Neil Young goes from enigma to open book with autobiography

Neil Young performs during the Farm Aid 2012 concert at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012.

Photo by Associated Press

Neil Young performs during the Farm Aid 2012 concert at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012.

Just exactly what makes Neil Young tick has been one of the great mysteries of popular music.

Now, in simultaneously releasing an autobiography and a new album, the rock icon has gone from enigma to open book.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that the 497-page "Waging Heavy Peace" takes a rambling, nonlinear, episodic approach to his life, sometimes stopping to rant about the poor quality of MP3s, rave about a favorite artist, offer a requiem to an old car or clear up a long-standing misconception -- like his alleged support for Ronald Reagan, which he claims was exaggerated by a pair of pushy AP reporters.

The book offers a world of insight into the artist's restless creative spirit and his deep-seated insecurities.

What was it like to be Neil Young living out the rock 'n' roll dream in the late'60s in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Laurel Canyon?

This man, who could get on stage in front of thousands of people, was so wracked with anxiety he couldn't even conquer the Canyon Country Store. "I would go down there and stand in the parking lot," he writes, "working up the nerve to go in, hoping I would not get anxious and paranoid and freak out, leaving whatever I had chosen to buy inside and bolting for the door."

He recalls a hipster party at his home in Topanga Canyon, when, married to his second wife Carrie Snodgress, he became so anxious he literally climbed out the window.

With his genius came a body that often refused to cooperate. When he was 6, he nearly died from polio, a condition that would later require having vertebrae removed from his back. In his prime years, in the midst of a crowded Hollywood record store, he experienced this: "The sky started to spin a little and I felt a bit sick to my stomach. I started to fall. ... Lying on my back on the pavement, I saw the faces looking down on me. It was like I had just been born, and I recognized no one. I didn't really even know my own name." It was the first of his epileptic seizures that would continue to plague him, sometimes even on stage.

But, he pushed through it, driven not only by his love of music but his passion for innovation -- from his campaign to save Lionel (which grew from his therapeutic use of train layouts for Ben, one of two sons with cerebral palsy) to his efforts to build an electric car, to his latest crusade -- the "sound" of music.

Years ago, he famously equated CD technology to taking a shower with ice cubes. He's equally unimpressed with MP3s, claiming that the compressed sound quality has squeezed the spirit out of music, lessening the emotional impact on the listener. His response is to take it upon himself to launch a company called Pono, which will issue digital music with the warmth of analog.

He writes openly about his relationships with his parents, spouses, children, band mates, cars and guitars.

Here are a few highlights:

On hearing "Like a Rolling Stone": "It changed my life. The poetry, attitude and ambience of that piece are part of my makeup. I absorbed it."

On David Crosby: "Crosby was forever the catalyst, always intense, driving us further and further. Just looking in those eyes made me want to deliver from the heart."

On Stephen Stills: "Although Crosby and Nash love him and his music, I always felt they never completely got the point with him, and he became a little reclusive in his creativity because of that, in my opinion. No one really knows him like I do, though. He is my brother."

On Jimmy Fallon: "He does me so well, I don't have to bother anymore. He looks great, and I am an old guy who doesn't want to be on TV, so Jimmy has done all of my television performances for the last year or so. Thank you, Jimmy!"

On his trademark Gibson guitar: " 'Like a Hurricane' is probably the best example of Old Black's tone, although if you listen too closely, it is all but ruined by all the mistakes and misfires in my playing."

One of the reasons Young got around to the book now, besides being sidelined by a broken toe, was that he took a piece of advice from his doctor: Quit smoking weed.

That, along with tossing aside all alcohol, gave him the clarity to write "Waging Heavy Peace."

In the wake of 2010's "Le Noise," his acclaimed electric solo album with producer Daniel Lanois, he found his way back to Crazy Horse for the first time since 2003, but ended up biding time with an album of traditional songs called "Americana."

He is about to release his 35th album, "Psychedelic Pill." Like any project with Crazy Horse, it's an opportunity to unleash Old Black. The first song clocking in at 27:36 tells you all you need to know about what the boys are up to here.

Defying his age (66), the title track is a metallic Crazy Horse stomp a la "Ragged Glory." ''Walk Like a Giant," expressing disappointment with his generation, ends the album with explosions of feedback.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com

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