BOOK REVIEW / Young love and ego-wars: A dreamer of pictures: Neil Young - The Man and his Music by David Downing, Bloomsbury pounds 16.99
Sunday 10 April 1994
The enormous pool of poetry and pathos that is Young's collected lyrics could surely have supplied a better title than A Dreamer of Pictures; I mean, what else can you be a dreamer of? And 'The Man And His Music' is pure Hello magazine: Neil Young welcomes us into his beautiful home. But this, sadly, is exactly what Young doesn't do. The author, unable to secure even one face-to-face interview, cobbles this portrait together by minute examination of other books and old interviews. The already considerable distance between biographer and subject is emphasised at every turn by the former's perverse pride in his Olympian detachment: 'Being besieged by sex- hungry women,' Downing informs us, 'is not an experience this author has shared.'
To his credit, Downing is not cowed by the scope of Young's achievements, and approaches his recorded works with courageous scepticism. Of Young's much-loved Heart of Gold, Downing writes: 'if puppies could be made into music, they would sound like this'. His lengthy studies of individual songs sometimes score highly for idiosyncracy; no one who can claim that to him 'the electric guitar passages on (Like A) Hurricane always suggest a particular landscape, a huge flat world of lakes and reeds' can be all bad. But there is too much long-winded analysis here and not enough pithy anecdote.
Glimpses of the real Neil do emerge occasionally. There are some piquant insights into the hilarious Crosby Stills Nash & Young ego-wars. The band that preached revolution and brotherly love practised orgiastic self-indulgence and deliberately messing up each others' songs; walking out on the megalomaniac Stills for the umpteenth time, Young sends him a note: 'Dear Stephen - funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach, Neil.' And when Downing speaks of the Neil Young of Tonight's the Night 'both enjoying himself intensely and in the throes of enormous anguish', he is getting close to the true spirit of the man.
In the end, though, this is a frustrating book. For those who don't yet know the true joy of Neil there is not much here to help them understand what makes him so great. Those who do will almost feel they know less about him by the end of this book. Let's hope Nick Kent's forthcoming NY saga is more Young at heart.
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