Neil Young Nation Paperback – Sep 1 2005
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While some may be forgiven for assuming that Neil Young Nation is yet another in a crowd of Neil Young biographies, this is neither among those officially sanctioned (Shakey, Don't Be Denied) nor an unauthorized facts-be-damned waste of paper. Never having met with or spoken to the man whose name forms the title (and not wanting to, for fear his role model might be a jerk on such an occasion), Kevin Chong has written a Neil Young book that is less a biography than a memoir: upon turning 29, after spending three years creating a manuscript (for a different book) that no publisher wanted, Chong decided to stop writing fiction, and looked to Neil Young--a man who has succeeded on his own terms--for inspiration on what to do next.
Chong hatched a plan to take a road trip with three friends (Geoff, Dave, and Mark), retracing the journey Young made in early 1966, when he left Canada behind to meet up with Stephen Stills in Los Angeles, where they found immediate fame with their new band Buffalo Springfield. Along the way, Chong interviewed people who had known Young at the early stages of his musical career: former band members, classmates, girlfriends, and others. While well-referenced, what makes the book most rewarding is the dry, self-deprecating humour shared by the author and his traveling companions: "It often seemed to me that Dave and Mark lived in a parallel universe where pretty female strangers, when asked for directions, offered their services as tour guides. On certain levels, I hate them." Equally refreshing is Chong's unwillingness to gloss over some of his hero's questionable attitudes and behaviour regarding relationships and politics, pointing out many contradictions throughout his career but never letting them interfere with his respect for the music and the man. --Eric Wilson
From Publishers Weekly
The deep personal commitment that millions of rock fans make to their idols is sharply illustrated by Chong's belief that "Neil Young saved my life." The author, a recent Columbia M.F.A. graduate and novelist, shares the story of a journey he and three friends took through Winnipeg, Fort William (now Thunder Bay, Ontario), Toronto and Los Angeles—all areas where Young lived and worked from his 1950s childhood to his present-day fame. Chong talks with a writer who treasures the memory of being winked at by Young and a landlady who remembers that Young left a cigarette burn on her couch. The musician emerges an enigma, a leftist political artist who antagonized left-wingers by praising Reagan, while denouncing Nixon as "hippiedom's dark overlord." Tough about firing people when he had to, yet sensitive and willing to lay himself bare, Young comes across as recognizably human, despite the author's reverential tone. Chong has a flair for colorful descriptions and bringing character eccentricities alive, and he chooses appropriate Young lyrics to quote throughout the narrative. Penetrating as Chong's chronicle is, however, it sometimes meanders and would've benefited from a deeper look at the author's feelings. Photos. (Nov.)
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"Most of my friends were grown-ups. I didn't count myself among them," Chong writes in his introduction. And later, he confesses his "inability to grow up". Citing what Young calls "reckless abandon" to describe the way he makes his music, Chong states that's what he wants "in my life, in my art".
So, straight up you know this is self-indulgent navel gazing. But don't be put off. There's much more to Neil Young Nation.
Turning 30 the same year Neil Young turns 60, Chong decides to commemorate the two milestones with a road trip with three space-cake munching mates, tracing old Shakey's footsteps from Canada to California.
The pilgrimage by the four adventurers follows the zig-zag trail that Young took in a converted black hearse: Winnipeg, where the country rocker formed his first band, the Squires; Omeemee, Young's childhood home, the "town in north Ontario" he sings about in his sweet song, Helpless; and Los Angeles, where Young found rock 'n' roll fame.
In his peregrinations Chong visits many of his idol's former haunts. He meets other Young obsessives, people who knew Young years ago, including a vice-principle at his old high-school, a former manager of a caf? where Young made his solo debut, and a woman who made the 1966 hearse trek with Young.
The author avoids sloppy sentimentality or embarrassing hero worship. His obsession is kind of scholarly, sifting flotsam and jetsam along the journey for clues, like an archaeological sweep.
Chong uses the subject of his ideal escapism as the reference point, and by journey's end what he has gleaned about Young has also taught him a few things, too, especially about cool and aging gracefully. But, most importantly, to choose passion over precision.
Chong, of course, makes liberal use of Young's lyrics through his book, selecting the most appropriate places. There is a discography at the back as well as references and source notes.
Neil Young Nation, thankfully, is not just another biography to add to the half-dozen or so already published, not to mention the scores of web sites dedicated to Young.
This is a road book: part biography; part personal essay; part adventure tale. And it adds up to a rollicking, sometimes funny, good-time read. It goes without saying, a must-read for Rusties (obsessive Young fans). Three-and-a-half stars.
Diane C. Donovan