Neil Young has stopped smoking weed. He’s broken his toe. That, we’re told early in the sometimes maddening, often entertaining “Waging Heavy Peace,” is part of why the influential songwriter decided to write a memoir. Oh, and there’s also the money.
“Remember the goose that laid the golden egg?” Young writes in Chapter 7, titled “Why This Book Exists.” “This book is all about that.”
Pete Townshend, mastermind of the Who, isn’t quite so flip in “Who I Am.” In his memoir, he digs deeply into his troubled past, which includes drug abuse, infidelity, and, more recently, an incident in which he was busted and accused of purchasing child porn.
It’s no surprise these memoirs exist. In the era of big book advances — and little radio play — our rock heroes have become far more likely to hit the laptop than the studio. The wave of confessionals has been as varied as a dose of Orange Sunshine, from high art (Keith Richards’s “Life” and Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”) to low pap (Steven Tyler’s “Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?”).
Add Young and Townshend to the pile.
Each book has value, along with considerable flaws. How much you focus on the former and overlook the latter depends, in part, on how much you care about the music.
Young, famous for both acoustic masterpieces such as “Heart of Gold” as well as thrashing his way to “Godfather of Grunge” status, has put out more than 30 albums since his 1968 solo debut. As he begins writing “Waging,” Young is struggling to find the muse.
“I am now the straightest I have ever been since I was eighteen,” he writes. “The big question for me at this point is whether I will be able to write songs this way. I haven’t yet, and that is a big part of my life.”
In “Waging,” we learn about the trio of former collaborators (producer David Briggs, guitarist/singer Danny Whitten, and filmmaker Larry Young) who died too soon and pervade Young’s daily thoughts. We learn about his family, particularly his son Ben, whose cerebral palsy requires around-the-clock care.
We also get a healthy dose of Young’s quirky obsessions. He works on his 1959 Lincoln Continental, which has been converted into a hybrid and is known as LincVolt, to promote biomass fuels as alternatives to gas. He’s also created Pono, a high-resolution, digital music system meant to raise the audio bar for a public accustomed to lo-fi iTunes.
The big hole in “Waging” is Young’s unwillingness to let us into the studio. “Be great or be gone,” is what Briggs used to say to his creative partner. I’d have enjoyed learning about how that aphorism led to “After the Gold Rush” and “Rust Never Sleeps.”
You can always read Jimmy McDonough’s 2002 bio “Shakey,” a 786-page book that provides 500-plus words on Young’s 1981 album, “Re-ac-tor.” Otherwise, accept “Waging” for what it is, a chance to read what Young has to say.
Listen to how he references longtime druggie David Crosby’s visit to his ranch years ago.
“That van was a rolling laboratory that made Jack Casady’s briefcase look like chicken feed,” he writes. “Forget I said that! Was my mic on?”
Of course, when you ask for detail, be careful what you wish for. Pete Townshend’s “Who I Am” finds the guitarist and leader of the Who detailing his life with the joie de vivre of a courtroom stenographer.
The story itself is compelling. A boy growing up in postwar England is abused while under the “care” of his grandmother. He starts a band that becomes one of rock’s great, combustible gangs. He does every thinkable drug, confesses his bisexuality (while largely sticking to women), and spends his life feeling insecure and unworthy. In all, Townshend’s self-loathing manifests itself in many vices, though his main drug of choice is clearly work.
And that just might be the problem with “Who I Am.” Over 500 pages, Townshend details so much about the many rock operas, some released (“Tommy”) and others mainly conceptual, goes deep into the effort to develop his much-forgotten solo album “The Iron Man” into a stage show, and mentions that Whoopi Goldberg was surprisingly flirty when he met her. Personally, I want to know how Townshend — or producer Shel Talmy — got his guitar to sound like that on songs like “My Generation.”
Which is not to say that Townshend pulls any punches. He reprints a letter from his daughter desperate to see her wayward father.
“It’s not fair! Everybody else has got a dad who comes home at night,” Minta writes.
There is also his account of his 2003 arrest after police determined he had accessed a child porn site. In the book, Townshend details his strong feelings on sexual abuse — rooted in his own victimhood — and explains how his decision to click onto a site was part of an ongoing research project.
And there’s a telling moment in “Who I Am” that might speak to one of the book’s biggest flaws. Townshend needed an editor, a David Briggs, but he clearly doesn’t allow that. In the book, he talks of how John Sebastian, the genial leader of the Lovin’ Spoonful, suggests a collaboration one day. The very idea throws the guitarist into a panic. As he writes many times in “Who I Am,” Pete Townshend always works alone.