THE VEXING SIMPLICITY OF NEIL YOUNG
I am not especially well read but reading means a lot to me. Reading is the only means I know of to enter intimately into minds remote in time or place from my own—from the ancient past, for example—or to feel broadened by the thoughts and experiences other people very different from me have had. I can try sympathetically to understand and absorb the lives around me, but I can include the world as it was and is if I read. (In the case of the distant past, something essential is lost in the process of translation, of course, so the intimacy is approximate. We might read Plato and regard him as modern, but that is from the translator’s being closer to our period than his. We have no way of knowing how ancient people sounded; it is lost to us, like some religious knowledge.) Books are a means of enlightened conversation, of being affected by people we would not otherwise meet. Reading also binds people together, by making a commonality of the experiences of the human heart and mind. Reading strengthens us; it makes us larger than we are and gives us the capacity to be selves we might not have been in the absence of profound and stimulating ideas and feelings.
Of course, writing can be coarsened and corrupted—that is always a concern of a free press—but writing that is felt deeply and that is truthful is not usually corruptible, and if it is corrupted the discussion becomes, What made it possible to happen, what was the appeal? One idea replaces another, that is, and the conversation continues. Pete Seeger says that a piece of writing may be read only once, but a song is sung over and over, and so he regards songs as more powerful tools of resistance than writing, but popular songs don’t (easily) embody complex ideas. They provoke and instruct and entertain, they even clarify, but a deeper means of thinking can often be expressed better in a story, a poem, a play, or a novel. I am aware that such a position is, perhaps, essentially romantic, but I believe in the church of writing and reading.
I bring this up because I have just read Young’s book, which is a strange, rambling, cramped, sometimes goofy, sometimes sentimental, and sometimes moving document. It consists mainly of talk about cars and advanced audio equipment, episodes of his childhood and life as a young man, a couple of medical emergencies, his working practices, and recollections of people he knew, some of whom he has outlived.
My longest encounter with Young was several years ago, when I wrote about him for another magazine. I had read “Shakey,” the fanatically specific biography of him written by Jimmy McDonough, and had encountered the remark made to McDonough by Young’s manager when McDonough had asked to spend time with Young. Neil doesn’t hang, McDonough was told. The magazine I was writing for had arranged for me to receive the engagement Young offers to journalists. A driver delivers you to the parking lot of a restaurant in the hills south of San Francisco. (The restaurant, when I arrived, was closed for the season.) Redwoods surround the parking lot and tower over the restaurant. Shafts of light come through the tops of the trees, and the trees are so tall that the scale of what you can see seems altered, so that you feel the disproportion of size that a child feels in a room where a table, occupied by adults, seems to loom above him or her. Eventually an old jalopy shows up with Young, who collects and restores old cars, especially cars from the period of his childhood, at the wheel. Over the course of about two hours, he drives you in a circle that goes down to the Pacific and along it, through a couple of small towns and back up into the hills, past the house where Ken Kesey lived in La Honda and the early acid tests were held and the sixties began, and a bar where Young used to play with his band Crazy Horse, where he would announce to friends in the afternoon that they would play that evening, and the place would fill up mostly with people the band knew. What Young is doing is driving you around the borders of his ranch, which run from the redwoods down toward the water.
On the ride Young told me that he didn’t read, but I might have guessed anyway. He was a reserved and slightly grave figure, and talking with him was like being trapped with someone whose mind had no reach. He could only talk about what he felt or had seen or thought. I couldn’t respond to one of his remarks by raising an idea it had made me think of and have him make some connection to some other thought and then respond to that. A part of him seemed to have been arrested at a very early age. I am, of course, accustomed to meeting people I don’t feel able to talk to, or who aren’t interested in talking to me. I hadn’t expected, though, to find that someone whose work had ranged so widely had no curiosity about such an obvious possibility for enlarging the imagination, or to have been so indifferent to it. He seemed like someone who had worked at the same factory for years and years without ever wondering what lay to the left or right of the gates. Finally, I asked who he liked to read, and he said he didn’t read, and I thought, Bingo.
After the ride it occurred to me that his lack of reading accounted for some few of his lyrics being insipid or sentimental. He apparently had no examples of language carrying complicated thoughts or feelings, the way they are carried in the poems of writers such as Philip Levine or William Butler Yeats or the prose of a writer such as Isak Dinesen. The words Young writes fit his songs, often aptly and forcefully, but they are nothing like as elegant as his melodies. He has a superb sense of melody, perhaps even an underappreciated one. Some of his songs seem to be urgent bulletins from the deeper regions of the psyche—I am thinking of “Helpless,” but only because it is the first one that comes to my mind; there are many, many others. He has been an explorer, claiming territory that wasn’t on the map before or had only been hazily illuminated, and the simplicity of his writing is sometimes partly responsible for the music’s deep effect. I’m not talking about him here as a musician. I’m talking about his presence on the page. Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles,” has a succinctness and a complexity of thought and narrative that is the result of literary technique, of compression, of placement and juxtaposition, and of shrewd and penetrating judgments. He expresses himself capably, even handsomely, because he reads and thinks. He has ranged more widely than simply within himself.
Young’s writing is earnest and in the best moments has something unguarded like the tone of “Catcher in the Rye” or “Huckleberry Finn.” Those, of course, are examples of careful prose used to convey dramatic and complicated states of intention and being. Young’s is merely artless. “There is a reason why I am telling you so much about my shoes and my feet,” he writes. This follows a paragraph in which he says that he has new hiking boots that “kick ass.” He is sensitive to a degree that he has to protect himself from the multitude of impressions that bombard him. Until he met his wife, whom he loves deeply, he seems never to have been completely himself around girls. He strives to be a good father and husband. He appreciates his success. He cared deeply for the men and women who helped him, several of whom are dead, and he writes sentimental elegies for them. At his doctor’s insistence, he lately quit drinking and smoking pot and is uncomfortable with the version of himself that he now confronts. Without any alterations to his consciousness, he finds himself unable to write songs. His handsome and unpretentious simplicity is appealing for a while, but it becomes stultifying. He says of a friend that he “had a way with words, an amazing vocabulary that he used poetically and to great effect always,” and what provoked this remark was the friend’s using the phrase “ragged glory” and Young’s apparently not realizing it was a cliché. Some of the vignettes have their own design and are obscurely fascinating as descriptions of a notable and singular existence, but their simplicity isn’t in the service of succinctness or dramatic effect. He just seems lost and mute when he might have brought a scene or a person to life, as if there were nothing more to prose writing than listing and noting. His stubbornness in clinging to the surface of things has a savant-like quality.
Thelonious Monk said, The man is a genius who is most himself, and Young has exemplified the remark. His thinking is restricted and sheltered, however, and his writing is aimless. Should it have been otherwise? How could I know? I am reminded of E. B. White’s telling James Thurber that if he practiced his drawing and got good at it, he’d probably just be ordinary.
Photograph by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns.