Customer Reviews: Shakey: Neil Young's Biography
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on June 8, 2002
For Neil Young fans only. Read with patience.
McDonough deserves credit for researching Neil Young's life, particularly his early days. His early days in Canada are particularly revealing, showing how Neil's hard-driven personality propelled into great success.
McDonough also deserves credit for getting the always obscure Neil to be about as open as he gets. The interviews are at their best when Neil is describing events in the past. Neil is at times very candid about his failings in his personal life (two divorces) and in his professional life (over-producing "Mr. Soul").
Unfortunately, the book suffers on a few fronts.
First of all, it is poorly edited. The length of the book could have easily been cut 200 pages without much loss. Several times the book will describe events, then have length quotes from Neil exactly describing the same event.
Second, McDonough's status as a hard-core Neil Young fan makes some of his prose rather silly. His exhaltations of "Tonight's the Night" just seem silly. For Pete's sake, Jimmy, it's just Rock and Roll, not the second coming of Jesus.
Finally, the last 100 pages or so are really regrettable. McDonough inserts himself into the biography. Suddenly, it's Jimmy teaching Neil about Nirvana, Jimmy trying to save Neil from the evils of being a Lionel Trains Tycoon. Most annoying is McDonough's whining about Neil giving lots of interviews. Oh, boo hoo, Jimmy's interviews with Niel aren't that exclusive.
But, for a Neil Young fan, this book is indispensible. After reading this book, I have a better understanding of the folks in Neil's sometime backup band, "Crazy Horse". I understand more what is involved with producing an album, and what impact producer David Briggs had on Neil's work. I now know that Neil's unique sound is the result of an ancient guitar dubbed "Ol' Black".
I now have an idea of who Carrie Snodgrass is, although, to be honest, I think McDonough is very unfair with her, along with Neil's first wife. Neil himself seems to be more even-handed with his ex-wives. McDonough seems to hold any woman in who didn't put up with Neil's shenanigans in contempt.
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I'm a huge Neil Young fan, with over two dozen of his albums in my collection. But I'm not a fanatic, and as a result I found his biography, "Shakey" to be as stimulating, but as frustratingly erratic as the artist himself. One thing Neil Young could never be accused of is self-censorship, and author Jimmy McDonough writes about him in the same vein, telling in nearly 800 pages a stoory that could have been more succinctly and powerfully conveyed in about half that number. McDonough spent over ten years working on the book, however, and I guess he felt that his huge investment of time justifies the book's length.
The book is a rambling narrative of Young's life, mainly as seen through the eyes of his closest associates, but is told in the Hunter S. Thompson "gonzo" style of journalism as McDonough frequently inserts himself into the story. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this approach, in may have in fact been necessary, but it ends up padding the length. The main story is interspersed with a hundred or so pages of text from McDonough's various interviews with Young in which the artist is quoted verbaitim. It is a fascinating and unprecedented look into Young's mind, but again it starts to become wearing after awhile. Lengthy passages about such relatively uninteresting subjects as Young's passion for model trains slow things down even further.
Ultimately, "Shakey" is likely to be endured only by Young's most ardent fans and will not win the artist any new converts. But I get the feeling that Young would prefer it that way. As McDonough recounts, the quickest way to get Young to drop a song from an album is to tell him its going to be a surefire hit. He is that rare rock star who actually eschews popularity. Young remains a startlingly original talent after nearly four decades in the recording busines and for all of its flaws, "Shakey" manages to capture his essence.
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on September 5, 2002
This book seems to polarize readers--they usually love it or hate it. I lean toward the former, but it's far from a perfect book. But as a lifelong Neil Young fan, I couldn't put it down, even when it annoyed me. The depth of McDonough's research is impressive, and he comes up with scores of fascinating facts and quotes about Neil's past. I've read books on Young before, and was surprised by how much I *didn't* know about him before reading this book. The accounts of recording sessions--often from David Briggs, engineers, and musicians--provide important insight into the finished products. And they helped me understand why Neil never releases "perfect" albums.
But it's hard to ignore the shift in the tone of the book when the story gets to the point where McDonough entered the picture (late '80s). While earlier in the book the author revealed his opinions on the music, CSNY, Neil's treatment of people in his life, etc., he kept the narrative moving in a relatively objective way. But that gets thrown out the window later, making the book read like two different manuscripts merged awkwardly. The latter part of the book isn't necessarily bad (though I could live without some of the author's more ignorant rants, like saying Pearl Jam is Jethro Tull without the flute), and it's often fun to read his attempts to antagonize Neil by playing devil's advocate, but the more objective biographical account of the first three-quarters of the book is better.
As for Neil the human being--he's an artist, not necessarily a nice person. We already knew that, but this book captures it in much more detail. I came away thinking no less of him (but also no more), but understanding his artistry better. And, his frankness about how the creative muse is not always there is a significant admission that explains some of the weaker periods of his career. For example, though the book was written before their release, I now understand why "Silver and Gold" and "Are You Passionate?" are so tepid compared to his great work--the songwriting well is dry at the moment. Before reading this book, I was positive it was over for Neil...his creative muse was gone for good. Now I'm not so sure. I think it'll come back.
Overall, a worthy book. If you're interested in Neil Young at all, you must read it. You won't love all of it, but it's well worth the time and money.
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on June 13, 2002
Although I did enjoy reading a lot of Shakey, I ended up disappointed. The early chapters which describe Neil's battles with polio, his parents divorce, and epileptic seizures I found extremely interesting. Unfortunately once you get to his professional music career, Jimmy McDonough spends more time trying to psychoanalyze what Neil's intentions were instead of just focusing on how things came about. He offers up his personal reviews of albums (many of which I disagree with) that seem like they were taken from his archives as a journalist for Spin magazine. He also picks apart lyrics describing his great interpretation of the heavy symbolism in the songs. Dude, "Homegrown" isn't about man's struggle with the universe, it's about pot! I also found his constant returning to the "Tonight's The Night" album as Neil's greatest accomplishment and the measurment of everything else he's ever done annoying. Also, according to McDonough, Neil Young must be the worst performer of all time since he spends so much time ripping every live performance to shreds describing how out of tune the band was, how much feedback there was, how they couldn't keep the beat, etc. The end of the book finds McDonough complaining to Neil about how much time he's been spending on TV, at the RnR Hall of Fame, at the Academy Awards. Yeah, one thing I hate as a fan is seeing too much of a performer I like! But most of all what I felt the book accomplished was showing Neil as a very unlikeable character. Someone who has temper tantrums, is impossible to work with, doesn't care about the quality of the work he puts out, fires band members on a whim only to call them back years later when he needs to use them, then dump them again, on and on. Well, if you're a Neil fan you may want to check this out, but be aware that at times you will be annoyed.
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on June 21, 2002
While I appreciate a book that I cannot rip through in a day, the 800 page Shakey becomes terribly repetitive. The worst part is that, beyond the fact that Neil does some things over and over (we all do), the author starts to write the same things over and over. First, we know McDonough likes Neil's music (OK, at least the few albums with Crazy Horse McDonough returns to, again and again) but is there really no other artist in the universe for whom he can spare a kind or even decent word? It gets tiresome, especially when McDonough often thinks Neil and his latest group/idea are lame -- but everyone else is lamer.
Second, especially as the book drags on, it becomes clear that if only Neil would listen to McDonough everything is his life and career could be so much better.
I really would rather have read more about Neil, and less about McDonough on Neil and how Neil rises above the vast wasteland that is popular culture. I found this McDonough pose particularly tiring -- it is all so very kneejerk, video-killed-the-radio-star, late '80ies.
So, this is a reasonably engaging book, but I walked away thinking a really good editor could have made this a far better read.
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on December 5, 2002
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. If you are a fan of Neil Young you should read this book. The subject matter is fascinating. I am 33 and discovered Neil Young in the mid 80s while in high school. Putting the records that I have listened to so often for so long in a chronological line alongside a very detailed and personal account of what Neil was doing and who he was doing it with has literally made all of his music seem brand new. I have been listening to nothing but Neil for about 2 weeks. An unbelievably productive creative life overdubbed with sex, drugs and rock n roll and very complex and unique personality. This book really sheds a lot of light on the man behind the music and his creative process and inspirations. Thanks to Jimmy Mac for that.
Unfortunately what easily could have been a GREAT book is just v. good because the author couldn't get out of the way. He bad mouths all of the sycophants back stage at an LA concert in the first few pages and then proceeds to act like the worst kind all the way through the book. To top it off, his opinions are so predictable that he doesn't really need to keep repeating them after a while. Oh but he does. Anything with CSN=bad. Anything that is commercial or accessible by casual fans=bad. Anything that is unreleased so only insider Jimmy Mac has heard it=great. The ultimate groupie with an axe to grind and a captive audience. I'm sure that Crosby must have kicked sand in his face at some point because Mac never misses a chance to mock him.
So get the book - read, enjoy. It really is a very engrossing read. Be prepared to cringe every few pages. If you don't own all of NY's CDs you'll be buying them.
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on November 18, 2003
The detail and obsession that went into this is evident - this is no usual ham-fisted bio-cash-in. Even the fall out with Neil adds perspective to McDonough's writing. My problem is that while it is flawless in terms of care and detail, McDonough comes accross as rather dislikeable. Fair enough he is a critic a lot of the time, but does he have to sound so preachy and knowing? Dare you have any respect for any of the more 'pretty' Young albums, or CS&N he will shred you to pieces. Furthermore, he's incredibly egotistic. The book is just as much about McDonough as it is Neil and with this I have a problem. Generally an excellent labour of love, but can the guy get off his high horse?
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on August 20, 2006
"Shakey" is one of the finest biographies that I have read. Author Jimmy McDonough is a tireless researcher and an excellent writer, in tune with the times in which Neil Young, his subject, has lived through and, in some respects, helped to shape.

The book thankfully offers chronological balance between the various stages in Young's life, from his youth in Winnipeg and rural Ontario, to his adolescence in North Toronto (in, as it happens, the very neighbourhood in which I experienced my adolescence), to his emigration to California. McDonough deserves credit for going to all of the places, both large and small, that Young inhabited, interviewing family members, neighbours and friends.

Another great aspect of the book is the material one learns about many other artists in and around Young's life; not only are there great insights into the likely characters such as Crosby, Stills and Nash, but one also learns a good deal about Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and the numerous musicians, managers, producers and assorted hangers-on that Neil has attracted.

Embedded throughout each chapter are excerpts of a conversation between McDonough and Young. The author does a skillful job of encouraging Young to look back on various events in his life, often getting Young to confess to mistakes and errors in judgment. The role of this conversation is two-fold: first, McDonough performs a precarious, intriguing balancing act of serving as Young's dispassionate biographer, and as a friend in whom Young can feel comfortable confiding; second, the conversation reveals the full human side of Neil Young, warts and all, as he sees things today.

I've seen Neil Young in concert three times - with the Shocking Pinks in the 1980's, and, so far in this decade, with Crazy Horse (Greendale) and as CSNY (Freedom of Speech). To me, Young and his work are as original and vital as ever, and this view is corroborated by many well-known artists quoted in "Shakey".

To be sure, Young has had a bumpy road to travel, what with his parents splitting up when he was still living at home, his bouts with polio and epilepsy, and his challenges raising his two sons, both of whom are quite disabled. While Young has been, in many respects, a victim of the circumstances just described, he has been, either despite this or perhaps because of this, far from an angel himself: he has been a very tough, demanding guy to work with, to live with, or to just be around. Young has been described as a loner, mercurial, driven by his work to the point of distraction, inaccessible. Yet, as one of his cohorts has indicated, "magic things happen when you're around Neil".

"Shakey" does justice to the story of Neil Young, a versatile, brilliant, principled artist. While it is unfortunate that many in his midst have been hurt by his at times uncaring and insensitive ways, presumably they chose to have a relationship with him and, as such, were in a position to take the good with the bad.

For a Neil Young music fan, "Shakey" is an excellent resource. In addition, this book is also a valuable exposition of the spirit, mechanics and orientation of Young as an artist, someone intent on achieving specific end results. In other words, this book can be entertaining, informative and instructive; I certainly found it to be that way.
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on June 11, 2002
I am a writer--not to mention huge Neil Young fan--and boy, I've never seen a biography that divides people more than this one. It really seemed to have hit a nerve. This is one of the most original--albeit IMPOSSIBLE--books I have ever read. The author tries a lot of stuff, and while it doesn't always work, it is nothing less than fascinating.
Personally I thought he was kind to Carrie Snodgrass (one of many kooky, kooky characters in SHAKEY)--a lot kinder maybe than Neil himself was. And I think he brings Young's world to life by way of a lot of previously unknown facts. I find it funny that some fans are taking McDonough to task for all sorts of minute details while failing to address the bigger picture he creates. Perhaps they are a bit uncomfortable with this brutal but loving portrait? Maybe they are upset that McDonough questions whether Young has (forgive the train ref) any steam left in his caboose these days? Face it--the evidence seems to support him with the half-dozen or so dud albums Young has released in recent years.
Is the book way too long, repitious and sloppy? Yes. Is McDonough sometimes a highly irritating windbag who should keep his endless opinions to his cranky self? Yes. But does the spirit of Neil Young in all his crazy, contrary ragged glory scream from every page? A resounding YES. Love it, hate it, you will never read a portrait of any artist quite like this one.
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on June 22, 2002
It's been quite some time since I tore through a book like I did Jimmy McDonough's "Shakey: Neil Young's Biography." This is almost everything a Neil fan could hope for: almost 800 pages of prose on one of rock and roll's most enigmatic artists. Although the book starts off a little slow and perhaps spends a bit too much time on Neil's childhood, it quickly approaches crusing speed and takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Young's recording life. It's fascinating to read about the origins of Young's records interspersed with comments from Shakey himself. By the time I finished reading, I felt like I knew Neil a bit more than before, and my respect for him had increased greatly. I have even considered buying some of his oft-maligned albums from the 1980s. My only beef with the book is that it's a bit outdated; McDonough finished the manuscript mid-1998 only to suffer through a long legal hassle with Mr. Young himself, and because of this, there's nothing in Shakey about Neil's post-Broken Arrow work. But we know whose fault that is. :)
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