Book Review: Shakey – Neil Young’s Biography, by Jimmy McDonough

 

Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes

 

Shakey is one of the finest biographies that I have read. Author Jimmy McDonough is a tireless researcher and an excellent writer, in tune with the times in which Neil Young, his subject, has lived through and, in some respects, helped to shape.

 

The book thankfully offers chronological balance between the various stages in Young’s life, from his youth in Winnipeg and rural Ontario, to his adolescence in North Toronto (in, as it happens, the very neighbourhood in which I experienced my adolescence), to his emigration to California. McDonough deserves credit for going to all of the places, both large and small, that Young inhabited, interviewing family members, neighbours and friends.

 

Another great aspect of the book is the material one learns about many other artists in and around Young’s life; not only are there great insights into the likely characters such as Crosby, Stills and Nash, but one also learns a good deal about Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and the numerous musicians, managers, producers and assorted hangers-on that Neil has attracted.

 

Embedded throughout each chapter are excerpts of a conversation between McDonough and Young. The author does a skillful job of encouraging Young to look back on various events in his life, often getting Young to confess to mistakes and errors in judgment. The role of this conversation is two-fold: first, McDonough performs a precarious, intriguing balancing act of serving as Young’s dispassionate biographer, and as a friend in whom Young can feel comfortable confiding; second, the conversation reveals the full human side of Neil Young, warts and all, as he sees things today.

 

I’ve seen Neil Young in concert four times – with the Shocking Pinks in the 1980’s, and, so far in this decade, with Crazy Horse (Greendale), as CSNY (Freedom of Speech), and at Massey Hall with wife Peggi. To me, Young and his work are as original and vital as ever, and this view is corroborated by many well-known artists quoted in Shakey.

 

To be sure, Young has had a bumpy road to travel, what with his parents splitting up when he was still living at home, his bouts with polio and epilepsy, and his challenges raising his two sons, both of whom are quite disabled. While Young has been, in many respects, a victim of the circumstances just described, he has been, either despite this or perhaps because of this, far from an angel himself: he has been a very tough, demanding guy to work with, to live with, or to just be around. Young has been described as a loner, mercurial, driven by his work to the point of distraction, inaccessible. Yet, as one of his cohorts has indicated, “magic things happen when you’re around Neil”.

 

Shakey does justice to the story of Neil Young, a versatile, brilliant, principled artist. While it is unfortunate that many in his midst have been hurt by his at times uncaring and insensitive ways, presumably they chose to have a relationship with him and, as such, were in a position to take the good with the bad.

 

For a Neil Young music fan, Shakey is an excellent resource. In addition, this book is also a valuable exposition of the spirit, mechanics and orientation of Young as an artist, someone intent on achieving specific end results. In other words, this book can be entertaining, informative and instructive; I certainly found it to be that way.