Shakey: Neil Young's Biography

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Overview

Neil Young is one of rock and roll’s most important and enigmatic figures, a legend from the sixties who is still hugely influential today. He has never granted a writer access to his inner life – until now. Based on six years of interviews with more than three hundred of Young’s associates, and on more than fifty hours of interviews with Young himself, Shakey is a fascinating, prodigious account of the singer’s life and career. Jimmy McDonough follows Young from his childhood in Canada to his cofounding of ...

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Overview

Neil Young is one of rock and roll’s most important and enigmatic figures, a legend from the sixties who is still hugely influential today. He has never granted a writer access to his inner life – until now. Based on six years of interviews with more than three hundred of Young’s associates, and on more than fifty hours of interviews with Young himself, Shakey is a fascinating, prodigious account of the singer’s life and career. Jimmy McDonough follows Young from his childhood in Canada to his cofounding of Buffalo Springfield to the huge success of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to his comeback in the nineties. Filled with never-before-published words directly from the artist himself, Shakey is an essential addition to the top shelf of rock biographies.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll just begin the Neil Young story. This engaging, sometimes disarming book can be read either as an intensely embodied history of rock or a modulated biography of the Canadian-born musician. Indeed, readers will find the personal story of Young's epilepsy as stirring as they do the accounts of his touring escapades. Young's voice is strongly present, both in quotations and authorial sympathy. By the end of the book, even longtime fans will have a new perspective on the inimitable rocker's music.
From the Publisher
“Jimmy McDonough’s fat, teeming, obsessive, and revelatory biography of Young is a pure shot of all-access pleasure. . . . Hugely original.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Just as unmanageable, hard-headed, overzealous, and ultimately endearing as Young himself . . . A maddening, beguiling portrait of an elusive maverick . . . A glorious mess.” —San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

“An exhilarating match-up of author and subject makes Shakey a great, gripping read. . . . A must-read for anyone who cares about Neil Young.” —Rolling Stone

“Staggeringly thorough . . . McDonough gets it all: the chaos, the grandeur, the good times and dreary deaths, the alcohol- and drug-besotted recording sessions, the broken hearts, and the sheer unfettered joy of a seriously gifted artist.” —Salon

“The definitive book on the subject.” —The Washington Post

“Exhaustive, quarrelsome, and sometimes maddening . . . there are revelations in abundance.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Where the average rock-star biography is a tepid, toothless thing, McDonough has approached his task like a literary Terminator, steaming ahead with lethal thoroughness. One of the most penetrative studies of a rock icon ever written.” —Times (London)

“A mammoth portrait of the artist and lively exhumation of rock n roll history. . . . [McDonough] traces a rich turbulent career in vivid detail.” —The New York Times

“Imaginatively written...not only is Shakey an extraordinary literary feat of research and affection and endurance, it's an insight into the art of biography itself.”—Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Delves further into the life and motives of one of music's most private individuals than anything previously released. . . surprisingly comprehensive and thoroughly enjoyable. . . .The most detailed portrait of this shrouded artist to date.” —San Jose Mercury News

“Exhaustively researched, impressively detailed. . . The long passages in which McDonough steps aside to let Young talk are the most revealing. ‘One day I'm a jerk,’ Young says, ‘the next day I'm a genius.’ This book argues artfully for the latter.”—People

“Like meeting Brando's Kurtz in a cave at the end of Apocalypse Now. . . . Young comes across as a Jekyll-and-Hyde loner whose life has unfolded like a reckless chemistry experiment — a control freak on an endless quest for the uncontrolled moment.” —Macleans (Canada)

“McDonough is an avid fan, music critic and impartial journalist all in one. . . . [He] deftly weaves Young's life, actions and art together. . . . What was known of Young's life before was akin to a series of rough demos. In Shakey, McDonough delivers a full double-album.” —Rocky Mountain News

“Does what most rock bios don’t: It fails to fawn, it delivers the juice, it subjects the hero to the scrutiny and disappointment of a fan. . . A page-turning good read..”—Houston Chronicle

“Fascinating reading. . . McDonough gives us as good a look at [Young’s] cards as we’re likely to get.” —The Tampa Tribune

“[Shakey's] unprecedented access makes for an entertaining read: McDonough, more than any music journalist since Peter Guralnick in his authoritative Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, has succeeded in stripping a star of his iconography.”—The Observer (London)

“Crammed with razor-sharp insights and mind-boggling detail, Shakey is a rock-solid literary triumph, as inspired and inspiring as the eccentric figure it evokes with such frustrated devotion.” — The Guardian (London)

“McDonough . . . pores through Young’s life with vivid prose and blunt detail, and he is unashamed to insert some stinging opinions. In his probing conversations with Young, . . . he challenges the formidable artist in ways that few others would dare.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“It’s hard to imagine anyone trying to better this book. . . It has what Young values above all else. . . passion.”—Evening Standard (London)

Library Journal
From his first appearances with Buffalo Springfield in the mid-1960s, Neil Young has roared like a hurricane through the rock'n'roll landscape. This embattled biography clearly shows that the guitarist remains the genre's most elusive, irascible, and creative musician. Ten years in the making, it provides as close to a definitive biography of Young as we will probably ever have. Young granted former Village Voice writer McDonough unprecedented access, but in 1998 he filed suit to retract many of his harsh words about friends and former band mates. McDonough then sued Young for breach of contract (Young had been given control over details about his immediate family only), and both parties settled out of court last year. Readers are still treated to an uncensored portrait: for the first time, Young talks openly about the stormy family life that left him fatherless, his epilepsy, a childhood bout with polio, his relationships with actress Carrie Snodgress and singer Nicolette Larson, and his contentious association with Stephen Stills. McDonough weaves his own biographical narrative around Young's words, chronicling the events that surrounded the making of Young's albums, as well as providing critical commentary on each track. Young emerges from these pages as a reclusive iconoclast, Lionel model railroad aficionado, loving father, and tireless musical journeyman. Unfortunately, McDonough's often arrogant tone, plodding prose, and exhausting attention to unnecessary details make for some tiresome reading. Young's life is hardly an epic one, so the book is too long by half. Yet, when Young talks, the book sparkles and offers a warm, engaging portrait of the man who keeps on rockin' in the free world. Recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/02.] Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679750963
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/13/2003
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 816
  • Sales rank: 244,104
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.17 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Meet the Author

Jimmy McDonough is a journalist who has contributed to such publications as Variety, Film Comment, Mojo, Spin, and Juggs. But he is perhaps best known for his intense, definitive Village Voice profiles of such artists as Jimmy Scott, Neil Young, and Hubert Selby, Jr. Jimmy is also the author of The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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Read an Excerpt

Innaresting characters

–Who gave you the Nixon mask?

I can’t recall, as John Dean would say. I’ll always tell ya if I remember, Jimmy. You talk about things and it comes back.

–Every question seems to stir up something in you.

Not the answers you were looking for . . . but they’re answers, heh heh. Hard to remember things. It’s all there, though. Maybe we oughta go into hypnotherapy, fuckin’ go right back. Take like, six months to get zoned in on the Tonight’s the Night sessions–exactly what was happening? “Okay, we’re gonna go back a little further today, Neil. . . .”

–I’m frustrated.

Hey, well, you’ve been frustrated since the beginning, heh heh. You’re not frustrated because of this–we’re doing it. You’re asking questions and I’m answering them. What could be less frustrating than THAT?

–Maybe I should tell people in the intro you don’t wanna do the book.
You can tell ’em if you want. The bottom line is if it went against the grain so hard, I wouldn’t be doin’ it. The thing is, it’s not necessarily my first love. I think that’s a subtle way of puttin’ it. Heh heh.

The first time Jon McKeig really encountered Shakey he was under a car. Shakey’s a nickname–from alter ego Bernard Shakey, sometime moviemaker. It’s just one of many aliases: Joe Yankee, overdubber; Shakey Deal, blues singer; Phil Perspective, producer.

The world knows him as Neil Young.

McKeig had been toiling away on Nanoo, a blue and white ’59 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible of Young’s, for months without actually seeing him. The car was a mess, but McKeig would soon realize that this was Shakey’s M.O., buying beyond-dead wrecks for peanuts, then sparing no expense to bring them back to life. “I can name five automobiles he has that the parts cars were in better shape than the cars that were restored.” McKeig shook his head. “That’s extreme. I don’t believe anybody anywhere goes to that length. If the car smells wrong, you’re screwed; if it squeaks, it’s not cool . . . he’s fanatical.”
One day Neil happened in for a personal inspection. “Neil came right over to the car, looked at it and–I’ll be damned–all of a sudden he went down to the concrete and slid right underneath. All you could see was his tennis shoes.”

McKeig asked Young how far he wanted to go with the thrashed Cadillac. “Neil looked me straight in the eye and said calmly, ‘As long as it’s museum quality.’ ” McKeig shuddered. “I never heard it said like that–‘museum quality.’ Then he left. That’s all that was said. I never saw him–for years after.” Decades later, Nanoo still isn’t finished.
Cars are a major part of Shakey’s world. He’s written countless songs in them and they figure into more than a few of his lyrics: “Trans Am,” “Long May You Run,” “Motor City,” “Like an Inca (Hitchhiker),” “Drifter,” “Roll Another Number (For the Road),” “Sedan Delivery,” “Get Gone”; the list goes on.

Young would even advise me on touch-up paint and carburetor problems–until I flipped my ’66 Falcon Futura twice off the side of a two-lane, nearly killing myself. Out on the road in his bus, Young called me a few days after. “See, Neil?” I said. “You tried to bump me off, but I’m still here. Now I gotta finish the book.’’ Unnerved, he immediately called back after we hung up. “Jimmy,” he said, his voice awash in cellular static, “just want ya to know I’m glad ya didn’t die in the wreck.” Shakey and I had a colorful relationship. But that was all in the future.

Right now it was April 1991, and I was in Los Angeles, watching McKeig–now Young’s live-in auto restorer and maintenance man–pilot members of Neil’s family through the service areas of the L.A. Sports Arena in a sleek black ’54 Caddy that Young called Pearl: He nicknames everything. It was a stunning vehicle. He had paid $400 for the car in 1974 and spent years and a fortune restoring it. Legend has it that some rich Arab saw Young tooling Pearl through Hollywood and offered him a pile of loot on the spot.

Out of the Caddy’s backseat emerged Neil’s wife, Pegi, a striking blonde and a powerful force in her own right. She and Neil have two children, Ben and Amber. Family is a priority to both of them. Ben, born spastic, nonoral and quadriplegic, went everywhere with his mom and pop. It wasn’t unusual to see him at the side of the stage in his wheelchair, watching his father work.

“Spud,” Ben’s nickname, graced the door of Pocahontas, which was parked not far from Pearl. A huge, Belgian-made ’70 Silver Eagle, forty feet long and sporting a souped-up mill, the bus had been Young’s home on the road since 1976. Young had gone to outlandish lengths in customizing it. Down one side was an extravagant stained-glass comet circling the earth; the roof was domed with vintage Hudson Hornet/Studebaker Starlight Coupe cartops that acted as skylights. The interior of the bus–designed under Young’s supervision to resemble the skeletal structure of a giant bird–was lavish with hand-carved wood, down to the door handle of the microwave. Above the big front windows hung a large brass eagle’s eye. “This bus is so fucked up and over the top,” Young would tell me with a grin. “Which is just how I was back in the mid-seventies when I built it.”

Bus driver Joe McKenna was making sure Pocahontas was shipshape for Neil’s arrival. An Irishman with a low-slung belly, a silver pompadour and a voice lower than a frog’s, Joe loved the golf course and let little faze him. He seemed to have a calming effect on Young, who once dubbed him “The Lucky Leprechaun.” McKenna would beat cancer after Young helped him get alternative medical help. “Neil Young saved my life,” he told me. “Put that in your book.”

Next to the steering wheel hung a sign that read in bold block letters, don’t spill the soup.

I wouldn’t have driven that bus for love, money or drugs. When it came to Pocahontas, Shakey was like a hawk. He knew every ding and dimple and wanted the ones he didn’t know explained immediately.

An intense relationship with his bus drivers, I mused, but tour manager Bob Sterne set me straight. “In all honesty, I think the intense relationship is with the bus,” said Sterne, a big, bearded, no-nonsense monolith with a constantly peeling nose and sporting a Cruex jock itch ointment T-shirt. Sterne and Joe McKenna weren’t exactly the best of pals.

Sterne was forever seeking info on Young’s elusive doings and one of McKenna’s jobs was to keep the world away.

Bob was no stranger to that task–his makeshift office inside the sports arena was plastered with signs like if you want a backstage pass, get lost. Sterne was hard-core. It came with the territory. “Neil’s not gonna do what you think he’s gonna do or what he said last week–it’s not a good place for the average person to be. The people who are looking for a paycheck don’t last long.”

Young likes to keep everyone on their toes. “Neil’s come to me and said, ‘Go get all the set lists and throw ’em in the trash can’–and he said this to me fifteen minutes before the show,” said Sterne. “He’s not just talking about the band’s set list, he’s talking about the lighting guys, the sound guys–every single set list in the building.”

Sitting in the office not far from Sterne was Tim Foster, Young’s stage manager and primary roadie. Foster had worked for Young off and on–mostly on–since 1973. With a Dick Tracy chin, a mustache and a baseball cap pulled down to his eyes, Foster saw everything and said little. “Tim never gets flustered,” said Sterne. “He understands Neil has no schedule.”

Making his way through the backstage maze out to the arena’s mixing station was Tim Mulligan, his long hair, mustache and shades making him look like the world’s most sullen Doobie Brother. Nothing impresses Mulligan. He’s been working on Young’s albums and mixing his live sound for decades. “Producers, engineers come and go,” said Sterne. “Mulligan hangs in there. He doesn’t have an opinion.” Tim lives alone on Young’s ranch, without a phone. “Mulligan has this incredible allegiance,” said longtime Young associate “Ranger Dave” Cline. “He lives and breathes Neil. It’s his whole life.”

It took years for Mulligan to warm to me, and even then he wouldn’t give me an interview, just tersely answered a few questions. Getting any one of Young’s crew to talk was like breaking into the Mafia. They were fiercely devoted, and although they’d all been subject to the ferocious twists and turns of Neil’s psyche, most had been around for decades. And every one of them was an individual. “Innaresting characters,” as Young would put it. “They’re all Neil,” said Graham Nash. “They all represent a slice of Neil’s personality.”

“Neil likes quirky people around him,” said Elliot Roberts, Young’s manager since the late sixties. “I think having quirky people around him lessens–in his mind–his own quirkiness. ‘Yes, I am standing on my head, but look at these two other guys nude standing on their head.’ ”

His mane of gray hair flying, Roberts was on his ninety-sixth phone call of the day, either chewing out some record-company underling or closing a million-dollar deal. Not far away, a bearded, sunglassed David Briggs–Young’s producer–prowled the stage, palming a cigarette J.D.-style and looking like the devil himself. Briggs and Roberts were the twin engines that powered the Neil Young hot rod. Feared, at times hated, both men possessed killer instincts and had been with Neil almost from the beginning. Roberts was a genius at pushing Young’s career, Briggs at pushing his art. It’s an understatement to say the two didn’t always see eye to eye.

Roberts and Briggs were two of the quirkiest characters around–difficult, complicated men–but then so was just about everybody and everything in Young’s world. “Let’s look at Neil’s whole trip–the ranch, the people he plays with,” said computer wizard Bryan Bell, who worked extensively with Young in the late eighties. “ ‘Easy’ isn’t in the vocabulary.”

“Neil is wonderful to work for in many ways and very difficult to work with in many ways,” said Roger Katz, former captain of Young’s boat. “He’s able to control most everything.” As David Briggs put it, “It’s not fun at all working with Neil–fun’s not part of the deal–but it’s very fulfilling.”

I asked Young’s guitar tech Larry Cragg what the hardest tour had been. “All of ’em,” he said. “They’ve all been rough–every one of ’em made workin’ for anybody else real easy. The tours are out of the ordinary, the music, the movies–everything’s out of the ordinary. We do things differently around here. That’s just the way it is.”

Cragg was tinkering with Young’s guitar rig, which sat in a little area to the rear of the stage. A gaggle of amps–a Magnatone, a huge transistorized Baldwin Exterminator, a Fender Reverb unit and the heart of it all: a small, weather-beaten box covered in worn-out tweed, 1959 vintage. “The Deluxe,” muttered amp tech Sal Trentino with awe.

“Neil’s got four hundred and fifty-six identical Deluxes. They sound nothing like this one.” Young runs the amp with oversized tubes, and Cragg has to keep portable fans trained on the back so it doesn’t melt down. “It really is ready to just go up in smoke, and it sounds that way–flat-out, overdriven, ready to self-destruct.”

Young has a personal relationship with electricity. In Europe, where the electrical current is sixty cycles, not fifty, he can pinpoint the fluctuation–by degrees. It dumbfounded Cragg. “He’ll say, ‘Larry, there’s a hundred and seventeen volts coming out of the wall, isn’t there?’ I’ll go measure it, and yeah, sure–he can hear the difference.”

Shakey’s innovations are everywhere. Intent on controlling amp volume from his guitar instead of the amp, Young had a remote device designed called the Whizzer. Guitarists marvel at the stomp box that lies onstage at Young’s feet: a byzantine gang of effects that can be utilized without any degradation to the original signal. Just constructing the box’s angular red wooden housing to Young’s extreme specifications had craftsmen pulling their hair out.

Cradled in a stand in front of the amps is the fuse for the dynamite, Young’s trademark ax–Old Black, a ’53 Gold Top Les Paul some knothead daubed with black paint eons ago. Old Black’s features include a Bigsby wang bar, which pulls strings and bends notes, and a Firebird pickup so sensitive you can talk through it. It’s a demonic instrument. “Old Black doesn’t sound like any other guitar,” said Cragg, shaking his head.

For Cragg, Old Black is a nightmare. Young won’t permit the ancient frets to be changed, likes his strings old and used, and the Bigsby causes the guitar to go out of tune constantly. “At sound check, everything will work great. Neil picks up the guitar, and for some reason that’s when things go wrong.”

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First Chapter

Innaresting characters

–Who gave you the Nixon mask?

I can't recall, as John Dean would say. I'll always tell ya if I remember, Jimmy. You talk about things and it comes back.

–Every question seems to stir up something in you.

Not the answers you were looking for . . . but they're answers, heh heh. Hard to remember things. It's all there, though. Maybe we oughta go into hypnotherapy, fuckin' go right back. Take like, six months to get zoned in on the Tonight's the Night sessions–exactly what was happening? "Okay, we're gonna go back a little further today, Neil. . . ."

–I'm frustrated.

Hey, well, you've been frustrated since the beginning, heh heh. You're not frustrated because of this–we're doing it. You're asking questions and I'm answering them. What could be less frustrating than THAT?

–Maybe I should tell people in the intro you don't wanna do the book.
You can tell 'em if you want. The bottom line is if it went against the grain so hard, I wouldn't be doin' it. The thing is, it's not necessarily my first love. I think that's a subtle way of puttin' it. Heh heh.

The first time Jon McKeig really encountered Shakey he was under a car. Shakey's a nickname–from alter ego Bernard Shakey, sometime moviemaker. It's just one of many aliases: Joe Yankee, overdubber; Shakey Deal, blues singer; Phil Perspective, producer.

The world knows him as Neil Young.

McKeig had been toiling away on Nanoo, a blue and white '59 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible of Young's, for months without actually seeing him. The car was a mess, but McKeig would soon realize that this wasShakey's M.O., buying beyond-dead wrecks for peanuts, then sparing no expense to bring them back to life. "I can name five automobiles he has that the parts cars were in better shape than the cars that were restored." McKeig shook his head. "That's extreme. I don't believe anybody anywhere goes to that length. If the car smells wrong, you're screwed; if it squeaks, it's not cool . . . he's fanatical."
One day Neil happened in for a personal inspection. "Neil came right over to the car, looked at it and–I'll be damned–all of a sudden he went down to the concrete and slid right underneath. All you could see was his tennis shoes."

McKeig asked Young how far he wanted to go with the thrashed Cadillac. "Neil looked me straight in the eye and said calmly, 'As long as it's museum quality.' " McKeig shuddered. "I never heard it said like that–'museum quality.' Then he left. That's all that was said. I never saw him–for years after." Decades later, Nanoo still isn't finished.
Cars are a major part of Shakey's world. He's written countless songs in them and they figure into more than a few of his lyrics: "Trans Am," "Long May You Run," "Motor City," "Like an Inca (Hitchhiker)," "Drifter," "Roll Another Number (For the Road)," "Sedan Delivery," "Get Gone"; the list goes on.

Young would even advise me on touch-up paint and carburetor problems–until I flipped my '66 Falcon Futura twice off the side of a two-lane, nearly killing myself. Out on the road in his bus, Young called me a few days after. "See, Neil?" I said. "You tried to bump me off, but I'm still here. Now I gotta finish the book.'' Unnerved, he immediately called back after we hung up. "Jimmy," he said, his voice awash in cellular static, "just want ya to know I'm glad ya didn't die in the wreck." Shakey and I had a colorful relationship. But that was all in the future.

Right now it was April 1991, and I was in Los Angeles, watching McKeig–now Young's live-in auto restorer and maintenance man–pilot members of Neil's family through the service areas of the L.A. Sports Arena in a sleek black '54 Caddy that Young called Pearl: He nicknames everything. It was a stunning vehicle. He had paid $400 for the car in 1974 and spent years and a fortune restoring it. Legend has it that some rich Arab saw Young tooling Pearl through Hollywood and offered him a pile of loot on the spot.

Out of the Caddy's backseat emerged Neil's wife, Pegi, a striking blonde and a powerful force in her own right. She and Neil have two children, Ben and Amber. Family is a priority to both of them. Ben, born spastic, nonoral and quadriplegic, went everywhere with his mom and pop. It wasn't unusual to see him at the side of the stage in his wheelchair, watching his father work.

"Spud," Ben's nickname, graced the door of Pocahontas, which was parked not far from Pearl. A huge, Belgian-made '70 Silver Eagle, forty feet long and sporting a souped-up mill, the bus had been Young's home on the road since 1976. Young had gone to outlandish lengths in customizing it. Down one side was an extravagant stained-glass comet circling the earth; the roof was domed with vintage Hudson Hornet/Studebaker Starlight Coupe cartops that acted as skylights. The interior of the bus–designed under Young's supervision to resemble the skeletal structure of a giant bird–was lavish with hand-carved wood, down to the door handle of the microwave. Above the big front windows hung a large brass eagle's eye. "This bus is so fucked up and over the top," Young would tell me with a grin. "Which is just how I was back in the mid-seventies when I built it."

Bus driver Joe McKenna was making sure Pocahontas was shipshape for Neil's arrival. An Irishman with a low-slung belly, a silver pompadour and a voice lower than a frog's, Joe loved the golf course and let little faze him. He seemed to have a calming effect on Young, who once dubbed him "The Lucky Leprechaun." McKenna would beat cancer after Young helped him get alternative medical help. "Neil Young saved my life," he told me. "Put that in your book."

Next to the steering wheel hung a sign that read in bold block letters, don't spill the soup.

I wouldn't have driven that bus for love, money or drugs. When it came to Pocahontas, Shakey was like a hawk. He knew every ding and dimple and wanted the ones he didn't know explained immediately.

An intense relationship with his bus drivers, I mused, but tour manager Bob Sterne set me straight. "In all honesty, I think the intense relationship is with the bus," said Sterne, a big, bearded, no-nonsense monolith with a constantly peeling nose and sporting a Cruex jock itch ointment T-shirt. Sterne and Joe McKenna weren't exactly the best of pals.

Sterne was forever seeking info on Young's elusive doings and one of McKenna's jobs was to keep the world away.

Bob was no stranger to that task–his makeshift office inside the sports arena was plastered with signs like if you want a backstage pass, get lost. Sterne was hard-core. It came with the territory. "Neil's not gonna do what you think he's gonna do or what he said last week–it's not a good place for the average person to be. The people who are looking for a paycheck don't last long."

Young likes to keep everyone on their toes. "Neil's come to me and said, 'Go get all the set lists and throw 'em in the trash can'–and he said this to me fifteen minutes before the show," said Sterne. "He's not just talking about the band's set list, he's talking about the lighting guys, the sound guys–every single set list in the building."

Sitting in the office not far from Sterne was Tim Foster, Young's stage manager and primary roadie. Foster had worked for Young off and on–mostly on–since 1973. With a Dick Tracy chin, a mustache and a baseball cap pulled down to his eyes, Foster saw everything and said little. "Tim never gets flustered," said Sterne. "He understands Neil has no schedule."

Making his way through the backstage maze out to the arena's mixing station was Tim Mulligan, his long hair, mustache and shades making him look like the world's most sullen Doobie Brother. Nothing impresses Mulligan. He's been working on Young's albums and mixing his live sound for decades. "Producers, engineers come and go," said Sterne. "Mulligan hangs in there. He doesn't have an opinion." Tim lives alone on Young's ranch, without a phone. "Mulligan has this incredible allegiance," said longtime Young associate "Ranger Dave" Cline. "He lives and breathes Neil. It's his whole life."

It took years for Mulligan to warm to me, and even then he wouldn't give me an interview, just tersely answered a few questions. Getting any one of Young's crew to talk was like breaking into the Mafia. They were fiercely devoted, and although they'd all been subject to the ferocious twists and turns of Neil's psyche, most had been around for decades. And every one of them was an individual. "Innaresting characters," as Young would put it. "They're all Neil," said Graham Nash. "They all represent a slice of Neil's personality."

"Neil likes quirky people around him," said Elliot Roberts, Young's manager since the late sixties. "I think having quirky people around him lessens–in his mind–his own quirkiness. 'Yes, I am standing on my head, but look at these two other guys nude standing on their head.' "

His mane of gray hair flying, Roberts was on his ninety-sixth phone call of the day, either chewing out some record-company underling or closing a million-dollar deal. Not far away, a bearded, sunglassed David Briggs–Young's producer–prowled the stage, palming a cigarette J.D.-style and looking like the devil himself. Briggs and Roberts were the twin engines that powered the Neil Young hot rod. Feared, at times hated, both men possessed killer instincts and had been with Neil almost from the beginning. Roberts was a genius at pushing Young's career, Briggs at pushing his art. It's an understatement to say the two didn't always see eye to eye.

Roberts and Briggs were two of the quirkiest characters around–difficult, complicated men–but then so was just about everybody and everything in Young's world. "Let's look at Neil's whole trip–the ranch, the people he plays with," said computer wizard Bryan Bell, who worked extensively with Young in the late eighties. " 'Easy' isn't in the vocabulary."

"Neil is wonderful to work for in many ways and very difficult to work with in many ways," said Roger Katz, former captain of Young's boat. "He's able to control most everything." As David Briggs put it, "It's not fun at all working with Neil–fun's not part of the deal–but it's very fulfilling."

I asked Young's guitar tech Larry Cragg what the hardest tour had been. "All of 'em," he said. "They've all been rough–every one of 'em made workin' for anybody else real easy. The tours are out of the ordinary, the music, the movies–everything's out of the ordinary. We do things differently around here. That's just the way it is."

Cragg was tinkering with Young's guitar rig, which sat in a little area to the rear of the stage. A gaggle of amps–a Magnatone, a huge transistorized Baldwin Exterminator, a Fender Reverb unit and the heart of it all: a small, weather-beaten box covered in worn-out tweed, 1959 vintage. "The Deluxe," muttered amp tech Sal Trentino with awe.

"Neil's got four hundred and fifty-six identical Deluxes. They sound nothing like this one." Young runs the amp with oversized tubes, and Cragg has to keep portable fans trained on the back so it doesn't melt down. "It really is ready to just go up in smoke, and it sounds that way–flat-out, overdriven, ready to self-destruct."

Young has a personal relationship with electricity. In Europe, where the electrical current is sixty cycles, not fifty, he can pinpoint the fluctuation–by degrees. It dumbfounded Cragg. "He'll say, 'Larry, there's a hundred and seventeen volts coming out of the wall, isn't there?' I'll go measure it, and yeah, sure–he can hear the difference."

Shakey's innovations are everywhere. Intent on controlling amp volume from his guitar instead of the amp, Young had a remote device designed called the Whizzer. Guitarists marvel at the stomp box that lies onstage at Young's feet: a byzantine gang of effects that can be utilized without any degradation to the original signal. Just constructing the box's angular red wooden housing to Young's extreme specifications had craftsmen pulling their hair out.

Cradled in a stand in front of the amps is the fuse for the dynamite, Young's trademark ax–Old Black, a '53 Gold Top Les Paul some knothead daubed with black paint eons ago. Old Black's features include a Bigsby wang bar, which pulls strings and bends notes, and a Firebird pickup so sensitive you can talk through it. It's a demonic instrument. "Old Black doesn't sound like any other guitar," said Cragg, shaking his head.

For Cragg, Old Black is a nightmare. Young won't permit the ancient frets to be changed, likes his strings old and used, and the Bigsby causes the guitar to go out of tune constantly. "At sound check, everything will work great. Neil picks up the guitar, and for some reason that's when things go wrong."
Read More Show Less

Interviews & Essays

Rockin' in the Free World
From the May/June 2002 issue of Book magazine.

Getting to know rock legend Neil Young can be infuriating and challenging. Just ask Jimmy McDonough, who spent nearly a decade working on Shakey, an authorized biography of the 57-year-old musician.

In 1998, when McDonough turned over his finished manuscript to Young for approval, he was surprised to learn that, for unspecified reasons, his subject was no longer interested in supporting the project. In May 2000, McDonough filed a $1.8 million lawsuit to prevent Young from blocking the book's publication. By 2001 Young's worries seemed to have subsided, and the two parties amicably settled their differences, clearing the way for the book's release this spring.

"Nobody's mind works remotely like Neil's," McDonough says. "He's like a mood ring. One minute he's pink; come back in an hour and he's blue."

Shy and withdrawn as a boy, Young dropped out of high school to tour with several Canadian bands before meeting Stephen Stills in the '60s, with whom he eventually formed the seminal band Buffalo Springfield and later Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The musician's 40-year career has been filled with plenty of drugs, booze, and hell-raising, but it's Young's inimitable artistic sensibility (he collaborated with geeky new wavers Devo on "Hey Hey, My My") and complex disposition (he has walked out on band mates during concert tours) that attracted McDonough.

"I guess you could say I've made a career out of writing about left-of-center, cantankerous folks," says the author, whose last subject was underground film director Andy Milligan.

Befriending Young wasn't easy, but McDonough is happy to have tried. "Being with Young is like being near 100,000 volts," he says. "Despite his quirks, things happen and it's always exciting and unforgettable." (Josh Karp)

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 30, 2010

    Rambling, ragtag, and confusing - like Young himself

    It's impossible to ever assemble a clear picture of the notoriously reclusive and contrarian Neil Young, Canadian rock superstar and writer of some of the most evocative songs in modern history. Jimmy McDonough interviews hundreds of people to paint the most comprehensive picture he possibly can, but you'll still find yourself frustrated by gaps that frankly can NEVER be filled. It's so crammed with amazing stories, anecdotes, and a sprawling interview with Young itself that you won't mind too terribly, though.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2006

    Fawning and sycophantic fan-biog.

    Having always loved Neil Young's music and been fascinated by his life I was looking forward to this biog. However I did not enjoy Mcdonough's work at all. The problem is that Mcdonough clearly believes Young is God and can do no wrong. Every one of Young's pronouncements is greeted with something approaching the awe worthy of a deity. Young, in fact, according to Mcdonough, can do no wrong. By about chapter 3 it had ceased to be a biography and become a sustained love letter to someone the author obviously worships to the point of distraction. I guess this is the problem with 'authorised' biographies and it doesn't make for good reading. Everyone around Young (apart from his manager) is made out to be shallow, incompetent amd idiotic (or all three). This is particularly the case with regard to Crosby, Stills and Nash. The author obviously despises all three of them and does his best to denigrate them at every opportunity. However he never fully explains why, if they're such assinine and talentless buffoons, Young consistently returned to write, tour and record with them for 20 years and more. The fact that this may say more about Young's integrity than it does about CSN is never even addressed. Such is Mcdonough' level of bile to all things 'non-neil' the effect is comical. Mcdonough sneers at CSN for their drug excesses and overblown lifestyles, careful to distance Young from this behaviour. Laughably, and without a trace of irony, in the very next chapter sounding not unlike an infatated schoolgirl, he gleefully and breathlessly celebrates Young's own drug and lifestyle excesses. The overall effect of the author's tiresome fawning was to make me positively come to despise Young (or at least Mcdonough's 'God-like' version of the man). In sum, if you're looking for a genuine critical analysis of Young's life and work you wont find it here.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2003

    whose biography is it anyway?

    Let's see....McDonough spends years interviewing friends,colleagues,and partners of Young's. Yet whose name is on every even-numbered page? It ain't Neil Young's. McDonough breaks the first rule of biographies: the author isn't the subject of the book. While the book is fascinating reading (and re-reading) for one who has listened to Young since 1970, McDonough's constant intrusion and interjections of himself are annoying and diminish the book's overall enjoyment.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 25, 2012

    This book is well-researched and well-written, containing everyt

    This book is well-researched and well-written, containing everything a Neil Young fan could possibly want to know. It is crammed full of entertaining anecdotes and interesting insights into the mind of one of rock's great characters. It was a very enjoyable read. A glaring weakness, though, kept me from giving the book five stars. The author is a lifelong, obsessive Neil Young fan, which colors a lot of his writing. The author's adoration is pervasive and might get tiresome for a reader who hasn't already made up his mind about Young. Also, the author seems to think his fandom entitles him to judge the artistic validity of all of Young's work, something I'd rather biographers not do. All in all, though, a good book and required reading for Neil Young fans.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2007

    A roller coaster ride with the Picasso of rock!

    Neil Young is the Picasso of rock music. What does being a Neil Young fan really mean?? One can be a fan of Neil Young's work from the 'Gold Rush' 'Harvest' period and hate his stuff from the 80's. You can love his acoustical work and despise his thrash rock. You can love him with Buffalo Springfield or CSNY and not get into his collaboration with Pearl Jam at all. Just like Picasso had his blue period and his rose period and his cubist period, Neil has gone through a dozen different stages and being a Young fan probably doesn't mean you like his entire body of work. Reading 'Shakey' you not only begin to understand that the scope of his musical career is a roller coaster ride, but that his life in general is up and down and all over the map. Published in 2002, the author wasn't able to describe Young's later health problems and his more recent work. Still, if you listen to 'Prairie Wind', once again you get a completely different perspective on Neil Young than you will from hearing 'Living With War' ... Since I am about the same age as Young, the events in the book and the time period they describe are particularly vivid for me. It's a good book, and Neil Young appears to be a good person ... driven, ultra focused on his career for most of his life, but in the end, a good husband, loving father. All rock stars who began when Young did should be so lucky as to turn out as well.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2004

    The Greatest Neil Young Biography to ever hit the Market

    Shakey is an incredible biography on Neil Young. I personally read the book all the way from star to finish in about a years time and I can't remember ever reading such a powerful book in my life before. It teaches so much about the songs of Neil Young and Crazy Horse and there're billions of interviews with Neil Young. I read Shakey and I laughed about the same things he laughed about, I cried about the same things Young cried about, and I wanted the same things Neil wanted and hopefully Jimmy McDonough can continue writing such masterpieces and Neil Young can continue writing his songs to the best of his ability.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2004

    Thoroughly enjoyable

    Great read. I was confused by the reviewer who said that author injected himself on every other page. Did he read the book? At the end, you got the author telling how hard it was to get close to Neil, of the difficulties in getting information, etc. I think that part was essential to the book, knowing how the information was obtained and gave more detail to Neil's complex character, etc. I can't imagine anyone who'se not a really big Neil Young fan to truly love the book, though. I talked about it with friends who just gave me a blank look when I said how I was enjoying the book. Oh well....for Neil fans, the book was phenomenol and quite absorbing. Like many biographies, also a great history book about the times. When thumbing through the book, it doesn't look like it will be an easy, read, but it is. Very well written and truly enjoyable. The injected interviews with Neil written in italics made the book, of course. I did find myself craving even more detail about his personal life, his second marriage, his daughter, etc. but that is what you get with Neil Young. You're truly not going to know everything, and the fact that this author has does this painstaking work to let you get this close to him is amazing for that fact alone. One of my favorite passages about the book is at the train convention when Neil is giving a talk and the old man is amazed at all the train technology information Neil is dispensing, having no clue he is talking to a rock icon/legend/god. The author says something like 'some people would sell their soul to get this close to him.' That blew me away, because it's true. If you love Neil Young or even just classic rock and roll, DO NOT miss this book. I played my Neil Young music the whole time while reading the book and was just taken away. Thanks to the author!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2004

    What you Feel from Neils music is now in abook form.

    I read the book while listening to Bernard's cd's, dvd's. The MOST amazing person I ever knew.Ever since Buffalo Springfield, I KNEW.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2002

    Fascinating Look At Details behind The scenes In Neil's 'Life As Circus'!

    revealed in this new biography, Neil Young is a twentieth century original, a man who rose from obscurity based on nothing less than serendipitous happenstance, a remarkable talent as a musician, singer, and songwriter, and his enduring will to be true to his own inner voice. His story is nothing less than remarkable, given the quicksilver nature of fame and fortune in the rock and roll music business, for Young has truly done it all his way. He has a fabled lack of concern for consequences, for example, and has changed course in the midst of tours, recording sessions, and life a number of times, and allowed terrific carnage to concur in the wake of his leaving. As fellow Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young group member commented, "Neil is not what one would call a 'team player'". No, indeed he isn't. And the wreckage he sometimes leaves behind him has been the stuff of legend. Yet in the midst of all of this carnage and destruction, he has been fabulously successful, and in this penetrating and somewhat discursive biography written by a veteran rock and roll journalist allowed unique access to Young, the artist is revealed to be an iconoclastic, idealistic, and impetuous soul, one in constant search for unique opportunities for his own personal artistic expression. He tends to deal in extremes, not only in his music, but in his wider personal life as well, and has, for example, bought old wrecked 1950 something Cadillacs for $400, only to spend tens of thousands of dollars to have them scrupulously, painfully, and quite expensively restored to pristine condition. And he brings this aspect of doing things to the ultimate degree to almost every aspect of his life. Yet where it shows most clearly and most fatefully is in his recording output, which is both prodigious and varied. He has jettisoned friends and colleagues in search of something creatively different, has dared to off on obscure tangents, and has returned to writing, playing and singing that is artistically fresh, honest, and approachable. Young's life reflects this devotion to introspective aloofness, and although he is happily married with children, he has left a lot of emotional detritus on the floor in the area of his life as well. Colleagues and peers such as Paul Simon and James Taylor speak of him in glowing and affectionate terms, and even Bob Dylan is an outspoken admirer of Neil's creative abilities. Yet all of his friends, band members, and associates recognize that the singular degree to which Neil Young has lived his life is in many ways cruelly and unnecessarily selfish, as though all that mattered to Young was his pursuit of his artistic expression and his idiosyncratic interests. In fact, Young admits as much, and yet is unapologetic. So while one can easily admire the singular creative force he embodies, one is leery of anyone so inner-directed and so single-mindedly devoted to his pursuit of art that he sometimes seems to carelessly disregard all those humans who so meaningfully contribute to his ability to do what he does. Yet he is also sometimes described as generous, thoughtful, and exteremely loyal to friends and aquaintenances. Thus, there is no question but that Neil Young is an enigmatic, complicated, and often tortured individual, and he certainly is a uniquely talented and gifted artist, musician, and singer. His life has been neither easy nor uncomplicated, and one has to admire the energy and determination he brings to his craft, his continued work, and to his life. He is a searcher, someone who, after all this success and recognition, seems still devoted to the pursuit of what Mark Twain referred to as 'the territory ahead', out where few other humans have tread, and where Neil may get to breathe in the intoxicating aromas of original art. This is a fascinating, absorbing, and very informative book written with Young's cooperation and blessing, and one that incorporates interviews with hundreds of Young's friends, family, and coll

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2002

    At Last, Canada Doesn't Get Second-Class Treatment

    Without knowing squat about JImmy McDonough or having read many current books on music, I have to say this is a pull-no-punches, exhaustively researched, unsparing book. I give him full credit for all the years of hard work, interviewing so many people, travelliing to so many distant corners of Canada (and, I guess, the US). I like the way he sometimes offers his subjective opinion of a recording, weaving it into the chronological narrative and "objective" account of the process. I haven't yet finished the book, it's really weighty, but I can't stop reading it. I should add that I was raised in Pickering, and when I was in senior public school in Grade 7, "Heart of Gold" was the sound that defined that year for me. When it came on the radio at home and my mother said that Neil Young's family had lived in Pickering back before I was born, he'd had polio, she'd seen him at the doctor's office with his mom when he was a kid - it was a little unreal. I knew that he'd been the biggest star and the most talented member of CSNY. And I knew of his father,Scott Young, because my sister and I were big fans of his column in the Globe and Mail. It didn't seem that one man could have anything to do with the other. Reading the biography, I can see that when Scott Young departed leaving Neil with his forceful mother, it created a big rift. I don't have a lot of his albums, but I love Neil Young's uncompromising stance, his integrity, his heartbreaking voice, his brilliance with a guitar and harmonica (and a lot of other things I know nothing about). But again, a big hand for Jimmy McDonough for giving Canada and all the great Canadian musicians who inspired Neil in his early years the credit they deserve. As for his remarkable achievement in overcoming epilepsy, and the dedication shown by Neil and his wife in raising a severely handicapped child - and helping so many others -bravo! This is a great book about a great artist, and I would have to say it's a very skillful writer who can keep the reader engaged so well. I want to finish it now, and then eventually stock up on the Neil Young albums. Oh, and I also have relatives still living in Omemee. Nice little town, but I always chuckled at the artistic licence of calling it "north Ontario" - it's southern Ontario or, at very best, central Ontario. Ah well, an artist can be forgiven a lot of things. I ought to know,my dad was one too!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2002

    Stars and Bars-PLUS!!!!

    You don't just read this thing. You become absorbed into it. It's much more than one dudes life. If you've read where The Beatles came unglued in 'The Love You Make' or The Beach Boys family in 'The Nearest FarAway Place', then pick this one up and read about Rock and Roll. Read about one artist and get to really understand his music. Read about the music and really understand the 'way we were' and what happened through the 60's into the 70's. I gotta' warn ya'- you're not going to be able to put it down so get ready to take a vacation from life!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 5, 2002

    Not Only Played Rock but Lived It Too

    WoW this is a must read even for the casual Neil fan!!Now that I have read this I feel that I've know him all my life.I couldn't put it down it is riveting and like a great movie-- it keeps your interest-.This was not told from the authors veiwpoint but from the freiends and family of Neil most being around him for years from the beginning and of chous Neil chimes in.WHAT A GREAT BOOK--PRICE IS WORTH IT!!!!!!!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2002

    I just finished the book

    Brilliant! Exposes the true underbelly of crazed hippie rocker Neil Young. More than I ever wanted to know, but couldn't put the book down for a second!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2002

    Author forgets who is the creative genius here

    This book starts as an informative, in-depth look at one of music's true greats. The problem, however, is that when it gets to the final years that the book covers, the author is actually there experiencing many moments with Neil. You would think this would be the best part, first hand accounts of life with Neil. It degenerates however, into the author telling us how he was constantly telling Neil Young how he should carry out his music. You get the feeling, that at this point, Young just keeps the author around for his own amusement. I sure he didn't take any serious advice from this second-rate hack.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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