the memoir and the damage done

neil-young-waging-peace-book-jacketHello again, folks. I trust Snorri has kept things running smoothly here while I attended to other matters.

Matters like revisiting great moments in the twin musical genres of rock and roll, via a flood of autobiographies penned by classic rockers. Heart. Pete Townshend. Rod Stewart. Neil Young. Greg Allman. Members of Joy Division and Duran Duran. It was a banner year for efforts to take us behind the music. A wealth of memoirs, if not always a wealth of memories.

I’ve yet to pick up Townshend’s no-doubt erudite exposé. I have, however, recently finished reading Rod Stewart’s page-turner of a memoir, Rod. The ending, frankly, is a disappointment (i.e., the voice of The Faces and Maggie Mae grows old and boring). But the book reveals Stewart to be one heck of a storyteller, offering praise to mentor Long John Baldry and starmaker Jeff Beck, while sharing cautionary tales about Mick Jagger and joyously dissing Gordon Ramsay. (The celebrity chef evidently once had the audacity to claim to have played soccer for Stewart’s beloved Glasgow Rangers: “You will find the record books to be awfully silent on the matter,” Stewart cheekily notes.). With Rod, the author serves just the right mix of gossip, bravado and humility, complete with a minimum of talk about soccer and a full chapter devoted to the singer’s hair. Recommended reading, as this sort of stuff goes.

Particularly in light of the fact that I also recently finished reading Neil Young’s Waging Heavy War. Or, more accurately, I decided I am finished with the book. I managed to struggle through 40 of the rambling, almost-illiterate non-narrative’s 68 chapters, battling Young’s persistent efforts to change the subject to his quest to revolutionize digital sound, or his model train set. The legendary singer-songwriter titled his recollections Waging Heavy Peace. A better title for the work might be Anyway, a word used perhaps more than any other in a book that never finds the plot long enough to lose it. There is no flow, as such, and no subject is discussed in sufficient depth to offer a clear picture of Young’s thoughts and deeds, despite numerous too-brief diversions into Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse and CSNY territory.

It’s disappointing, coming from the old man that gave us Old Man, and who has made Canadians proud for going-on five decades. But Young has always been a private man, and his stubborn refusal to focus on the matter at hand musically has been a valuable driving force, musically. That somehow doesn’t work so well in the world of literature. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine Waging Heavy Peace having been assembled from a series of stream-of-consciousness email messages sent to publisher Blue Rider Press. Reminiscing about dad Scott Young’s recipe for spaghetti sauce (helpfully reprint in the book), Young exclaims: “OMG, it smelled great!” That’s right, one of the most important voices of a generation actually wrote OMG.

What emerges is a man cocooned in his California home, still missing Ontario and even suggesting he may move back there, but knowing he won’t. Instead, Young divides his time between playing music with his friends, playing with his trains and watching his favourite late-night TV shows. It’s disappointing and perhaps even disturbing to view this contemporary picture of the great rock and roll rebel — like when Springsteen wrote that “protest” song about how there’s nothing good on TV. Okay, both folk-singers seem to be saying, you need no longer look to me for answers. It is, in that sense, liberating.

“I could be on Colbert! Now that guy is really funny,” is a typical “anyway” moment from the author. “Or Jon Stewart! Thank God for humour! Those guys are brilliant.”

Oh for the days, not so long ago, when I thought the same of the man who expressed that bit of adolescent fan-worship. Still, it’s not a total loss. If nothing else, Waging Heavy Peace has taught me to cut my losses. Sorry, Pete Townshend: I’d prefer to remember you on my own terms.

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