Thursday, February 18, 2010

Shakey Review by Pat Ganley

At nearly 800 pages Shakey, a biography about Neil Young, is bible thick and even biblically epic, covering love, wars, death, and betrayal. And much like the Bible, the task of reading it, cover to cover, might seem to be for true devotees. But even the casual fan will be rewarded by the exciting and knowledgeable account of events in the life of an artist who has sneezed out a 40-year catalogue of money-making hits one week and self-indulgent experiments the next. Devotees, however, will marvel at the tremendous access author Jimmy McDonough had to the reclusive singer-songwriter. After giving McDonough authorization to write the book, Young, in a schizophrenic fashion we learn to be true to the artist, tried to stop its release. McDonough delves deep into Young's internal conflict and Janus-headed persona. One side is the tequila-fueled, play-whatever-the-hell-you-want guy, who released Tonight’s the Night; it’s the Young who pursued that great moment of inspiration within a raw-sounding performance, and not in high fidelity and over-dubbing. While another side is the micro-managing control freak behind the bizarre synthesizer and vocoder-laden Trans.

What makes Shakey an especially fantastic read is the author's tone throughout –McDonough is clearly a fan. He relates the first time he heard the often-described Irish wake of an album, Tonight's the Night as a pivotal moment in his life, and vividly reminds us of those moments in our lives, when a piece of art, music, or film alters our perception of the world. For McDonough, the album was a "lifesaver." But his description of the album is not exhausted by his personal affection for it; he also puts its release into a historical context—a time when "the charts were full of pop confections." McDonough’s description of the album’s simultaneous personal and historical impact characterizes his approach to the book. "For me, the seventies can be summed up by just three things," he writes. "Those grotesque early shopping malls, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Tonight's the Night. Decay, but with a gleam in it’s eye." If the reader didn't already love that album, McDonough's observations about its impact, as well as his rich description of its songs and smoke-filled boozy production will at the very least provoke one to reconsider its place in rock history as one of the greatest albums of 70’s. Frankly, McDonough made me realize that a single book could have been written about this album alone, and I'm surprised no one has jumped at the chance to publish a 33 1/3 on the subject. (What gives Continuum?) Of course writing one in the face of McDonough’s moving and exhaustive prose will undoubtedly intimidate would-be authors.

Just because some of us think that Young’s best work was done in the 70's doesn't mean that McDonough ignores the rest. Shakey is the story of a man’s life, not just his career and not just his creative output—however inextricable those continue to be. We learn about Young's parents in Toronto: his mother, Rassie, a local TV celebrity, and his sports writer father Scott divorced when Young was quite, well, young. We also learn about a childhood spent with a transistor radio under his pillow, blasting the sounds of early rock and roll—thanks to Wolfman Jack—as well as lots of honky tonk and country music. In a way reminiscent of Tonight’s the Night’s later impact on the author, McDonough describes the radical impact that the Marty Robbins’ song, "Don't Worry" had on Young; of the song with "the first Fuzztone guitar," Young would proclaim, "See, that's country music—fu**in’ feedback came from country. Who woulda (sic) even thought. But there it was."

Such interviews comprise much of the content of this book. McDonough not only interviewed Young, but 300 other people, including those who work for Young, are fans of Young, who hate Young, who love or have loved Young. While this many-sided view of a man already thought to exhibit symptoms of a split personality could have resulted in a vertigo-like reading experience, Shakey’s structure is remarkably straightforward. McDonough tells the story more or less chronologically, allowing the varying perspectives to come and go, all the while maintaining the authority won by his well-researched text and meticulous interview transcripts. Most authorized biographies imagine themselves to be “the end all, be all,” the final word on the life of a person—the absolute truth. It’s clear, however, that McDonough doesn't feel that way about his project. The story of a life, perhaps especially the extraordinary life of Neil Young, will never be understood in so straightforward a manner; McDonough’s awareness of this is communicated in one fell swoop by the title alone. Shakey is derived from Neil Young’s film director pseudonym, Bernard Shakey, and this title exhibits our inability to pin Young down – even “Young” as a name is insufficient.

Indeed, this book isn’t a simple story, nor is McDonough’s authorial agenda a simple one. He isn’t out to praise Young unabashedly for his artistic achievements—quite the contrary. His compliments in one paragraph are answered by another paragraph that calls Young out for running away from problems or throwing money at them. He doesn’t use interviews with Young to assert “the way it was.” Young's perspective rarely clarifies things; often, he's downright contradictory. He'll change his mind as often as the wind shifts direction. Did you know that the anti-“W” Young was a supporter of Ronald Reagan? Or that he thought Woodstock—and peace and love, for that matter—was nonsense and that he refused to be on camera for the concert film? Did you know he's obsessed with trains and owned part of the Lionel Company in the 90's? Jimmy McDonough learned all of this after eight years of research and shared it with us in this immensely entertaining book, supplying footnotes to suggest he isn't lying, even when Neil Young might be.