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Shakey: Neil Young's Biography [Paperback]

James McDonough
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 13 2003
Neil Young is one of rock and roll’s most important, influential and enigmatic figures, an intensely reticent artist who has granted no writer access to his inner sanctum -- until now. In Shakey, Jimmy McDonough tells the whole story of Young’s incredible life and career: from his childhood in Canada to the founding of folk-rock pioneers Buffalo Springfield; to the bleary conglomeration of Crazy Horse and simultaneous monstrous success of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; to the depths of the Tonight’s the Night depravity and the strange changes of the Geffen years; and Young’s unprecedented nineties “comeback” with Ragged Glory and Harvest Moon. No detail is spared -- not the sex, drugs, relationships, breakups, births, deaths, nor the variety of chameleon-like transformations that have enabled Young to remain one of the most revered musical forces of our time.

Shakey (the title refers to one of Young’s many aliases) is not only a detailed chronicle of the rock era told through the life of one uncompromising artist, but the compelling human story of a lonely kid for whom music was the only outlet; a driven yet tortured figure who learned to control his epilepsy via “mind over matter”; an oddly passionate model train mogul who -- inspired by his own son’s struggle with cerebral palsy -- became a major activist in the quest to help those with the condition.

Based on interviews with hundreds of Young’s associates (many speaking freely for the first time), as well as extensive exclusive interviews with Young himself, Shakey is a story told through the interwoven voices of McDonough -- biographer, critic, historian, obsessive fan -- and the ever-cantankerous (but slyly funny) Young himself, who puts his biographer through some unforgettable paces while answering the question: Is it better to burn out than to fade away?

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Alternately brilliant, insightful, angry, frustrating, and not a little unwieldy, Jimmy McDonough’s decade-in-the-making Shakey is a biography that seems entirely appropriate for someone as contrary-minded as Neil Young, a guy who gained equal fame as both a folkie and a feedback-loving granddaddy of grunge. Though McDonough conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with Young and his intimates, he ultimately had to sue Young to allow him to publish Shakey, named after one of the singer’s aliases. Even before the legal battles started in 1998, the project was never likely to be hagiography; too many people--from his childhood pals in Canada to his band mates in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Crazy Horse to his closest collaborator, producer David Briggs--have mixed feelings about this man who stubbornly followed his muse despite the chaos it caused in other people’s lives. As Graham Nash told a producer, “Guard your heart with Shakey.” In one of the many heated exchanges between biographer and subject reproduced in the text, even Young admits to leaving a big “wake of destruction” in his path through life.

Neil Young's parents recall a boy who could be both shy and charming and who was deeply affected by the rupture in their marriage. His ambition as a musician was matched by his ability to protect his feelings, often at the expense of other people’s. Even one of Young’s earliest supporters--Ray Dee, a DJ in Fort William, Ontario, who was the first person to properly record Young’s music--ended up burned and abandoned when the teenage upstart took off for Toronto without warning. “Of all the people that I left behind on my journey,” Young admits to McDonough, “Ray Dee got screwed more than anybody. … I think I was just so irresponsible that I didn’t realize what I was doing.” Yet he would do the same to his friends in Crazy Horse and CSN over and over again, dropping projects and collaborations at the first sign of rust.

McDonough portrays the nascent rock scenes in Winnipeg and Toronto with as much verve as he brings to Young’s days in Los Angeles and the formation of the incendiary but doomed Buffalo Springfield. Shakey takes a twisted turn with descriptions of cocaine-fuelled, egomaniacal excesses of CSNY and Young’s salad days within Topanga Canyon’s community of bikers, drug dealers, actors, and artists in the early ‘70s. The book is full of cameos by the famous and the infamous--Bob Dylan, Dennis Hopper, and Charlie Manson among them--but Young remains the most inscrutable and fascinating of the lot. Perhaps that’s because his blunders--like the unwatchable movie Human Highway and a string of ‘80s albums so bad and weird that Geffen Records sued him for making records that were “musically uncharacteristic”--were as unique as his many triumphs. They too were marked by a sense of adventure and a willingness to lay his soul bare.

Shakey maintains a delightfully profane tone throughout and is generally well-researched, though McDonough isn’t enough of a Canuck to know how to spell the names of Farley Mowat or Murray McLauchlan. On the whole, it is a clear-eyed assessment of Young’s life and times, with McDonough presenting the hoary history of the American rock ‘n’ roll business through a very idiosyncratic lens. As Young would say, that makes for an “innaresting” story. --Jason Anderson --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

More than a biography, this work from journalist McDonough (Village Voice, Variety, Spin) is the re-creation of an era.

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the funniest books I have ever read. Nov. 19 2003
Format:Paperback
As a diehard Neil Young fan, I was surprised by just how little I actually knew about what made the guy tick and where that all fit into his music. Young is, after all, one of the most experimental rock artists ever- with each album, you never know what you're going to get, be it acoustic folk, electric grunge, country, or, god help us, synth pop. Yet he's done it all and has no apologies about it. Neil Young drips integrity, as Jimmy McDonough obviously found out the hard way while doing his research and interviews. He portrays Young as human...rarely is the book done in a "Neil Young is god" style. McDonough criticizes, praises, and, most of all, doesn't pull any punches. Of course, the best parts of the book come from Neil Young himself, as his own interjections and interview excerpts pop up all over the place, almost to the point where you could call "Shakey" an autobiography. I found the book funny because it seems like everybody Young associates with is a complete lunatic: musicians, managers, producers, roadies...except for Young himself. He comes across as being the calm in the eye of the storm, whether the storm is working with Crosby, Stills and Nash or taking Crazy Horse on the road. Yet he's had his own ups and downs, from spastic children to the deaths of some of his musical cohorts. Yet Young comes across as both humble and unrepentant: "I've left a big wake of destruction behind me," he freely admits. "Shakey" is not only a salute to Neil Young's music and general artistry, but to his survival. When reading it, you know you're reading about the life of a real human being with absolutely no superstar persona. Funny, introspective and cantakerous all at the same time, or, as Graham Nash puts it when talking about the "Better to burn out than fade away" philosophy, "You get the idea Neil is really pissed that he's survived."
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The angry heart June 12 2003
Format:Paperback
Who would have thought it, Neil Young an adult child of an alcoholic. Neil Young, who moved so often his roots were above the ground. Neil Young, the epeleptic with seizures who didn't know it. Neil Young, the lost soul looking for his mother in his relationships. Neil the loner, Neil the loadie. Neil, the father and husband of the decade, privately, heroically and futily being there for his kids. Moving on before someone passes him over, fatalistically alienating others without knowing it, yet giving back in so many ways. Living his life thru his songs, singing his life thru his music. Driven, ambitious and perfectionistic. So open and sharing in his music.
A dark and compelling story. Difficult to take in, yet hard to let go. Hard to believe it's Neil's. Can't put it down because it is Neil. A control freak out of control.
The book makes one appreciate his musical honesty and introspection even more as we learn of his troubled solitary torment.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Who edited this thing? June 7 2002
Format:Hardcover
Meredith Hunter, call home! Someone needs to tell him he wasn't killed by the Angels at Altamont afterall. Turns out it was James Meredith. At least, that's what the author of "Shakey" would have us believe.
He's also occasionally unsure of his dates,particularly in the area of album releases, saying it could be one year, or possibly another, depending on who you talk to. Checking with the record company or simply looking on the back of CD re-releases might have helped clear up any ambiguities.
Finally, the book is stocked with an uncomfortable amount of "I's", particularly in the final chapters. Mr. McDonough's accounts of challenging his subject ("getting in his face" in common parlance) for failing to meet the author's expectations and criteria for maintaining artistic credibility are tiresome, to say the least. Did Mr.McDonough do a bit of double-dipping and serve as his own editor? One can't help but wonder.
Though the book is not without its moments, Young and his fans deserve better.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
For Neil Young fans only. Read with patience.
McDonough deserves credit for researching Neil Young's life, particularly his early days. His early days in Canada are particularly revealing, showing how Neil's hard-driven personality propelled into great success.
McDonough also deserves credit for getting the always obscure Neil to be about as open as he gets. The interviews are at their best when Neil is describing events in the past. Neil is at times very candid about his failings in his personal life (two divorces) and in his professional life (over-producing "Mr. Soul").
Unfortunately, the book suffers on a few fronts.
First of all, it is poorly edited. The length of the book could have easily been cut 200 pages without much loss. Several times the book will describe events, then have length quotes from Neil exactly describing the same event.
Second, McDonough's status as a hard-core Neil Young fan makes some of his prose rather silly. His exhaltations of "Tonight's the Night" just seem silly. For Pete's sake, Jimmy, it's just Rock and Roll, not the second coming of Jesus.
Finally, the last 100 pages or so are really regrettable. McDonough inserts himself into the biography. Suddenly, it's Jimmy teaching Neil about Nirvana, Jimmy trying to save Neil from the evils of being a Lionel Trains Tycoon. Most annoying is McDonough's whining about Neil giving lots of interviews. Oh, boo hoo, Jimmy's interviews with Niel aren't that exclusive.
But, for a Neil Young fan, this book is indispensible. After reading this book, I have a better understanding of the folks in Neil's sometime backup band, "Crazy Horse". I understand more what is involved with producing an album, and what impact producer David Briggs had on Neil's work.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Long, but never boring
Took a long time to read, but I followed along with the music by listening to the albums as I read. Neil comes across as a real person, warts and all. Read more
Published 19 months ago by Rudy
1.0 out of 5 stars DUD
I am a big fan of Neil Young; but, this book sucks.

The first chapters were actually very good...and then it really bogged down. Read more
Published 19 months ago by Rod
1.0 out of 5 stars Flawed but interesting nonetheless
This is McDonough's first major publication and it shows. The book meanders here, there and everywhere but never quite finds it target. Read more
Published on June 10 2002 by Enrico
5.0 out of 5 stars Gettin' Somewhere
This book is a fantastic insight into an enigmatic man. Neil Young provides quite a lot of replies to his own story through extensive interviews conducted by the author. Read more
Published on June 6 2002 by Zimi Ahzrix
1.0 out of 5 stars Shakey--A very grim,dark trip
To say that I enjoyed this "biography"of Neil Young would be sadly untruthful. While it held my interest, in a morbid way, I have come away from the subject matter... Read more
Published on June 5 2002 by William M. Schmidt
5.0 out of 5 stars A Major Biography
Knowing Neil Young was loathe to have his story told, this is a book I never thought I would see. I was not able to put it down until I completed reading it. Read more
Published on May 31 2002
5.0 out of 5 stars Phenominal
I've only read 2 books in my life, that I was completely unable to put down. Shakey and Helter Skelter. Read more
Published on May 28 2002 by Meggie
4.0 out of 5 stars Shakey - A Must for any Neil Young Fan
Shakey is a great read for anyone who is a die-hard Neil fan like me. It takes you through the years starting with Neil's childhood, how he got involved in R&R, and every band and... Read more
Published on May 24 2002 by George Ciottone
5.0 out of 5 stars Print the legend - Not the facts!
John Ford is oft quoted as saying, "Print the legend, not the facts." His point was not justification of a lie or a twisting of reality. Read more
Published on May 23 2002 by Jersey Kid
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