Neil Young’s Wild Ride

If there is anyone left in Canada still interested in figuring out how Neil Young’s brain functions, his second memoir Special Deluxe, A Memoir of Life & Cars, is not likely to clear up the fog.

Young, 69, is just not wired like the rest of us. He may possess too many talents to be understood by any of us who thought all these years he was nothing more than Canada’s most stoned hippie songwriter who rocked and rolled his way into the Hall of Fame twice, once for writing and again for performing.

His first memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, must be the one in which he explained the ins-and-outs of his meteoric rise from an unknown teenage musician in a group called The Squires, playing club gigs in Winnipeg to the driving force in Los Angeles for Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse and, finally Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY), which rocketed him to fame and riches beyond his wildest Canadian childhood dreams. Because, in this memoir, he glosses over all that as if it was secondary to his lifelong love affair with cars and dogs.

Now, a rock star trying to pitch a memoir of his musical life based on the cars and dogs who helped him along the way would be a harder sell than, say, a former Yukon sportswriter making a pitch to rewrite the history of the territory as seen through the eyes of a talking raven, and somebody at the Penguin Group of Random House in New York, probably an editor, talked Young into dropping the dogs from the title because memoirs, by definition, memoirs need great quotations and dogs are many things to many people, but they are not quotable.

And now, you are surely thinking, there are also no cars in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and here is where this review goes off the rails because we’re talking about Neil Young here, a strange man from a strange land, who seriously believes automobiles are alive, especially the vintage cars from the muscle car era of gas-guzzlers that helped form his difficult childhood and shape the foundations of his musical career.

He gives all of his cars names. He speaks to them. He consults with them about everything including songwriting and love affairs, and he marks the passage of time in his life by the vehicles he’s been involved with. If Neil Young had been a patient of Sigmund Freud’s, the father of psychotherapy might have taken up plumbing or carpentry.

Most normal men and many women, have had love affairs at one time or another with, not in, at least one automobile. We’ve all known, met, or heard about “motorheads”, like Terry Horsman, or watched their TV shows, but Young is way beyond all of that. He’s well into the compulsive-obsessive ballpark, much like Casanova and Rasputin with their women, and now he has written a second memoir about it to prove he is much weirder than we ever thought while listening to his hit songs such as “Helpless” or “Old Man”.

He was a stunning musical success at a young age when he arrived in California. He was rolling in money which allowed him to buy anything he ever wanted, including a ranch in the mountains above Vera Cruz, truckloads of drugs, notably his beloved Panama Red, and any vintage cool car he laid his eyes on, of which there were thousands available.

Invariably, he bought old beaters usually for under $1,000 and had them restored by expensive pros on the coast, after which he would have them delivered to his mountain ranch where he would get stoned to the gills and joyride to his heart’s content.

He’d use their good vibrations to form the mood or groove for his next best-selling single or one of his 34 albums. He would deliberately park vehicles at certain places on his property where they would catch the first light of dawn because he liked to meet with them in the mornings and have a chat over coffee.

Can you imagine everybody out in the Tim Hortons’ parking lot talking to their trucks before heading off to work?

Well, Old Blue, it looks like another hot, sunny day in the salt mines for me and you. Want me to stuff another Timbit up your tailpipe?

There are some good musical tidbits spaced between the dog and car stories, including the only time Young admits to getting chastised by another musician. He was in a recording studio with The Band, playing guitar on one of his songs which he thought they were doing too fast so he tried to slow them down with his guitar. That didn’t please Levon Helm, the drummer, who said afterwards, “What were you doing with the groove there?”

Young explained and Helm shook his head, pointed a drumstick at him and drawled: “Don’t do that. Don’t ever mess with the groove in the middle of a take.” 

Young considers Helm the greatest musician of his era and took his medicine like a man. The drummer sets the pace of a recording, not the songwriter. You can always slow it down on the next one.

More such insights would have helped the book, but Young was writing about cars and dogs more than music, women, and money, so every chapter opened with a pen and ink drawing, in soft pastel colours, of whatever classic car Young was loving at the time, and I was enjoying them more and more the deeper we went into the yarn. I decided to include the name of the artist and was again surprised to read: “Illustrated by the author” in tiny print on the title page.

Is there no end to the many talents of Neil Young? The man is an artist, too? Does he talk to his paintings as he is giving them life?

He did mention in the copy that one of his unfulfilled dreams is to open an art gallery with a loud rock n’ roll sound system.

The first song he ever sang on stage back in Winnipeg in front of his high school classmates was a Beatles hit called “Give Me Money”, which would probably sell lots of paintings too. After all, it takes money to buy cars, drugs, dogs, and ranchs.

It might not have been easy being Neil Young all these years but it was one hell of a ride — and always in a cool car.

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