'Shakey: Neil Young's Biography'

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., speaks during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Monday, Aug. 25, 2008. Kennedy delivered a ringing address to fellow Democrats, urging them to rally behind Barack Obama's quest for the White House. (Photo: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
It took biographer Jimmy McDonough eight years and 300 interviews before he finished his 800-page tome on rock 'n roll legend Neil Young.

Then, in 1998, his troubles began.

Young, who had agreed to the authorized biography in 1991, decided he no longer wanted the book published and withdrew his authorization.

"When I first interviewed Young, it was easy as pie," recalled McDonough, author of "Shakey: Neil Young's Biography," in an interview at publisher Random House's office in Toronto. But he said the Canadian-born musician, famous for songs like "Sugar Mountain" and "The Needle and The Damage Done," became increasingly more difficult to speak to as time went by.

McDonough didn't explain exactly why he feels the 56-year-old Young withdrew his support, but he suggested that the legendary singer-songwriter is intensely private and loathes talking about himself.

"I don't think it's a mystery" that he didn't want the book published, McDonough said. "Anyone who read just the intro to this book will come away with an understanding why it might have been difficult for the book to be finished and published."

"Shakey" paints Young as a lone musician ruthlessly pursuing his craft. In his wake are a series of bandmates, often awash in a sea of drugs and broken contracts.

"I think the more people I talked to the more reticent he was. It was his whole life and he is not a demonstrative person necessarily," McDonough explained.

In McDonough's lucrative book deal with Random House, Young was given control over matters concerning his immediate family -- the rest was supposedly fair game for his biographer.

After Young withdrew his authorization, McDonough filed a $1.8 million suit against him, seeking publication of the biography and claiming breach of contract. The book was finally published in May in Canada and the United States after an out-of-court settlement last year.

"All I can say is this is the book I originally wrote. He didn't screw with it. He let me write it the way I wanted to write it," said McDonough.

Publishing problems aside, "Shakey" is about Young and the dangerous craft of rock and roll. McDonough sees the music as being fueled by an elusive flame and Young as a survivor able to repeatedly fly close to the fire and stay alive.

McDonough was first drawn to Young as a morose teen-ager growing up in Indiana, he said. He latched on to Young's mid-70s records: "On the Beach," "Tonight's the Night" and "Zuma."

Yet, after all the interviews and long talks with Young, McDonough still doesn't know what makes him tick. The best he can do is expose the strange assortment of old girlfriends, musicians and managers Young surrounds himself with. Through them, he tries to understand the elusive artist.

"He's like an eye of a hurricane with all these whacko, charming characters who surround him," said McDonough.

For instance, a hot-headed David Briggs co-produced many of Young's records when he played with Crazy Horse. Briggs took the music and the physically impulsive attitude implicit in rock and roll seriously, McDonough said.

Perhaps the strangest figure of all is Young's mother Rassy, who raised her son on her own from his early teens, after divorcing his father, a well-known sports journalist.

Young was born in Toronto but moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba with his mother after the divorce.

"His mom was just a real piece of work," said McDonough. "I mean she had her own little language invented for different words. She was fiercely protective of Neil and if she didn't like you, man, you knew within five seconds. Just a real cantankerous dame," recounted McDonough.

"But she was totally charming, and I mean I dug her, and I dug hearing all the stories about her. But really, really intense."

Intensity is something Young inherited from his mother.

Throughout his career he has joined and left bands frequently and without remorse. Driving to meet David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash at a recording studio in 1974, Young decided suddenly against continued recording with the highly acclaimed group. He turned his car around and went home.

"I just get to a point with things where I leave," he said in the book. "Either I leave -- or I make someone else leave."

Mixed in with Young's intense personality were a cocktail of drugs that constantly surrounded him: marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

Young definitely consumed his share, but at the same time as he sang powerful anti-drug songs, those close to him died.

"It is sometimes hard to appreciate 'The Needle and the Damage Done' outside of its Official Cautionary Tale designation," writes McDonough. "But in the early seventies next to no one (at least in song) was writing about the death-trip flip side of feelin' groovy."

Drugs may have been the bullet, but rock and roll was the gun. In the second half of the book, Young and McDonough talk about what it takes to make the music that killed several of Young's immediate friends, such as Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, not to mention rock greats like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix.

Young describes the music as the place where God and the devil shake hands.

"I think I have been there a few times but, uh, I must be too straight or somethin'," said Young. "Because I keep returning -- and going the other way. If I stay in one place too long, it's not gonna work -- it's gonna be dangerous for me."

Despite his conflict with Young, McDonough still admires the artist, whom he sees as an impromptu, unpredictable spirit who has maintained his credibility over decades as a rock and roll musician.

"Too much of today's rock and roll is about producing atmosphere for a Wal-Mart store," lamented McDonough.

"There is something about Neil that conveys a real feeling. And he's got it in spades."