BY FRED MILLS
A number of years ago I was talking Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, of Del-Lords and Steve Earle & the Dukes fame, about some of his extracurricular activities, one of them being handling production chores for Nils Lofgren’s ’92 album Crooked Line. While working on a particularly brawny track called “Drunken Driver” Ambel remarked to Lofgren that it reminded him a lot of Neil Young & Crazy Horse; the lightbulb apparently went on over Lofgren’s head, because a day or so later who should wander into the studio but Young himself. Ambel soon found himself trading electric guitar lines with the music legend. Subsequently, while listening to the playback, Lofgren asked Young what he thought of the riffing.
“It’s ugly, it’s horrible, it’s nasty—it’s just right for the song,” was Young’s response.
That scenario came to mind while absorbing the latest book by veteran L.A. author/journalist Harvey Kubernik (most recently: 2014’s Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows, reviewed HERE). Neil Young: Heart of Gold is rife with such moments, when Young made an artistic call based not on what would seem to be the obvious or logical or even commercial decision, but upon his gut feeling, of what his instincts told him would serve the moment—and certainly the song or the album or the concert at hand—best.
With each of its 10 chapters set up to detail a specific timeline in Young’s life, the 224-page, photo-rich NYHoG pulls off the remarkable event of presenting those timelines with orderly precision based less on uniform blocks of time (for example, the “Expecting to Fly” chapter depicts 1966-69, while “A Long Road Behind Me, A Long Road Ahead” covers an entire decade, 1996-2006) and more on how proximate releases, tours, events and personal digressions informed and related to one another. Just to cite one chapter, the “Keep on Rockin’” 1987-96 period: late ’87 found Young legally free of Geffen Records, with which he’d had a rather, er, fractious relationship (a few years earlier the label had sued him for submitting albums that were “unrepresentative” of the man they’d thought they were signing) and back home on Reprise, where his first release was the horns-heavy/blues-rocking This Note’s For You (the accompanying tour was recently documented on the 11th installment of Neil’s archive series, Bluenote Café); apparently freed psychically as well, Young would go on a sustained creative roll and enjoy one of his most celebrated eras ever, including the release of iconic anthem “Rockin’ In the Free World,” the now-legendary “Smell the Horse” tour with Crazy Horse of the US and Canada that featured Sonic Youth as opening act, the platinum-selling Harvest Moon album, an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for “Philadelphia,” the Kurt Cobain-referencing Sleeps With Angels album that earned him his “Godfather of Grunge” sobriquet, and high-profile tours with both Booker T & the MG’s and Pearl Jam serving as his backing band.
Don’t mistake this 8.5” X 10.8” volume for “just another coffeetable book,” however. Folks who spot it in the book store might initially compare it to the 2013 Neil Young: A Life in Pictures, given the similar size and similar wealth of photos—many of them familiar and considered “classic” but quite a few also quite rare and/or relatively obscure—that dot each spread and cover literally every stage of Young’s career (from high school yearbook photos all the way up to his appearance in April of this year in L.A. at Stephen Stills’ Light Up the Blues benefit for Autism Speaks).
But for my money, NYHoG is as worthy a Young biography as, say, Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey, from 2003, or Johnny Rogan’s 2000 tome Zero to Sixty. As a lifelong Young fan who even saw Buffalo Springfield back in the day, Kubernik certainly owns those books and many others, and it’s likely that he didn’t feel the need to retread similar narrative ground. Instead, he structures his book as an oral history that synchs nicely with the images he presents, quoting from Young intimates (David Geffen, David Briggs, Elliot Mazer, etc.), journalists and filmmakers (John Einarson, Henry Diltz, Stanley Dorfman, etc.), musical peers and bandmates (Randy Bachman, Eddie Vedder, Graham Nash, Richie Furay, Nils Lofgren, Frank Sampedro, etc.) and scores more. At the end of the book an appendix lists all of Kubernik’s respondents along with a capsule bio for each, so while a name like Nash or Lofgren probably needs no further explication, it’s nice to know the bonafides for some of the lesser-known people who provide quotes for the book. (Kubernik lists all these folks as “contributors.” Nice populist touch, that.) Another appendix lists the original sources (books, magazines, etc.) for all quotes not collected by Kubernik himself.
He also drops in Young quotes where appropriate, additionally making judicious use of brief but pertinent narrative segues—mindful no doubt of the number one pitfall for oral histories, namely, the ever-present risk of jumping from one “voice” to another without any accompanying context, thereby leaving the reader confused. And to bolster the time-line theme of the book, an appendix provides a very detailed 25-page discography of every Young-related official release.
Ultimately, Neil Young: Heart of Gold strikes the right balance between text and images, between brain food and eye candy. You can proudly leave it out on the table in the living room to impress visitors with your obvious appreciation of The Icon Known As Neil Young, sure. But it’s also the kind of book you can pick up while listening to a record or wondering about some stray bit of Young lore and come away feeling just a little more informed than you were previously.
And hey, Christmas is coming, and everyone’s got a Young fan in the family or circle of friends in need of a good gift idea, so… Now excuse me, I have to go. I’ve been putting off organizing into a database my 500+ Neil Young bootleg LPs, CDs, tapes and downloads for far too long, and I suddenly have an incentive to do just that.