#3 in the Canadiana series: Review of Neil Young’s autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace

I have followed a number of Canadian folk and rock musicians beginning with Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, the Guess Who, and BTO; however, my favorite singer-songwriter has always been Bruce Cockburn. I also enjoy the smooth, soaring harmonies of Blue Rodeo and their fusion of country, folk, rock, and jazz. The Great Lake Swimmers, and most recently Reuben and the Dark [stay tuned for an upcoming review] are presently on my playlist. I have not yet opened Bruce Cockburn’s spiritual autobiography, but I happened to spot Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace for a dollar while browsing at the Winkler MCC Store this summer.

The weakness of the book is that it is written very crudely and simplistically; and with just under 500 pages, it includes a lot of trivial details that I could have done without. The other side of this is that I feel like I really got to know the man. I found out his true loves: music-making friends [too many to mention], his three kids [two boys with disabilities], his latest wife Pegi [his third long-term partner], cars [he owns multiple Lincolns and Cadillacs, most notably “Lincvolt” his custom made electric car which he drove to Fort McMurray to protest the oil sands a few years ago], and guitars [he is obsessed with perfecting tone].

Neil Young grew up in northern Ontario, moved with his mother to Winnipeg when his parents separated, then drifted to Toronto as a young adult musician but soon crossing the border to spend the rest of his life in the USA, eventually settling down on a ranch in California with a second home in Hawaii. In many ways he has lived the life of a typical American rock star, unlike the above named artists who all continue to live in Canada, but he does hold a nostalgic view of his Canadian roots.

“Old memories are wonderful things and should be held on to as long as possible, shared with others, and embellished if need be. Whenever I go back to Canada, my heart is flooded with them—memories, that is. I look forward to seeing my brother, Bob, and Dave Toms up there in Peterborough when I go back for the premiere of Jonathan Demme’s new documentary. It will be a great time. (Canadians say great a lot, in case you haven’t noticed. I know. I have looked up many other words I could have used in the thesaurus, but that is not my style. I prefer to be boring and use the same words over and over, because that is more true to who I really am. That may not work for you if you pride yourself on your great vocabulary.)”

Although there are too many pages filled with trivial details about his obsessions with cars, relationships, and musical adventures, he does offer interesting background to some of his songs [his favorite albums are mine as well: Harvest and Comes a Time]. And although I would not call him a particularly reflective or spiritual person, he does have some insightful commentary on life.

The title reflects his “hippie dream” of peace in relationships and in the world. One of his most well-known songs, “Heart of Gold” describes this search for meaning and inner peace. Although he mentions the album “Prairie Wind” as going back to his roots in Canada, he unfortunately does not comment on “When God Made Me” which is a tender Gospel song in the spirit of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” He wrote “Ohio” as a response to the Kent State shootings in the 1960’s and more recently his “Living With War” is an in your face protest of American militarism during the Gulf War.

The book ends the same way it begins and reads throughout: with a trivial detail about an ordinary day, but I like the following statement better as a conclusion. This statement is his explanation of “It is better to burn out than to fade away” which is perhaps one of the most oft-quoted of his song lyrics. “At sixty-five, it seems that I may not be at the peak of my rock and roll powers. But that is not for sure. The idea that I should have died earlier is not the point. There really is more to life than its charged peak, because other things continue to grow and develop long afterward, enriching and growing the spirit and soul.”