Published on January 29th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography – Jimmy McDonough
Neil Young recently took some heat in Canada for his comments about the Alberta oil sands, leaving him open to be right wing cannon fodder by hyperbolically comparing the oil sands to Hiroshima, as well as for the supposed hypocrisy of driving around in a tour bus. These ad hominem attacks on Young were all a spin ploy to skirt around sensible discussion of the real story — which wasn’t even really about the validity of the oil sands themselves — it was about treaty rights. He was raising money for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s ongoing legal battle to slow the tide of the petrochemical industry. The ‘Honor the Treaties Tour’ (or ‘Honour’ if you’re Canadian) was in support of the First Nations’ constitutional right to have a say when new policies threaten their land or access to their cultural grounds. Since the oil sands have started moving into their neck of the woods, fish have become inedible, wildlife is vanishing, and cancer rates have shot up about 30%. So it’s a discussion worth having, that some people are afraid to have.
As this was all going down in the news and the court of public opinion, I happened to be reading the Young biography, Shakey, by Jimmy McDonough. It painted the picture of a man who sometimes shoots first and asks questions later when it comes to politics. It’s great that Young uses his celebrity and voice to bring light to things that are being brushed under the rug, but his fast draw also makes it pretty easy for the right wing pundits to set him up as a straw man.
Shakey was one of the better rock bios I’ve read, replete with details — a big undertaking that was structured and executed very well. At around 700 pages, McDonough had a lot of room to tell Young’s story from childhood to the era right before the book was published (2003). 700 pages may seem like a lot, but even at the end of the 90s, Young had lived through a 40-year career of albums and anecdotes to draw from. It’s a wonder the book wasn’t a spongy mess. I’m sure that Young completionists might be able to complain about things that weren’t addressed, but I think it hit most of the important moments. Shakey was filled with stories from Young’s life and career, including his relationships with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY and his excursions into other creative passions like designing model train sets (he liked it so much, he bought the company!). It also walked me through the difficult portions of Young’s life, like his battle with polio as a child, or being sucked into a demanding ‘program’ that was supposed to help him manage his son’s Cerebral Palsy, but mostly broke his heart and stole 18 months from his life.
Shakey painted the picture of a sensitive, but difficult man, who is as exasperating and cold as he is prone to be loving or have your back. He usually knew what he wanted, and he’d drift away from those who expected things of him in order to make his ideas happen, to follow his art, which sometimes left hurt and angry people in his wake. The book has good access to those that know him well, including his late mother, and there are italicized sections where Young himself comments on the proceedings, which is good, since he can be a hard guy to pin down. To prove my point, ask Jimmy McDonough himself, who spent more than six years chasing Young around and writing the book, only to have to take the rocker to court in order to be able to publish it after Young got his trademark cold feet.
That’s Neil Young for you, in a nutshell, and Shakey is well-worth reading for even marginal fans of his music. To go back to the oil sands thing, the idea that someone has to wander off into the forest and live like a caveman or they can be branded a hypocrite for expressing their feelings is ridiculous, and not what North American countries were founded on. And as a side note, Young hardly lives in a lavish Hollywood mansion drinking from golden chalices — he has lived on his ranch, away from the trappings of celebrity, for decades. Yeah, Young should choose his words more carefully if he wants to go up against the spin doctors. “If you think, you stink,” is one of his mantras, mentioned several times in the book. But if he stopped to think about such things, he wouldn’t be Neil Young, and we wouldn’t have the off the cuff brilliance of albums like ‘Tonight’s the Night.’