Neil Young on the straight and narrow

An exclusive excerpt from Neil Young's new book, a mix of memoir, meditation and rant

Neil Young on the straight and narrow

Harry Diltz/Blue Rider Publicity/Penguin Group

Like Bob Dylan (Chronicles), Keith Richards (Life) and Patti Smith (Just Kids), yet another rock icon has been seduced by print. An intimate mix of memoir, meditation and rant, Neil Young’s Waging a Heavy Peace roams a world of music and drugs, wives and children, cars, guitars and model trains. At 66, Young has followed in the footsteps of his father, Canadian journalist Scott Young, whose laconic voice seems to echo through every page of the son’s spare prose. The book’s road stories jump from dressing rooms to emergency wards, with cameos from Dylan, Springsteen—and Charles Manson. Young explains how he missed the Junos after almost bleeding to death in a Manhattan hotel lobby and how he wrote Cinnamon Girl, Down By the River and Cowgirl in the Sand in one day while running a fever. But perhaps most captivating is Young’s newly sober infatuation with the writing life. “No wonder my dad did this,” he marvels. “I highly recommend it to any old rocker who is out of cash and doesn’t know what to do next.”

Exclusive excerpt

I have been clean now for seven months. That is a good long time. I still feel cravings. Maybe I’d like a beer, maybe a joint. I heard the Pistol Annies sing about reasons why they’re broke and so who would invest in their future? One’s drinkin’, one’s smokin’, one’s taking pills. Well, they are writing their asses off. I know that. I haven’t written a song in more than half a year, and that is different for me. Of course I’ve written over 90,000 words in this book, and that is different for me, too.

I always wrote when I was high before. Getting high is something I used to do to forget one world’s realities and slip into the other world, the music world, where all the melodies and words come together in a thoughtless and random way like a gift. I always have said that thinking is the worst thing for music, and now I would like to know how to get back to music without getting high. Some people are probably saying I should get high and write more songs ’cause that works. My doctor does not think that is good for my brain.

My brain has a lot of something else in it that you can only see on an MRI. I don’t know what it is or what it isn’t, but I do know my dad’s history. He was a writer and lost his mind to dementia. What the hell is that cloudy stuff in my brain? I wish I’d never seen that s–t. Anyway, I have been advised to stop smoking grass, and I have. As a matter of fact, I’ve written this whole damn book straight. It certainly is a quandary.

Of course there are many reasons to be straight and many reasons to be stoned, but that doesn’t solve anything. There are many reasons to live and die, too. Where is this headed? I’ll be damned if I know, Hoss; some highway at the bottom of some hill? Tell me about it. I’ve been there. I can still see myself out on that road, ripping it up in some honky-tonk or tearing down some arena with [his band] the Horse, but when I occasionally see myself in the mirror, it just doesn’t add up. Where are we headed with this? Beats the hell out of lookin’ back, that’s for sure. I’m not sure of what’s real anymore, I can tell you that. The straighter I am, the more alert I am, the less I know myself and the harder it is to recognize myself. I need a little grounding in something and I am looking for it everywhere.

Cravings. Yes, I have ’em. And they are not insignificant, but then I imagine where that takes me and it scares the s–t out of me. I have been with some of you for a real long time, and others of you don’t have the foggiest notion what I am or what I stand for. I am possibly joining those legions myself. I am okay when I focus on something and stay with it; I may get abrasive and overbearing about it, but at least I’m busy. It’s those other times that get me.

“It’s Those Other Times”: is that a song or what?

When will I put it together? How f–king loose do I have to get to put a song together again? Why not? Have you ever heard of transference? Am I taking on someone else’s battles? Is that it? How the heck did I get to this place?

Now, in a few moments, I know this will pass and I will focus in on something a little easier. Maybe back on that highway, climbing that grade, burning that damn gas, heading for that pollution. Listening to Bad Example by the Pistol Annies. (Check that one out. Those girls can sing.)

When I was onstage at Farm Aid in Kansas City a couple of weeks ago, that was the realest I have been in a while. I was really happy to hear that echo. That’s the closest to being high I’ve been in a long time. It was being high. I was so into that moment, and everything was so easy. I have to remember how the heck I got to that place. Why did that happen? What was the key? At least I know it happened and I was there. If I can bring that to the Horse when we get together in the White House [the studio on his California ranch], then I will be really happy. Farm Aid was a solitary experience, though; just me and my old guitar were playing. No other people. Except for the thousands of fans in the soccer stadium—I forgot about that.

When I started out I did a lot of acoustic solo playing and found it to be quite liberating, if confining in that it meant jamming was more or less out of the question, while improvising was definitely easy and totally unencumbered. Dropping beats and bars is no problem when you’re alone and is part of the folk process and storytelling freedom. All the while in my life I have been on these two separate paths, acoustic and electric music. Some people like one and some like the other. I like them both. Especially with the Horse, I have fans who could totally miss my acoustic solo stuff and not care at all, while fans of the acoustic solo appearances have little use for the Horse. I have often wondered why Bob [Dylan], who was so great with just his guitar and harmonica, has never returned to that form since his first foray into band music with Barry Goldberg, Mike Bloomfield, later Al Kooper and the guys. That was great sound, but so was his solo acoustic stuff that defined a whole era. He has just never gone back, and that is notable. I don’t know why. He plays a unique guitar and his harp playing is definitive. His storytelling is beyond my description, so why doesn’t he do it? I guess I’ll have to ask him someday.

I would really like to make a solo acoustic record at some point. You really have to have songs to pull that off. Usually when I do try to do that I end up with a band, because you can always hear a band playing songs when you write them, at least I can. In the studio with the Horse, though, you have to be real careful. Analysis is no good for the Horse. The Horse defines music without thought. The physical feeling of playing with the Horse is like nothing else. It leaves your brain wide open, like you can feel the wind blowing right through it. I am looking forward to that relief, that feeling.

Another thing about the Horse is that knowing the song structure before starting is important. There are no run-throughs. Generally the best feelings are the early takes. First or second takes, mostly. Whatever you think of the music I have made with Crazy Horse, those songs are the most transcendent experiences I have ever had with music. That has an immeasurable value to me, and I think it will still be there when we get together to record.

Of course, I have seldom played straight with the Horse.

Reprinted from Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young by arrangement with Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © Neil Young, 2012.