Sunday, February 17, 2013

Making Peace with Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace

close-up of Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace;
image from torrentfrancais.com


It was only a week ago I wrote up my thoughts on rocker Pete Townshend's autobiography, Who I Am (Learning Who I Am from Reading Pete Townshend's Who I Am, 17 February 2013). I dove from that headlong into Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace. I won't go in to detail rehashing my love of both music and writing, but the skepticism in which I approach biographies or autobiographies of musicians. I'll just get right to the point - what did I get out of this book? More specifically, what did I learn about writing?

Having read this immediately after the Pete Townshend book, comparisons are inevitable. While Townshend's book was very linear, serving up a very straightforward historical account of the events of his life, Young jumps all over the place. The book reads a bit like a collection of stream-of-conscious essays. He will even jump around within a single chapter.

For example, in chapter 57 (one of the longer chapters of the book at a mere 13 pages), Young starts out with a story from his Buffalo Springfield days in the late 1960s. A few pages later, he's talking about David Briggs, who worked with Young on Crazy Horse and produced a number of his albums. After telling a story about scraping up the tour bus on a mountain road, the tale leaps forward into the mid-1990s for no clear reason. Young references rocker Kurt Cobain's suicide note which quoted a famous Neil Young line, "It's better to burn out than fade away." He laments Briggs' passing not long after then rewinds to 1990 to discuss some of the equipment he used when recording Ragged Glory.

Next up is yet another unrelated bit where he recalls recording with Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson in 1977. Before he even finishes that paragraph, however, he has already backtracked four years. It is a bumpy ride.

It is, however, an interesting one. Young relishes telling his stories and sharing his passion for cars and his hope for a new recording format (Pure Tone, later Pono) leaps and bounds ahead of mp3s. This is clearly a man who likes to create.

Stephen Stills and Neil Young,
image from ultimateclassicrock.com

He also fondly recalls the people with whom he has created music over the years. This is not a tell-all where he's dumping on anyone. Despite his own admission that he can be difficult to work with, Young comes across very appreciative of the people who have been in his life. It is uplifting to read someone's life account with such a heavy dose of gratitude and appreciation.

At one point Young talks about Stephen Stills, who he worked with both in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He relays a conversation they had:

"We talked...about the difficult decisions in life around loyalty, loyalty to friends and loyalty to the muse, how sometimes there was conflict, where serving one meant not serving the other...It has not been an easy part of life for either of us...Stephen and I have this great honesty about our relationship and get joy from telling each other observations from our past. The past is such a big place" (p. 133).

Passages such as this reveal a side of Young which surprised me: he's a pensive, sentimental guy despite a public image of him which is more curmudgeonly. He acknowledges all this in one sentence: "I have traveled a long way along life's pathway and have become somewhat of a hard person to work for" (483). In the next paragraph, he says,

"I am trying to find myself again and reconnect with the values I had in the beginning, find the love in the music with others again, return to the camaraderie that we all enjoyed back in the day, respect others, have empathy for them, be considerate, love myself again, and through that, be more true to myself and others."

The concept of being true to oneself is what resonates with me most as a writer. Would I have preferred Waging Heavy Peace was a more conventional and chronological book? Yes. Would I have liked to see a stronger editor reign in Young's ramblings into more thematically-oriented chapters or at least sections within chapters? Yes. Do I want Young to change who he is to make those things happen? No way.


Monday, February 11, 2013

Learning Who I Am from Reading Pete Townshend's Who I Am

close-up of photo of Pete Townshend from his book 'Who I Am,' image from prefixmag.com


Those who know me are well aware of two of my greatest passions: writing and music. While I have zero talent at the latter, I hope I have enough friends, family, and fans who would say I have something to offer regarding the former.

As a result, I would seemingly scoop up every book I could about some of my favorite musicians. However, my experience in reading biographies leans toward them feeling like long magazine interviews which merely report the events of some famous person's life without any real insight from the very person who is the focus of the article.

I'm even more skeptical of autobiographies. While the idea of hearing a musician tell his or her own story sounds appealing, the reality is that they are musicians, not writers. I'm happy to hear musical giants wail on their guitars or sing their lungs out. I'm not so sure they need to hole up and recast their personal journals into some format for public consumption. Let me reiterate: they are musicians, not writers.

Of course, there are those musicians who have great appeal precisely because of the literate storytelling they bring to their music. This is certainly the case with Pete Townshend, the chief songwriter for The Who. Here was a man who built his reputation on rock operas like Tommy and Quadrophenia. In his solo work, he continued to pursue more involved themes for his albums and often conceived them in broader contexts such as theater and film. Outside of music, he'd even worked with a publishing company, dabbled in music journalism, and written short stories and novellas.

I still approached his autobiography with caution. In tackling previous such works about musicians, I wanted hints about what inspired these people. What makes them iconic? Is it simply an overabundance of talent? A strong work ethic? A supersized ego that will accept nothing less than being revered by the world? Is it all just luck?

Instead, these books typically glorify of the decadent rock 'n' roll lifestyle. How much did I want to dive into another account of a gifted musician with a troubled childhood who carries out childish behavior throughout his adult life? Do I need to know, yet again, that rock stars seem predisposed to overindulge in drugs and alcohol to the point of ruining themselves? In case their substance abuse issues aren't enough, these narcissists sabotage their intimate relationships with a string of sexual dalliances and largely become absentee fathers.

About 3/4 of the way through the book, that's essential what I had determined. I was dismayed that Pete Townshend was, in fact, the stereotypical rocker with all these faults and a seeming unawareness or disassociation with the effect his behavior had on those around him.

Keith Moon, drummer for The Who;
image from sportsgrid.com

For example, those versed in The Who would see the death of drummer Keith Moon as one of, if not the, pivotal moment in the band's history. Townshend almost saw it as a mere bump in the road. As he confesses,

"I haven't been able to feel any great emotion when someone close to me dies. It's a terrible defect that makes me appear cold-hearted...In the case of Keith, my reaction was immediate and completely irrational, bordering on insane...I called a meeting with Roger and pressed him to join me in taking The Who on the road" (p. 309).

He writes that at the funeral "my eyes were hard and dry" (310). In the next paragraph, he's recruiting Kenney Jones, formerly of the Small Faces, to take over drums. Moon died on page 308. By page 310, he's history.

Townshend is at least aware of his aloofness. He addresses it again in regards to how he treats his family:

"I had always wanted to be there for my wife and children in a way that my parents were not always there for me. But the childish, devilish, selfish-sod-bastard artist deep inside me didn't give a toss for fatherhood - he needed freedom" (410).

With roughly 100 pages to go, I was perturbed. Townshend wasn't showing much in the way of redeemable qualities. He occasionally expressed regret about cheating on his wife when he was on the road, but he certainly didn't stop. He wrote about giving up alcohol and drugs and then falling off the wagon with a removed nonchalance.

I might have been able to forgive these indiscretions if I'd at least got the other element from the book I wanted - insight into the mind of a musical genius. The closest I got was a paragraph in the third chapter of the book:

I "was consoling myself by playing harmonica in the rain. I got lost in the sound of the mouth organ, and then had the most extraordinary, life-changing experience. Suddenly, I was hearing music within the music - rich, complex harmonic beauty that had been locked in the sounds I'd been making. The next day I went fly fishing, and this time the murmuring sound of the river opened up a well-spring of music so enormous that I fell in and out of atrance. It was the beginning of my lifelong connection to rivers and the sea - and to what might be described as the music of the spheres" (30).

The Who's 'Quadrophenia' used the sea prominently,
image from allmusic.com

This is pretty good stuff. It hints at what makes a musical genius tick. From there on, however, we get a pretty methodical account of how The Who came together as a band, how Townshend immersed himself in writing and recording in home studios, and struggling with bringing his ideas to fruition. There isn't a lot in the way of revelation as to why he became one of the biggest musicians on the planet. In fact, when The Who first launched, he assumed it would be a short-term thing and he could eventually go back to what he really wanted to do - art school.

This is also where I finally come to a point about writing. Be it a work of fiction or non-fiction (or my own rambling blog), a piece of writing needs an overall intent or purpose - a theme. Autobiographies tread dangerous ground in just becoming an outlet for someone to turn their scribblings in a journal into a book. In the case of Townshend's work, I would have liked more of a message. What did he learn from his mistakes? What inspired him? Give me some foreshadowing - after all, you know how this all ends.

So, in the end, I did learn something about Townshend, but I also learned something important about myself and what I want in my own writing. Be purposeful. Know your intent and make sure the overall work plays into that. I may have to revisit this blog and check myself on that very point. In the meantime, I'll just borrow the title of one of Townshend's songs to prompt you into asking of yourself, "Who Are You?"


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Coffee Table Books

The coffee table in our family living room is littered with reading material, both on top and underneath. Technically, only two of the vast pile meet the criteria of "coffee table book;" that is, books whose primary purpose is to give guests something to thumb through without paying a lot of attention to it. One is a collection of Doonesbury cartoons and the other is a homemade book collecting photos of my wife and 10YO's trip to London to see the 2012 Olympics.

There are plenty of "throwaways," meaning those materials that will only have a temporary home on our table before heading to the recycling bin. There's a USA Today newspaper as well as magazines ranging from The Smithsonian, Rolling Stone, Ranger Rick, KC Studio, and Q (a British music magazine). Mostly, however, the table serves as a cluttered catch-all for the family's collective readings.

My 10YO and I are chugging through J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring together while Mom has tackled Lois Lowry's The Giver with him and our 7YO. My oldest son is also reading Rick Riordan's The Lost Hero and Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret. My younger son has been reading Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson Fights Crime aloud to me while I have read Shel Silverstein's Runny Babbit to him.

My heavy interest in music is showcased by a couple of autobiographies. I've nearly finished Pete Townshend's Who I Am and Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace is on deck. When I'm just killing a few minutes, I dive into one of the collections of Chuck Klosterman, a music journalist noted for work with Rolling Stone and Spin.

Various "works in progress" squeeze their way into the piles as well. Right now there's a clipboard with my 7Y0's first illustration for a temporarily on-hold book, Wart and Scraggles. Last night, the rough third chapter of my Otter and Arthur sequel found a brief home on the table as I read it to my sons for feedback. My 10YO plans to bring his story, The Vine Clingers, home from school so we can type it up on the computer. It's bound to end up on the coffee table soon.

It all ultimately means one thing - we have a messy coffee table. I wouldn't have it any other way.