Saturday, 28 June 2014

Neil Young Wages Heavy Peace

So I've been reading Neil Young's memoir, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippy Dream.

It's interesting how the form and language of a book tells you as much about the person as what they actually say about themselves, especially if they're not a professional writer.  Graham Nash's memoir, carefully structured around chronology, focused on his professional life, cautious in what he says about himself and those around him, shows a methodical, cautious and conservative person.  Nash remains firmly in control throughout.

David Crosby's attempt, co-authored with Carl Gottlieb and with contributions by a huge cast of friends and associates, shows a strong-willed, opinionated man but someone fundamentally democratic and collegial.  He retains ultimate control - after all, it's his story - but he gives his co-authors a long rope.  He even allows a former girlfriend to give the lie to his claims of sexual potency.

Young's book shows you someone who is very much in the moment.  He often lets you know where he is and what he's doing as he writes each chapter, and he seems to just write about whatever comes out of the junkpile in his brain.  One minute he'll be reminiscing about Buffalo Springfield.  The next he'll be writing about one of his pet projects - his high end digital sound technology, or his electric car, or perhaps his model trains.  Then perhaps he'll tell a story about one of his friends, or one of his cars, or both at once.  It's like one of his guitar solos - rambling, a bit too long with quite a few boring bits, laced with occasional flashes of brilliance.

At one point he tells the story about how he and his neighbours in Hawaii, where he stays from time to time, go on a shopping trip.  He describes wandering through the Costco supermarket, looking at flat screen TVs and buying new brushes for his electric toothbrush and you sigh and say "why is he telling me this? Can't he afford an editor to cut the crap?"  Then they get to a second hand book and record store and there, in a cardboard box on the floor of a remote aisle, is a complete collection of his CDs, all 34 of them.  He is so deflated he can't go on with the shopping trip and sits at a table outside, gathering his wits, while the others go on.  Just when you think you know what's happening, you suddenly realise he was going somewhere else entirely.

In other words, pretty much like Young's career in general.   He leaps between styles depending on how he feels and which musicians he has met up with recently.  Folk, country, garage rock, grunge, techno.  Albums that baffle everyone, followed by riveting smash hits.  He is a genius without a filter, an intuitive artist who can't be told what art to make. Not won't be told, I should emphasise, can't be.  As soon as he thinks, things go wrong.  If you want the gems, you have to accept the rocks.

In the early 1980s Young switched record companies from Reprise, which had released all his music up to that time, to David Geffen's new company Geffen Records.  He was attracted by Geffen's reputation as a music man, but things did not go well.  He presented Geffen straight up with an environmental-themed record called Island in the Sun, which has never been released.  Geffen didn't like it and asked him to do something else.  Young agreed and produced 1982's Trans, a record inspired by his son Ben's communication struggles (Ben has severe cerebral palsy and can't speak) and using heavy electronic effects and distorted vocals sung through a vocoder.

Geffen reluctantly released it, but didn't promote it and wouldn't fund video production to support it.  In frustration the president of Geffen's Board of Directors intervened and asked him to make some rock'n'roll.  Big mistake!  He was obviously thinking about Rust Never Sleeps but no-one tells someone like Neil Young what sort of music to make.  Young decided to take him literally and made Everybody's Rockin', an album of old school 50's rockabilly.  He even funded his own videos with the band dressed up in sharp suits and greased hair.  Eventually Geffen sued him for "making music unrepresentative of Neil Young", no small claim given Young's broad musical range.  He counter-sued, they eventually settled out of court and parted ways.

So was the whole experience a huge failure?  Well, it depends on what you mean.  Commercially, the 1980s were Young's lowest point.  Everybody's Rockin' was not so much an album as an elaborate way of giving Geffen Records the finger, yet it still sold 400,000 copies, no mean feat for a fit of pique.  Trans is another matter.  Electronica dates fast and personally I find the vocoder effect wears out its welcome pretty quickly.  Yet if you listen past this, it is an album packed with great songs, a lost classic of timeless music dressed up in the rags of transient technology.  If Young was misunderstood, this itself is part of the point, part of his own reflection on his son's difficulty in making himself understood without functioning vocal chords.  If you think you hated this album, I encourage you to take another listen.

Still, there's no escaping the fact that Young's fame rests on his early work, and one of his highest points both commercially and creatively was 1972's Harvest.  Let me share a lovely song I rediscovered trolling Youtube as I read the book, 'A Man Needs a Maid'.


I think I prefer this performance to the studio version with its lush orchestral arrangement.  With its stripped back piano accompaniment the vulnerability and bewilderment of the song stand out.  This is not a hugely complex song musically - Young's music never is - but it is quite intricate, with subtle dynamics, modulations and changes of tempo that reflect the moods it goes through.

My life is changin' in so many ways
I don't know who to trust anymore
There's a shadow runnin' thru my days
Like a beggar goin' from door to door

I was thinkin' that maybe I'd get a maid
Find a place nearby for her to stay
Just someone to keep my house clean
Fix my meals and go away

A maid, a man needs a maid
A maid

It's hard to make that change
When life and love turns strange, and old

To live a love, you gotta give a love
To give a love, you gotta be part of

When will I see you again?

While ago somewhere I don't know when
I was watchin' a movie with a friend
I fell in love with the actress
She was playin' a part that I could understand

A maid, a man needs a maid
A maid, a man needs a maid

When will I see you again?

Young was apparently given a hard time about this song by feminists because it was understood as relegating women to the role of domestic servants.  The critics obviously failed to listen to the song.  This is not a song about gender relations, its a song about being isolated and alone.

At the time he wrote it he was in his mid-20s.  His short-lived first marriage had ended and he was in a fraught relationship with Carrie Snodgrass, the actress of the third verse - it apparently happened much like that in real life.  Other relationships were also struggling.  His initial participation in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had foundered on his fractious relationship with Stephen Stills.  There were issues in his other band, Crazy Horse, as guitarist and singer Danny Whitten's drug addiction made him increasingly dysfunctional.  To make it all harder to bear Young was in constant pain from a spinal injury, performing in a back brace and shambling about the stage like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Young describes himself as a late developer, still emotionally immature and naive well into his 20s.  However, we all get to a point where we realise relationships are much more fraught and complex than we thought they would be.  People we trust betray us, those we thought would help us end up undermining us, friends turn into enemies.  We find things in ourselves that we don't exactly like, although we find them hard to change.  There is shadow where once there was only sunlight.  It's a hard change to get used to, everything has become strange.  How is a man like Neil Young to cope with this, shy, introverted and possibly a little further along the autism spectrum than most people?  This song represents a rather baffled work-in-progress answer.

Of course one option is to simply get a maid.  This is not to say that all a man really needs from a woman is cooking and cleaning, or that that's all she's any good for.  Rather, after you have been hurt it is tempting to put strict boundaries around relationships.  Hiring a maid is strictly a commercial arrangement.  She lives elsewhere, performs certain essential tasks, then leaves.  Both she and her employer are protected emotionally.  The same goes, perhaps, for musicians.  If you hire them you don't have to be their friend, they just have to play what you tell them to play.

The third verse presents another alternative.  You can wear a mask, you can play a role.  When you fall in love with the actress, it's not her you are attracted to but the role she is playing.  And perhaps you understand because you feel like you are playing a part yourself.  For Young in particular, he was playing the part of a rock star, a part to which he often felt unsuited.  His later reflections on his relationship with Snodgrass make depressing reading, a blank few years of unhappiness he would rather not talk about.

Young knows that ultimately neither of these will do.  There is no alternative but to be vulnerable, to take the risk.  "To live a love, you've got to give a love".  You can't cut yourself off or play a part, you have to give something of yourself, risky though it may be.  That longing will not go away.  He asks at the end, "when will I see you again?"  It might seem temporarily easier not to try, but this will not do.  We can't live without love.

Young's music has made him wealthier than most of us can ever imagine being.  This wealth cushions him from a lot of pressures.  Nonetheless his life has more than its share of hardships.  He got dealt a bad hand in the genetic lottery, suffering from both epilepsy and diabetes and passing both on to his daughter.  He also suffered polio as a child with its legacy of muscle weakness and proneness to injury.  Both his sons were born with cerebral palsy, the older only mildly so but the younger so severe as to be totally dependent on carers.  He faces it all with a kind of baffled optimism and a willingness to keep trying, to keep learning and loving despite it all, which maybe all of us could learn something from.

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