Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Shakey, by Jimmy McDonough

(hb; 2002: biography)

From the inside flap:

“Neil Young is one of rock and roll's most important, influential and enigmatic figures, an intensely reticent artist who has granted no writer to his inner sanctum – until now. In Shakey, Jimmy McDonough tells the whole story of Young's incredible life and career: from his childhood in Canada to his cofounding the pioneering folk-rock group Buffalo Springfield; to the bleary conglomeration of Crazy Horse and simultaneous monstrous success of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; to the depraved depths of Tonight's the Night; and the strange changes of the Geffen years; to Young's unprecedented nineties 'comeback' with Ragged Glory and Harvest Moon.

“McDonough spent six years doggedly pursuing rock's most elusive quarry, talking to more than three hundred of Young's associates (many of whom spoke freely for the first time), as well as sitting down with Young in person for more than fifty hours of interviews. This long-awaited, unprecedented story of a rock and roll legend is filled with never-before-published words directly from the artist himself:

ON HEROIN: 'I didn't see any reason to try it. I never shot up anything... I guess after I wrote a couple of songs about it, then people who might've offered it... didn't.'

ON ABRUPTLY FIRING CRAZY HORSE TO RECORD WITH PEARL JAM: 'That happens over and over again through my whole f***in' life with all these bands. That's the reason why I'm still here. Because as painful as it is to change – and as ruthless as I may seem to be in what I have to do to keep going – you gotta do what ya gotta do. Just like a f***in' vampire. Heh heh heh.'

“...By his own admission, Young has left behind 'a lotta destruction... a big wave' while achieving his dreams, and for the first time he addresses that subject in painful detail. Shakey – titled after one of Young's many aliases, Bernard Shakey – is not only a detailed chronicle of the rock era told through the life of one very idiosyncratic, uncompromising artist, but a compelling human story as well: that of a loner for whom music was the only outlet, a driven yet tortured figure who learned to control epilepsy via 'mind over matter.' It's also about an oddly passionate model-train mogul who, inspired by his own son's struggle with cerebral palsy, became a major activist in the quest to help others with that condition. The story is uniquely told in McDonough's interwoven voices – those of biographer, critic, historian, obsessive fan – and by the ever cantankerous Young himself...”


Subtitled Neil Young's Biography, this is not recommended for the casual Young listener. McDonough has written an exhaustive, highly readable biography, one that goes into great – but not excessive detail – about Young, his life, his working habits, and his creative output, which is vast. As a fan of Young's more mainstream work, I often delighted in the inside look at Young's life, though the tales of drug abuse (mostly by those around Young) and the rock n' roll ups and downs got heavy at times.

My only bitch about this biography is that when it comes to addressing bands that followed in Young's wake, whether it was Devo, Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth, or whoever – McDonough took a sneering, 'well-they-ain't-Neil-Young' attitude towards them. Upon experiencing that attitude, I thought: duh, that's because they're different bands!

Anyhooters, despite the above nit, this was an excellent read. I'd own this book (that's saying a lot), but it'll be a while before I read it again, if I do.

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