The Canadian Dream

The Canadian Dream
"Neil is more American than anyone, even though he's Canadian," manager Elliott Roberts tells Jimmy McDonough in Shakey (Random House), his biography of Neil Young. "Neil is extreme. I don't know where it comes from. One minute he's a leftist Democrat, and the next minute he's a conservative. You never know which Neil you're dealing with."

Aside from Bob Dylan's, Neil Young's story has probably been the most sought-after gig in the music bio racket. When it was revealed that McDonough, a hardly distinguished, sometime Village Voice contributor had gotten Young's approval to go for it, I admittedly felt extreme jealousy, and didn't expect great results. Almost always, the American view of Young glosses over his Canadian upbringing and glorifies his extremely limited association with Crosby, Stills & Nash at the expense of his vital output with Crazy Horse and the many other bands he has appeared with over the years.

However, after reading only a few pages, I had to concede that McDonough earned the right to be Young's biographer. For many in this country, Young remains a Canadian icon, despite jumping at the first opportunity to escape to L.A. in 1966. Perhaps it is because of the strong connection with nature in his songwriting, or its often desperate sense of isolation, or simply its renegade spirit to constantly be at odds with all popular trends. While he certainly didn't start out to be perceived in this way, his initial encounter with the music business via Buffalo Springfield quickly fostered it. The single-minded determination forged during his first 20 years of growing up in Toronto, Omeemee and Winnipeg is the basis of everything he has done since, and McDonough's grasp of this fact is remarkably strong.

Instead of rehashing stories previously documented in Neil's father Scott Young's Neil & Me, and Winnipeg historian John Einarson's Don't Be Denied, McDonough uses them as his foundation to expand on the sources. His diligence in tracking down Young's oldest friends and family members, not to mention associates of Scott (hell, he even interviewed Pierre Berton!) is truly remarkable. These chapters not only give the clearest picture of Young's upbringing yet, they also provide a startling picture of immediate post-war Canadian society, as only an American could paint. His chats with Young's mother Rassy just prior to her death are particularly enlightening in revealing where much of Young's volatility came from.

As Young's persona is established, McDonough's take becomes more personal. Despite approaching his subject as an unabashed fan — which too often results in breathless, sycophantic prose — it is crucial in this case to allow McDonough some grounding in order to navigate through the myriad stylistic changes Young has undertaken throughout his career. It is also crucial in allowing McDonough to speak candidly with the many figures in Young's inner circle, which is really the book's strength. Each chapter brings an intriguing new cast, from Buffalo Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer (arguably the prototype for every demented person Young seems comfortable surrounding himself with); to long-time producer, the late David Briggs, whose prickly relationship with the artist is one the book's big surprises; to the members of Crazy Horse, who are here portrayed almost like abandoned puppies Young rescued and managed to turn into one the greatest bands of all time (although many at the time clearly didn't agree and still don't today).

The argument that McDonough invariably makes is that Young's best music is an instinctual response to traumatic events in his life. His telling of the bleak period that began with Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten's death in 1972, which resulted in the albums Tonight's The Night and On The Beach, is riveting, especially for anyone who agrees with McDonough that this was Young's early artistic peak. Yet, McDonough doesn't shy away from describing how Young's instincts let him down on many occasions. Frequent spur-of-the-moment decisions left a long trail of hard feelings, even among his closest friends, and also a mountain of brilliant unreleased recordings that, Young observes at one point, were often "too good."

Luckily, McDonough does have Young's commentary to fall back on, which is what will undoubtedly make Shakey the standard reference text on Young's life. The advanced hype was McDonough's decision to insert excerpts from his chats with Young verbatim throughout the story to illustrate key points. Young approved of this, even though his views frequently contradict themselves. One example occurs when he strongly shows support of capital punishment right after commenting on how brilliant many of Charles Manson's ideas were. After reading the book, many could claim Young to be a master manipulator himself. Yet, while it's easy to hear Young speaking during these passages, I often questioned whether McDonough chose this method to subtly get back at Young for dragging out the publication for several years, and at one point threatening to buy the manuscript outright.
Either way, Shakey is about as close as any of us will get to understanding Neil Young, and for that McDonough should be hugely commended.