Shakey, a 786-page biography of Neil Young that’s just been published, almost wasn’t. For that reason, it serves as an apt metaphor for the way Neil Young has conducted his business for the past 35 years.
Its origins can be traced to 1989, when author Jimmy McDonough interviewed Young for the Village Voice and proceeded to browbeat him for not throwing down musically during the ‘80s. Young, in typically perverse fashion, opened up to McDonough. The free-lancer was in. Young hired him to write the liner notes to his hulking, multi-disc compilation Archives—a project that has yet to be completed—and McDonough, in turn, floated the idea of writing an authorized biography.
McDonough became a card-carrying member of Young’s secret society of musicians, ranch hands, obsessive fans-turned-employees, and other enablers that have allowed Young to function with a capricious and often crass disregard for anything other than his own twisted whims. That’s no small feat. I recall trying to interview Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro in the early ‘90s for a Young profile I was writing. Sure, he said, but let me check with Neil first. I got a call back: Sorry, no go. Neil had gotten to him.
It took McDonough a decade to write the book, during which time he chased Young for interviews the way the young rock journalist in Almost Famous tries to buttonhole Stillwater for a sit-down. In 1998 Young decided to put the kibosh on the project and cut off McDonough’s access. McDonough plunged ahead and completed the book two years later. Young in turn tried to block publication of the book, prompting McDonough to sue him for $1.8 million. After considerable legal chest-heaving on both sides, Young eventually backed off.
Is this a book worth suing over? Not exactly. McDonough never suggests any serious criminal malfeasance. Young did have a tequila problem in the mid-’70s, smoked and snorted like everyone else, endured some nasty breakups, and laid some bad emotional trips on those closest to him. But it’s banal rock-star stuff, certainly nothing his fans don’t know.
Yet, as McDonough enumerates in painstaking detail, Young the rock star wields control obsessively, and that, more than anything else, may explain why he tried to spike the book. This is a man who will ruthlessly punish those who don’t bend to his will. Drummer Kenny Buttrey tells McDonough that, during one tour in the early ‘70s, Young made him play so hard, with oversized sticks—vengeance, apparently, for an exorbitant salary request—that a pool of blood began to amass on his snare. Young fired him shortly thereafter. There are lots of anecdotes like that in Shakey, and despite Young’s well-known rep for heartlessness, they’re chilling to read.
Shakey is a curious hybrid: part hagiography, part laundry list of perfidy. As the book makes abundantly clear, Young has always been at war with his own impulses. He’s a ferociously ambitious artist who lives capriciously. He started out as a frail, polio-stricken fan of Little Richard and the Shadows’ Hank Marvin living in a rural Canadian outpost where American records were hard to come by. His father was a popular journalist, his mother a tough-love matriarch. They divorced, and Young drifted into bands, but with his own interests at heart: He insisted that his first professional band, the Squires, rename itself “Neil Young and the Squires” when they started gigging.
From there, Shakey documents Young’s near-pathological need to sabotage bands, projects, tours, relationships. His first great record, “Expecting to Fly,” a haunting orchestral swoon recorded with producer Jack Nitzsche, was recorded while Young was apparently in a band, Buffalo Springfield, yet no other members participated. Instead of following up his first number-one album—the lulling, countryfied Harvest—with something like-minded, Young released three gloriously messed-up albums in succession, including 1975’s Tonight’s the Night, an ominous evocation of spiritual dissipation recorded in a dilapidated rehearsal space under the influence of mucho Cuervo Gold.
It’s not the best way to build a career, and it’s been wearing on both Young and his fellow travelers, who do their fair share of kvetching in the book. Young himself, in a series of stand-alone interviews in the book, is surprisingly inarticulate about his own motivations, but a psychologist might diagnose it as classic passive-aggressive behavior. Ultimately, what emerges is a portrait of an inscrutable artist plunging ahead with little forethought, turning out music that is by turns brilliant and desultory. Young may have jettisoned lots of folks along the way, but he’s never sacrificed integrity on the altar of commerce. And that’s why we still listen.