Maybe more than any artist, over our near two year span, we have heaped piles upon piles of praise on Neil Young, landing on ten of our top ten lists, including the top spot for best fall albums (Harvest), best memorial song (“Needle and the Damage Done”), and even best solo career. We even dedicated a week to top ten Neil Young albums. So it’s probably no surprise, I spent the last four months reading the goliath biography Shakey, one of the most in-depth and thorough biographies I have ever taken on.
Jimmy McDonough, the book’s biographer, has a definite dog in the fight with Shakey: he is a long-time fan of Neil and doesn’t believe any other artist can reach the highs Neil Young can reach. But fortunately for the book, he also knows Young has created the lowest of lows, giving this book a very clear and balanced voice. Shakey was named after Young’s nickname among his closest peers, and McDonough writes as if he has been let in the inner circle, which with Neil, isn’t easy to do.
Shakey starts down the Young family tree and works its way all the way through to Young’s music in the late 90’s. McDonough points to his mother Rassy particularly as the reason for many of Young’s harsh and independent ways. The book points to this independent spirit and need to keep moving forward and changing as Young’s greatest asset and weakness: it’s the reason Young has never made a concession with his creative direction but also the reason he has left so many friends face down and bloodied in his path. Even with all the times he has turned his back on his closest friends, whether it the members of Crazy Horse, his manager Elliott Roberts, or producer David Briggs, he still works and keeps his closest friends near him on Broken Arrow Ranch in Santa Cruz.
I especially loved McDonough’s depiction of all the drama with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, from Young’s strange rivalry with Stephen Stills to his dismay with the prima donna ways of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Also, learning in depth about the weirdness of the Tonight’s the Night sessions and the real family reason behind Young’s 80’s career slump really speaks volumes about the human behind that brute façade.
What really separates Shakey is McDonough’s ongoing interview with Young that goes through the entire book, sort of like reading a book with DVD commentary from the protagonist. Young’s comments are honest, heartfelt, and often blunt, but that’s who Young is, and why we at LxL love him so much.