City Paper is not for tourists
Neil Young, who comes to Constitution Hall this Monday, has enjoyed one of rock ‘n’ roll’s best and most enduring solo careers. Many books have tried to track its many twists and turns, and the latest attempt—Neil Young: Long May You Run, The Illustrated History—is the most thorough, even-handed biography yet. At first glance it seems less than promising: The format is the coffee-table book, and archival photos threaten to overwhelm the text, which in any case relies on a synthesis of previously published material. While the most engaging reads may be Neil and Me and Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography, both come from highly subjective authors: Young’s father Scott wrote the first, and Jimmy McDonough, who had a public falling out with the singer while writing an authorized biography, penned the second. By contrast, Daniel Durcholz and Gary Graff are professional journalists—outsiders with a useful distance from the subject, but also music critics with definite ideas. In their introduction, they argue that Young’s willingness to pursue whatever musical inspiration strikes him at a given moment is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. That mercurial temperament has caused him to abandon bandmates, investors, collaborators, and friends when the winds of inspiration shift, generally without warning. Such impetuousness has led to some exhilarating music but also to some foolhardy endeavors. Durcholz and Graff argue convincingly that the benefits have outweighed the costs but don’t tiptoe around Young’s failings. They clarify, for example, the myths about the Mynah Birds, the Toronto rock band, briefly signed to Motown Records, featuring Young, Rick James, and Bruce Palmer. The authors draw an intriguing picture of the 20-year-old Young meeting Smokey Robinson as the Mynah Birds recorded four songs, two of them co-written by Young, at Hitsville USA. The whole thing fell apart when Motown discovered James was AWOL from the U.S. Navy; Young sold the band’s equipment to finance his move to L.A., where he and Palmer co-founded Buffalo Springfield with Stephen Stills and Richie Furay. Springfield was a great band, but the ex-friends left behind in Toronto were understandably angry. Durcholz and Graff painstakingly pin down each sudden shift, desertion, and new venture in Young’s career, using sidebars to delve more deeply into topics like Young’s “Old Black” guitar, his often embarrassing side-career as a filmmaker, his fascination with model trains, his alleged feud with Lynyrd Skynyrd over “Sweet Home Alabama,” and his very real feud with David Geffen. Regrettably, the book is poorly edited, with many reoccuring quotes; but the book comes with a solid discography, filmography, and index. If you want a good introduction to Young’s story, written by intelligent outsiders rather than overly involved insiders, this is the book to get.