, compact disc technology and the obtainment of music through the Internet, he discusses a new technology he has developed called PureTone. “I will not rest until the impact has been made and PureTone…is available worldwide to those who love music. This is the sound of the 21st century, the sound we are capable of delivering. It is music. It has been an art form denied. There is something new now. Music as it should be heard. The promise of digital fulfilled. But I am a pain in the ass now.”

With the wondrous intrusion of Huck Finn’s truthful innocence, we are suddenly brought right into the poetic trap. No matter how huge the subject, he speaks directly and without pomposity. Neil Young is pure tone and his writing pitch-perfect.