Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Sunday, March 13, 2005

I finished up "Shakey: The Biography of Neil Young" by James McDonough and felt exhausted. I'd started out with it in a state of exhilaration, and found myself carrying it in airports, reading it in cabs and generally just gripped by Young's story, but it began to fade for me, just like Young's music can. There was a stretch in his career when I found that every side he laid down was essential stuff, then, like Dylan, he went through a prolonged drought, then he bounced back, and was essential again. Some time ago (six years ago, thereabouts) I cracked that if we were going to have a Bush in the White House we could take consolation in the fact that at least we'd get some decent music out of Neil Young-- unfortunately it hasn't happened yet.

I was surprised at how much I knew about Young, and how much I'd known but forgotten. Part of the initial rush of the book came from seeing this enigmatic figure come into focus-- and part of the letdown came from the fact that once he is in focus, it is clear that he is really kind of a jerk. In fairness to Young, McDonough's portrait injects a great deal of McDonough into the process, and McDonough seems pretty burnt out about Neil Young by the time Young is into his fourth or fifth renaissance. At first McDonough's strategy of injecting himself into the narrative seems brilliant. He often starts chapters about a portion of Young's life off by describing his contemporary impression of some person who was important to Young at some time in the past. He then weaves that individual's recollection into a narrative that also includes excerpts from his interviews with Young conducted over the course of the project, other third party accounts, and omniscient narrative drawn from other sources. This works well for a while, but gradually McDonough becomes a more and more important character, and we find that we are reading more about McDonough's impressions of a particular gig or recording than we are about anyone else. Since these impressions are frequently negative, the appeal of reading them pales pretty quickly.

Another problem is that quite a few people who you'd think would be important to talk to declined to be interviewed. Bob Dylan might or might not have something interesting to say. Stephen Stills would certainly. Robbie Robertson. John Lyndon. Young's wife Pegi is virtually absent-- McDonough cites her desire for privacy, then moves on, and we are left with a void. David Geffen is not heard from. McDonough provides a list of these and others, and probably anyone who is interested enough in the subject could supplement the list themselves. (Where's Bill Graham, for example?) Not too many people come off well. Nils Lofgren does, which makes the absence of his Spindizzy catalogue from print feel all the more painful. (My copies reside in the Antipodes, except for Nils' final Grin album, "Gone Crazy", recorded at about the same time as "Tonight's the Night" and concerning more or less the same things.) Stills comes off badly, hardly a surprise. David Crosby is not particularly vivid-- I get the sense that he was pretty strung out when most of this was written, but it is just as likely that he is a self-absorbed jerk. Graham Nash is a wimp-- but that is hardly stop the presses stuff. Jack Nitzsche seems distant and dangerous, also hardly a surprise.

Young's first wife, Carrie Snodgrass, (who died last year)comes off as a sad case-- a bright, talented and attractive person who got sucked into the worst of the Sixties. Young divorced her because he felt she was unfaithful, she denies it, weakly, and Young's infidelities are glossed over-- hey, that's rock'n'roll, baby.

Similarly, the incredible amount of drug use is just staggering. It is not glamorized, particularly, but it is plain that the drugs took their toll on everyone. Norman Mailer talks about how drugs affected his creative process in "Advertisements for Myself" in a knowing way, essentially concluding that drug use is borrowing from the future at a high rate of interest. It isn't hard to conclude that the same conclusion can be drawn with Young, but McDonough doesn't draw it-- or any other real conclusion, for that matter.

Finally, how a book like this can exist without even a stab at a discography is a mystery. For that matter, very little effort is put into noting what the critical response to particular albums was, which would have been interesting. "Shakey" will be a good starting place for the definitive Neil Young bio, but that book is a long way from being written.

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