Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography
It’s somehow appropriate that Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography would see the light of day only after the same sort of high-wire act undertaken by any number of projects released over the years by Young himself.
Young agreed to participate in the biography, and gave author Jimmy McDonough hours of interviews and access to family members, friends, and acquaintances. Then, as the book neared completion, he tried to pull the plug, forcing McDonough to sue in order to publish.
Why would Young change his mind? Perhaps in part just because he’s Neil Young, the most mercurial rock star ever, whose ability to change his mind and change direction in the blink of an eye is at once his greatest asset and his most vexing fault.
Or maybe he simply read the thing.
Shakey (the title derives from a Young pseudonym) is a sometimes staggeringly unflattering portrait of the artist that makes him seem cruel and cavalier, abandoning people and projects with as little as a hastily scrawled note — “Eat a peach,” he wrote to tourmate Stephen Stills before leaving him in the dust — and sometimes even less than that.
“Neil just throws everybody away like old tissue paper,” moans his longtime producer, the late David Briggs, one of many who were drawn in and cast out of Young’s orbit numerous times. Gary Burden, who has art-directed some of Young’s album covers, cuts to the chase and calls him a “ruthless motherfucker.” Pages and pages catalogue Young’s temperamental transgressions against friends, employees and associates, suggesting he may be the world’s most impassioned control freak.
Much to his credit, Young is not unaware of his shortcomings. “I’m just brutally fuckin’ honest about going ahead and doin’ what I have to do,” he tells McDonough. “But it’s not that I can’t sense people’s feelings. People are hurt. Whenever you move forward, you leave a fuckin’ wake.”
Of course, in moving forward, Young has created an unparalleled body of work as a solo artist, as leader of the irascible and unpredictable Crazy Horse, and as a member of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, as well as with various other musical combos. McDonough does a terrific job in capturing the sights and sounds surrounding triumphant releases such as Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Rust Never Sleeps, as well as such musical misadventures as Time Fades Away and, well, most of Young’s output during the 1980s.
It’s good that McDonough started doing research for the book long ago. Many of those interviewed here, including Briggs, producer and sideman Jack Nitzsche, and Young’s mother Rassy, have left us in recent years, and Shakey would be nowhere near as good a book without their input.
And it is a good book, despite weighing in at a hefty 786 pages; that’s a lot of ink for someone who is neither a head of state nor particularly aged. McDonough is clearly a fan, albeit an intensely critical one, and he makes sure to let Young have it when his sometimes scattershot artistic methods rob a potential masterpiece of its proper luster.
McDonough is also quite thorough in his discussion of Young’s treasure trove of unreleased and bootleg material (the bio is an outgrowth of his liner notes for Young’s all-encompassing Archives project). The book will have hardcore fans positively salivating for the eternally delayed box set.
Shakey isn’t a perfect bio, but it’s as definitive a job as we’re likely to get of Young in all his, well, ragged glory. He may indeed have left a lot of people in his wake, but in over 30 years of making music, he’s ultimately stayed true to his art and to himself. As he told the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame upon his induction in 1995, “It’s a solo thing.”