If you’ve ever followed — or tried to follow the career of Neil Young, you know that his muse has led him down a circuitous path, one whose outline is, it would seem, clear only to him. Ever since Young came on the national scene with the Buffalo Springfield, he’s developed a reputation as a unique character.
Attempting to summarize Young’s career must rank as one of the most daunting tasks imaginable. And the artist seems to go out of his way to make such efforts even more difficult. In 2002 Jimmy McDonough published the Neil Young bio Shakey. That book was originally sanctioned by Young, but at some point during the project, Young changed his mind, and the resulting book came out as “unauthorized.”
Neil Young has a celebrated (or notorious) habit of changing that mind of his. Loyal to no one but himself, he changes courses without warning. Anyone who’s spent any time in his orbit can testify to that. One of many examples: Young will call up the members of Crazy Horse for a tour. Schedules are set, rehearsals made. The tour begins. Halfway through, Neil decides he wants to start another project. Or play solo. Or film one of his idiosyncratic movie ideas. So he cancels the tour right on the spot. Then a few months later, lather, rinse, repeat.
So why do people work with him? Because he’s so damn good. While his career is littered with blind alleys (Trans, Old Ways, Everybody’s Rockin’); missteps; tossed-off rush jobs (Landing on Water); ill-conceived projects (the film Journey Through the Past); noisefests to rival Lou Reed‘s notorious Metal Machine Music (Arc); betrayals (the Stills-Young Band tour); and listless acoustic outings (American Stars ‘N’ Bars); it too is filled with some amazing music. Even at his worst, Neil Young is always worth a listen or a look.
Daniel Durchholz and Gary Graff are the latest to attempt the fool’s errand of encapsulating Young’s career. Their new book Neil Young – Long May You Run: The Illustrated History is a lavishly illustrated, beautifully laid out, well-written and (dare it be said) comprehensive look at a career that began in the 1960s and that shows little sign of flagging.
Of course, Young didn’t grant any interviews in connection with this project. Early in the book, the authors rely perhaps a bit too heavily for content on quotes taken from a PBS special, but perhaps that was down to lack of other sources of authoritative information on Young’s early years. The book quickly hits its stride, and peppers the narrative with shorter pieces that spotlight specific topics like Young’s Rick James connection.
The music is really what it’s about, but the personalities do color the story. Young comes off as, well, surly at best. (To wit: look at the cover pic.) David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash come off — again and again — as drug-abusing prima donnas intent on wasting their talent. And the guys in Crazy Horse are portrayed as easygoing, laid-back, and long-suffering.
The authors likely had to turn to their thesaurus for adjectives to apply to their subject. Some of the choice — and well-deserved — adjectives include mercurial, bizarre, and erratic. All of those words are true. How else to explain Young’s rightward political turn in the 1980s? And Young perversely drives his fans nuts with his approach to his releases: he’s cancelled completed several albums on the eve of their scheduled street date, and his multi-year delay of his long-planned Archives set forced enterprising fans to compile their own unauthorized set (with the apt title Archives Be Damned).
But the man who’s created such masterpieces as Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Tonight’s the Night, Rust Never Sleeps and Freedom may well have another masterpiece up his sleeve, so for that reason, it’s worth it to his associates to keep on associating. And it’s worth it to those who appreciate his best work to keep an eye on whatever he’s up to next. Long May You Run will bring you up to speed, fill in some gaps, and — just maybe — send you back to re-listen to an old album within which to discover new joys.
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