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Shakey: Neil Young's Biography


Shakey: Neil Young's Biography Cover




Innaresting characters

-Who gave you the Nixon mask?

I cant recall, as John Dean would say. Ill 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 theyre answers, heh heh. Hard to remember things. Its all there, though. Maybe we oughta go into hypnotherapy, fuckin go right back. Take like, six months to get zoned in on the Tonights the Night sessions-exactly what was happening? “Okay, were gonna go back a little further today, Neil. . . .”

-Im frustrated.

Hey, well, youve been frustrated since the beginning, heh heh. Youre not frustrated because of this-were doing it. Youre asking questions and Im answering them. What could be less frustrating than THAT?

-Maybe I should tell people in the intro you dont wanna do the book.

You can tell em if you want. The bottom line is if it went against the grain so hard, I wouldnt be doin it. The thing is, its not necessarily my first love. I think thats a subtle way of puttin it. Heh heh.

The first time Jon McKeig really encountered Shakey he was under a car. Shakeys a nickname-from alter ego Bernard Shakey, sometime moviemaker. Its 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 Youngs, for months without actually seeing him. The car was a mess, but McKeig would soon realize that this was Shakeys 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. “Thats extreme. I dont believe anybody anywhere goes to that length. If the car smells wrong, youre screwed; if it squeaks, its not cool . . . hes fanatical.”

One day Neil happened in for a personal inspection. “Neil came right over to the car, looked at it and-Ill 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 its museum quality. ” McKeig shuddered. “I never heard it said like that-‘museum quality. Then he left. Thats all that was said. I never saw him-for years after.” Decades later, Nanoo still isnt finished.

Cars are a major part of Shakeys world. Hes 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 Im 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 Im glad ya didnt 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 Youngs live-in auto restorer and maintenance man-pilot members of Neils 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 Caddys backseat emerged Neils 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 wasnt unusual to see him at the side of the stage in his wheelchair, watching his father work.

“Spud,” Bens 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 Youngs 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 Youngs 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 eagles 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 Neils arrival. An Irishman with a low-slung belly, a silver pompadour and a voice lower than a frogs, 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, dont spill the soup.

I wouldnt 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 didnt 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 werent exactly the best of pals.

Sterne was forever seeking info on Youngs elusive doings and one of McKennas 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. “Neils not gonna do what you think hes gonna do or what he said last week-its not a good place for the average person to be. The people who are looking for a paycheck dont last long.”

Young likes to keep everyone on their toes. “Neils 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. “Hes not just talking about the bands set list, hes 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, Youngs 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 arenas mixing station was Tim Mulligan, his long hair, mustache and shades making him look like the worlds most sullen Doobie Brother. Nothing impresses Mulligan. Hes been working on Youngs albums and mixing his live sound for decades. “Producers, engineers come and go,” said Sterne. “Mulligan hangs in there. He doesnt have an opinion.” Tim lives alone on Youngs ranch, without a phone. “Mulligan has this incredible allegiance,” said longtime Young associate “Ranger Dave” Cline. “He lives and breathes Neil. Its his whole life.”

It took years for Mulligan to warm to me, and even then he wouldnt give me an interview, just tersely answered a few questions. Getting any one of Youngs crew to talk was like breaking into the Mafia. They were fiercely devoted, and although theyd all been subject to the ferocious twists and turns of Neils psyche, most had been around for decades. And every one of them was an individual. “Innaresting characters,” as Young would put it. “Theyre all Neil,” said Graham Nash. “They all represent a slice of Neils personality.”

“Neil likes quirky people around him,” said Elliot Roberts, Youngs 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-Youngs 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 Youngs career, Briggs at pushing his art. Its an understatement to say the two didnt 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 Youngs world. “Lets look at Neils whole trip-the ranch, the people he plays with,” said computer wizard Bryan Bell, who worked extensively with Young in the late eighties. “ ‘Easy isnt 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 Youngs boat. “Hes able to control most everything.” As David Briggs put it, “Its not fun at all working with Neil-funs not part of the deal-but its very fulfilling.”

I asked Youngs guitar tech Larry Cragg what the hardest tour had been. “All of em,” he said. “Theyve 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-everythings out of the ordinary. We do things differently around here. Thats just the way it is.”

Cragg was tinkering with Youngs 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.

“Neils 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 doesnt 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. “Hell say, ‘Larry, theres a hundred and seventeen volts coming out of the wall, isnt there? Ill go measure it, and yeah, sure-he can hear the difference.”

Shakeys 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 Youngs feet: a byzantine gang of effects that can be utilized without any degradation to the original signal. Just constructing the boxs angular red wooden housing to Youngs extreme specifications had craftsmen pulling their hair out.

Cradled in a stand in front of the amps is the fuse for the dynamite, Youngs trademark ax-Old Black, a 53 Gold Top Les Paul some knothead daubed with black paint eons ago. Old Blacks features include a Bigsby wang bar, which pulls strings and bends notes, and a Firebird pickup so sensitive you can talk through it. Its a demonic instrument. “Old Black doesnt sound like any other guitar,” said Cragg, shaking his head.

For Cragg, Old Black is a nightmare. Young wont 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 thats when things go wrong.”

Product Details

McDonough, Jimmy
Anchor Books
McDonough, James
New York
Composers & Musicians - Rock
Rock musicians
Composers & Musicians - General
Genres & Styles - Rock
Musicians -- Canada.
Young, Neil
Composers & Musicians
Biography-Composers and Musicians
biography;music;neil young;rock;non-fiction;rock music;bio
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
9.22x6.12x1.12 in. 2.16 lbs.

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Related Subjects

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Biography » Composers and Musicians
Biography » General

Shakey: Neil Young's Biography Used Trade Paper
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$19.95 In Stock
Product details 816 pages Anchor (UK) - English 9780679750963 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Jimmy McDonough's fat, teeming, obsessive, and revelatory biography of Young is a pure shot of all-access pleasure....Hugely original."
"Review" by , "An exhilarating match-up of author and subject makes Shakey a great, gripping read....A must-read for anyone who cares about Neil Young."
"Review" by , "Exhaustive, quarrelsome, and sometimes maddening...there are revelations in abundance."
"Review" by , "A mammoth portrait of the artist and lively exhumation of rock n roll history....[McDonough] traces a rich turbulent career in vivid detail."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Synopsis" by , Neil Young is one of rock and rolls 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 Youngs associates, and on more than fifty hours of interviews with Young himself, Shakey is a fascinating, prodigious account of the singers 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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