Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A man needs a "Shakey": Neil Young's bio

I need to say something very simple here: Thanks to Jimmy McDonough for writing Shakey. I'm not quite through yet, but I'm reading this book—a 2002 biography of Neil Young—with such awe. It's exactly the kind of work that one wishes existed re: every artist one loves.

It's unauthorized in the strict sense, yet with full access. McDonough interviewed Young himself exhaustively, but maybe more importantly, he interviewed just about everyone who ever worked with Young and brought their opinions to NY for consideration. It's a true 360-degree portrait. (More than 300 interviews—MORE THAN 300!) And all the personality study is in service of the music. There's not a single song or album or bootleg discussed here that you don't want to run out and hear. And McDonough tells it to you straight: what's worth checking out and what's not.

Some of the reviews quoted on the book jacket have been really bothering me. Two of them use the word "maddening." One of them says "unmanageable" and "overzealous." Overzealous? Would we prefer our biographies of monumental artists to be merely zelaous, or underzealous? And what exactly is maddening about leaving no stone unturned? About doing impeccable research and synthesizing it into something lengthy (but not unreasonably so, given that we're dealing with a four-decade career here) and eminently readable? As for unmanageable, how exactly? Maybe if you'd rather read a capsule review or a blog post.

It's so wonderful to check this book out and so sad to think about how alien it seems from most writing on the internet, i.e., most writing that people read. There's no need for a curmudgeonly rant here, but there's something so pre-internet about this book. McDonough flew out to all corners of the country to visit with the major players in Neil Young's life. He worked this thing out over something like a decade, even wrangling with Young's own mixed signals, which nearly sunk the project. This is not a deadline-driven thing. It was obviously open-ended in the best sense.

It might sound "overzealous" but I think this is a heroic act: to try to make sense of a life, specifically one that is not one's own. Not a life that's worth more than other lives, but simply one that is public, that has touched a lot of people as a result of what it has yielded.

What I'm saying is that every great, public artist—every great, public human, really—deserves a Shakey, a passionate and more importantly READABLE primary-sourced guide to the person and the work and the complex solar system of friends, associates, lovers, nemeses and whatnot that made it all possible. A work that's grounded in the facts but that doesn't burden you with them. A scrapbook compiled by a true fan with the wherewithal to speak objectively.

And now, back to the 1991 NY & Crazy Horse triumph, Weld...


shakeyfan said...

McDonough's new book on Tammy Wynette is just as magnificent.

thrasher said...

Nice. thnx!

Phil Freeman said...

I'm not a gigantic Neil Young fan, and I HATED McDonough's book on underground filmmaker Andy Milligan, but you've made me wanna check this book out.

Anonymous said...

If you didn't like the Andy Milligan book, I wouldn't waste your time on Shakey. I know I'm not the only one who thinks The Ghastly One is McDonough's best book by a mile. Gets into your bloodstream, that one. My copy is worn to bits. Not only my favorite biography but my favorite book of all time.

Fx2 said...

I'm sure Hank will like how enthusiastic young fan dhanycz shows Neil (almost) complete on vinyl. It takes nearly 40 minutes to go through the whole collection!


I discovered dhanycz's YouTube channel only recently and watched all of his nearly 50 videos within three days. The mountains of vinyl he has amassed could be called amazing for a collector of any age but his youth makes them even more so.

Take care!