Robbie Robertson says Neil Young got him involved in the "most expensive" cocaine deal of his life. Yet for all the expense, the Canadian-born mainstay of the Band never actually got to sample what he paid for.
This anecdote shows up about three-quarters of the way through Shakey, the proverbially long-delayed, much-anticipated biography of Canadian rock superstar Neil Young, written by U.S. journalist Jimmy McDonough. All 800 pages of it land in the nation's bookstores this week.
Work on the biography started a decade ago, with the understanding that it would be official and authorized, done with both Young's co-operation and, in some respects, his approval. But Young got cold feet in 1998, repudiating the deal; McDonough -- a contributor to The Village Voice, Spin, Mojo and other periodicals -- responded two years later with a $2-million (U.S.) fraud suit against the rocker. Five years after McDonough's last face-to-face chat with his subject, an arrangement to permit publication was finally reached last year.
The cocaine deal was, in fact, a non-cocaine deal. In November, 1976, Young participated with Robertson and his Bandmates as well as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton and others in the San Francisco concert that would become the Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz. Before he went on-stage to sing his classic ode to his Ontario homeland, Helpless, Young snorted a great wad of cocaine, a sizable portion of which was still locked in his nasal cavity when he approached the microphone.
In assembling the film the next year, Scorsese and Robertson, its executive producer, were insistent that the "huge white M&M" of cocaine be left in Young's close-ups. Young's veteran manager, Elliot Roberts, was just as insistent that it be edited out. "Martin Scorsese is going, 'Yes, Elliot, it's perfect, it's rock 'n' roll, it's the real thing.' Robbie's going, 'The moment -- is it captured or isn't it captured?' They're giving me the rap, the rap, the rap and I'm going, 'Oh my God. No. I want it out. Period.' "
Roberts eventually won the fight. However, since this was the predigital era, McDonough reports that "the offending nugget [had to be]rotoscoped away at a cost of thousands of dollars." Hence, Robertson's remark that it was the most expensive coke deal of his life.
Unsurprisingly, drugs of many kinds are snorted, smoked, swallowed and injected on the pages of Shakey, with Young often setting the pace. "I'm a bad druggie," Young tells McDonough at one point. "When I do drugs, I do too many and I'm all fucked up and then I don't do them for a long time. Drugs don't play that important a part, really. They really don't. They were there, and a lotta people did drugs and I did drugs and there's nights where I did way too many drugs and I was stupid. Now I'm glad I'm still here and I realize how stupid I was. It would be even better to be here and think I was smart, but y'know, you gotta take it as it comes."
Yet for all his appetites, there were things Young would not touch -- heroin, in particular, and LSD -- and things he would do but forsake, like cocaine. Marijuana and tequila were the man's favourite sources of derangement, Jose Cuervo being the primary fuel for perhaps his greatest recording, 1975's Tonight's the Night, and "honey slides" -- high-grade marijuana fried in a skillet, then mixed with honey and formed into balls -- firing up the sessions for his second best LP, On the Beach, from 1974.
And now? In one interview, Young confesses to being addicted to marijuana, "but I can stop if I want to."
As the father of three children -- son Zeke and Ben and daughter Amber Jean -- he says he tries not to smoke too much because, "I don't wanna set a bad example for the kids."
Inconsistent? Eccentric? You bet. McDonough's Neil Young is a reclusive loner in flannel shirt and workboots, a stubborn changeling and zig-zag wanderer whose erratic genius and pursuit of the muse has made him a potent force in popular music for 35 years at the same time as he's left lovers, business associates, friends and fellow musicians puzzled, angry and disillusioned.
"Could be innaresting" -- that seems to be the man's motivating principle.
Young thinks all this has a lot to do with having been born and raised in Canada. "Canadians? They're very resolute about some things," he tells McDonough. "They're conservative, they're liberal. People speak out, say what they think to a great degree. They don't seem to be quite as worried about how they look or what people think about 'em."
"The far North and the deep South are not very different," he adds. "They're extremes. Look at Robbie Robertson -- an Indian from Canada who wrote a lot about the deep South . . . Southerners, northerners, they're extremists. I mean, look at the people who live in Canada. And look at the people who live in the deep South. They're out there. I love Canada, with the hockey games and the fuckin' spirit -- everybody gets so fuckin' into it. It's so real. And there's that real family thing about the South -- everybody gets together and has barbecues, ya know what I mean?"
McDonough's book offers lots of instances of Young's fondness for extremes and blunt talk. He confesses, for instance, to an admiration of Charlie Manson, whom he knew before the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969: "He was an angry man. But brilliant. Wrong, but stone-brilliant. He sounds like Dylan when he talks." In fact, if Manson -- to Young's mind a talented songwriter -- had only gotten a band together like the one Dylan had for Subterranean Homesick Blues, well, says Young, he wouldn't have started "wipin' people out."
At the same time, Young's a supporter of the death penalty for convicted murderers. "An eye for eye. It makes absolute sense. I mean, if somebody does something like that . . . okay, y'know, they're crazy. They're crazy -- that's a reason why it's okay? We're gonna spend the rest of their lives trying to change them -- and they've already committed this heinous crime, taken away somebody's life? Those people don't really deserve an investment."
In the mid-eighties, Young decided he was not a rocker or a folk-rocker or even a country-rocker, he was a country artist. Sinking deep into a redneck persona, he started to bash gays, welfare recipients, Jimmy Carter and critics of U.S. foreign policy while extolling the virtues of Ronald Reagan. This from a man who just 11 years earlier was attacking Reagan's friend Richard Nixon and his "tin soldiers" in Ohio -- a song, by the way, that Young tells McDonough he's "always felt funny makin' money off of."
Young is only 56, but he's had enough suffering and tragedy in that span to fill three lives, it seems. In 1951, he contracted polio. In 1960, his parents divorced, with Young moving in the wake of the breakup to Winnipeg with his domineering, alcoholic mother. In 1966, he had the first of what would be many epileptic seizures. (Amusingly -- and cruelly -- some of his associates thought these were an attention-getting device. "He'd always get some babe rubbing his forehead with a cool towel," one tells McDonough.) In September, 1972, his first son was born, and diagnosed with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. In November of that year, one of his best friends, a heroin and cocaine addict, died of an overdose of Valium and alcohol. In 1979, his second son was born and, like the first, diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
It's the arrival of this boy, Ben, that provides Shakey with its most painful and human moments. As McDonough writes, "he was spastic, quadriplegic, non-oral," confined to a wheelchair, constantly plagued by medical problems. For the first time, Young was faced with something that his formidable will, talent and self-possession were powerless to affect. The book chronicles Young and his wife's heroic attempts both to get Ben mobile -- including an 18-month, 13-hours-a-day regime of crawling exercises called "patterning" -- and to help parents with children in similar straits.
The Neil Young in Shakey -- the title comes from the name "Bernard Shakey," one of several aliases Young has adopted over his career (others include "Phil Perspective" and "Joe Yankee") -- is finally an impossible, even ridiculous man. Impossible to predict, impossible to categorize, impossible to unreservedly love, perhaps, but just as impossible to really hate. Even more than Sinatra, he's done it his way on the human highway. Neil Young on . . . David Crosby See, Crosby's a real person. I always liked to be with him. Crosby's the heart and soul of the whole thing. CSNY was at its best when Crosby was right there in the middle of it. Crosby's a musical guy. He loves to play music, show you his songs, talk about words. It's real important to him. . . . It's so refreshing, somebody so much on their trip. You can count on Crosby. Stephen Stills I don't know what the hell was goin' on. See that'd be it -- we'd have a tour to do and Stephen would show up completely zoned. . . . Stephen just has some personal torments and demons that are constantly on him, and a lotta the things he's done in his life are a result of that conflict he has with himself. He has, in his own way, been his own worst enemy.
Crazy Horse Crazy Horse was hard for anyone to understand when I was in CSNY. CSN couldn't understand. . . . There was very little understanding of what the hell was I doing with these people. Why would I waste my time? CSN were fulfilled with what they were doing, and I guess they couldn't understand why I wasn't. From Shakey, by Jimmy McDonough