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Review: Get inside Neil Young's head with memoir 'Waging Heavy Peace'

If you like to read well-ordered, linear, neatly fact-packed memoirs, don't pick up Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace.

Even in the world of rock stars, Young has always been an iconoclast — Thoreau might have had him in mind when he wrote that line about the man who marches to a different drummer. Young has managed to survive as a hugely influential songwriter and musician for nearly 50 years, from early folkie days through chart-topping stints with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to his eccentric career with Crazy Horse and as a solo artist, without ever giving a fig about making audience-pleasing hit records.

Waging Heavy Peace does not explain how he managed it. But it does offer fans a trip inside Young's head, which can be a pretty interesting place.

Young explains how he came to write the book: "Not that it matters much, but recently I stopped smoking and drinking." By smoking, he means marijuana, and he finds himself at age 65 "the straightest I have ever been since I was eighteen."

He discovers one large problem with that — he can't write songs — but he becomes obsessed with writing this book, carrying a laptop with him everywhere. The result is more like a transcript of oral history than a literary memoir, with Young meandering from topic to topic, time period to time period, looping back to subjects after many chapters, telling stories in a distinctive, intimate voice that veers on a dime from sincere enthusiasm to wistful nostalgia to dry humor.

Young has made music with an astonishing array of talents — he can name-drop without name-dropping, as when he writes about "my friend Paul" without ever saying that Paul's last name is McCartney —­ and although he criticizes a few of them, he is generally warmly complimentary.

Young is also an inventor, collector (cars, model trains) and general tech head, and he devotes a lot of space to those passions. His enduring second marriage to Pegi Young and his relationship with his three children get loving treatment, and he's matter-of-fact about the family's substantial medical problems. Son Ben, whom Young calls "our spiritual leader," has cerebral palsy, which leaves him in a wheelchair, dependent and unable to speak — yet he travels with his family and has a rich life (thanks also to a staff of caregivers, on whom Young lavishes praise).

Young touches on his medical problems, too, from childhood polio to epilepsy to a brain aneurysm and how surgery for it nearly killed him, all of which he shrugs off philosophically.

Waging Heavy Peace can be frustrating at times, repetitive or evasive or cliched in spots, and Young has a cavalier attitude toward such things as dates. But get into its rhythm and you'll be rewarded with the kind of storytelling that has made Young's music so evocative. And he even has some advice for his peers:

"Writing is very convenient, has a low expense, and is a great way to pass the time. I highly recommend it to any old rocker who is out of cash and doesn't know what to do next."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

Waging Heavy Peace

By Neil Young

Blue Rider Press, 512 pages, $30

Review: Get inside Neil Young's head with memoir 'Waging Heavy Peace' 11/03/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 3, 2012 4:30am]
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