Some angle for a particular niche, such as John Einarson's Neil Young: Don't Be Denied, focusing exclusively on Young's early Canadian years. Others go the analyze-the-music "critical biography" route (Crawdaddy! publisher Paul Williams' earnest Love To Burn; Johnny Rogan's 736-page doorstop Zero To Sixty), since Young has steadfastly spurned the overtures of all biographers.
Until now. When journalist Jimmy McDonough saddled up in '91, he most likely didn't plan on it being an eight-year ride -- nor how bumpy it might get. Yet after more than 50 hours of interviews with Young and conversations with some 300 of Young's associates, McDonough had the raw material that would yield the nearly 800-page Shakey, as close to an exhaustively intimate treatment as we're likely to see, despite McDonough claiming otherwise. (The title refers to one of Young's nicknames.)
As McDonough puts it, "My whole reason for doing this book was I wanted a feeling of Neil Young to come across. I wanted people to feel him, OK? Not necessarily do an autopsy, or open-heart surgery, or death by firing squad. Just to feel him. And I hope it comes across. You know, there's gonna be 50 more books about Neil, and by no means do I consider this definitive; the guy's still alive. There was no magic key I possessed, no third eye. I think if you look at his involvement with the book, no matter what people may say, positive or negative, there's a lot of stuff there that hasn't seen the light of day. I gave it my best shot."
Shakey covers a lot of familiar territory, from Young's childhood and teen years in Canada to early stardom with Buffalo Springfield and the coke-and-egos CSN&Y superstar period to the erratic but undeniably brilliant solo career arc. What makes the book unique is, first, McDonough dispenses with the critical bio format and, true to his intent, sketches a tactile, raised portrait of the man, not the icon, in all his contradictory ragged glory, something that wouldn't be possible had the notoriously guarded Young not granted McDonough extraordinary access to himself and his inner circle. (Apparently Young sensed a kindred nontraditional soul in the feisty McDonough -- who, following an exceptional '89 profile of the artist for Village Voice, was asked to pen liner notes for Young's long-delayed Archives project and instead parlayed that invitation into a role as Young's biographer.) This access yields a wealth of heretofore unchronicled behind-the-scenes data on Young, not to mention some choice quotes.
Worth the book's price tag alone are the electrifying (and terrifying) passages outlining the legendary making of the Tonight's The Night record. When asked about that album's accompanying debauched/chaotic '73 tour in which his audience's hostility was matched note-for-note by his booze intake, Young offered this revealing post-post-mortem: "I was havin' a fantastic time. It was dark but it was good. That was a band with a reason. We were on a mission. That's about as artistic a performance as I've ever given. . .more drama. I was fucking with the audience. From what I understand, the way rock and roll unfolded with Johnny Rotten and the punk movement -- that kind of audience abuse -- kinda started with that tour."
And given carte blanche by Young to grill his associates, McDonough duly spins his yarn from the tangled threads provided by everyone from family members, drug dealers and old girlfriends to cranky producer David Briggs, hard-nosed manager Elliot Roberts and a huge, colorful cast of musicians, all dispensing their own brands of respect, disdain and head-scratching as regards the mercurial Young.
None of it was easy, not even for McDonough, a self-described "obnoxious, bull-in-a-china shop type," who never knew from one moment to the next where he stood with Young.
Writes McDonough of one session, "Neil and I jumped in his green 1950 Plymouth. 'I love the winter when it's like this,' he said. 'Hardly anybody comes to visit ya.' 'Ever feel too isolated up here?' 'No,' he said, gripping the wheel. 'Definitely not.' I related some of the 'stay on Neil's ranch long enough, you'll grow moss' quips I'd heard. Young was not amused. . .The conversation grew so intense and combative that, had there been an eject button in the car, I would've pressed it myself. But Young took it all in. That's the amazing thing. Even if he did have a bunch of nuts on his back, namely Briggs, Elliot, the Horse and presently a biographer -- all of whom thought they knew what was right for the guy. . ."
Additionally, McDonough was allowed to review Young's Archives with official archivist Joel Bernstein, listening to hours upon hours of unreleased material that may or may not eventually surface on the much-discussed multi-disc Archives box set. Says McDonough now, "It's all over the place, work being done at different locations. Sort of like Neil: scattered to the wind, yet there seems to be some sort of unified force behind it. At the moment no work's being done on it. And I hope it appears in our lifetime! I mean, there's some great stuff there. Believe me, I've heard, I think, 98 percent of it. Stuff like 'Barefoot Floors,' 'Hitchhiker,' outtakes from the On The Beach period -- it would put your hair in curlers."
Following the completion of his manuscript in '98, McDonough turned it over to Young for review. "Then for some reason Neil's people, and I don't know where it emanated from, wanted to pull the plug on the book. Was I surprised? You know, David Briggs told me it would happen, so I wasn't surprised, but the, ah, earthquake caused damage nonetheless. But I think if anyone who reads the book, that kind of response for any project he's involved with would not come as a surprise."
By May 2000, with the book still in limbo, McDonough's lawyers sued Young in Los Angeles County Superior Court for $1.8 million for fraud. This rather unprecedented twist (for a rock & roll book at least) would eventually be resolved, the terms of settlement terms remaining undisclosed -- although it's telling that Young retains sole ancillary and subsidiary rights for the book. For his part, McDonough is just relieved that his work emerged unscathed for publication.
"The upshot of all this -- and I want to make this very clear -- is in the end, he let me publish the book I wrote. And more power to him: I love the guy for it. You know, everybody's looking for some secret nugget about 'What about the chapter you took out?' It just ain't that way. Again, I think if anybody reads the book they'll sense the complex nature of this character and how it would not be out of character for him to do what he did. [But] I bear the guy no ill will. I had the greatest adventure of my life and he let me do it! Sure, there were rocky patches, but you know, chaos surrounds the guy."
McDonough, who as a teenager got terminally hooked on Young and lists Tonight's The Night, On The Beach, Zuma, Sleeps With Angels and the unreleased Home Grown as his all-time favorite Young albums, admits that now, after his ordeal, he's taking a break from listening to Young. ("I'm going to Neil Anonymous," he dryly advises.) As Shakey effectively ends in '98, however, McDonough, never loathe to voice his opinion of a Young recording in his book, surely has his opinions about Young's output since then.
Characteristically, he takes a dim view of CSN&Y's excruciating 1999 reunion Looking Forward, the tame faux-folkiness of 2000's Silver & Gold and the haphazardly assembled live album Road Rock V. 1, also from 2000. He offers only intermittent praise for the recent Are You Passionate? album: "There's 'Goin' Home,' Neil adopting the persona of Custer -- in Indian lore and Neil, that's a pretty amusing change of perspective! And the title cut really moves me, it's simple and direct, almost in an 'After The Goldrush' way, but with a certain R&B flair. Other than that, the rest hasn't gotten to me at all. 'Let's Roll'? It does nothing for me." McDonough reserves his current kudos primarily for Young's reading of John Lennon's "Imagine" on the A Tribute To Heroes broadcast, which he firmly describes as "a world-class performance on his part."
As of last week, Shakey was at #20 on the New York Times bestseller list, and climbing. Given all that went down with the book, how does McDonough think Young would feel if the biography hit the number one spot?
"I dunno," laughs McDonough. "Maybe he's preparing himself! You'll have to check with Neil about that. But I'm waiting for the bottle of champagne!" *