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Neil Young Nation

by Kevin Chong

Vancouver-based author Kevin Chong was only 25 when his first novel, Baroque-A-Nova, was published by Penguin Books. But after three years of struggling with a second manuscript, he turned out what he describes as “the prose equivalent of anchovies.”

In this moment of crisis he needed something to turn his life around. In August 2004, Chong decided that Neil Young was the answer, and after rounding up some cohorts, he set out to recreate the road trips that Young took (by hearse, no less) on his path to stardom. The end result, Neil Young Nation, is a chronicle of life on the road as well as a journey into obsessive rock fandom. Chong and his friends are facing adulthood, with burgeoning families and responsibilities, and share a feeling that this might be the last epic journey of their lives.

Their trip takes them from the dusty halls of Winnipeg to Toronto’s Yorkville, once the scene of hippie coffeehouses, and then on an epic haul from Toronto to L.A., where Young ascended to true Rock God status. This rock and roll road odyssey draws obvious comparisons to pop commentator Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live, in which he visited the death sites of many of his favourite rock stars.

This is a good thing. Like Klosterman, Chong is a sharp and funny writer. He has no problem sharing digressions about snarky hotel clerks and his friends’ banter and in-jokes – all the human details that make their road trip real. At one point he describes meeting a music writer in contemporary Yorkville, “at the modern day equivalent to the freewheeling bohemian coffeehouse, a jaunty little speakeasy they called Starbucks.”

Chong skillfully weaves Young’s biographical details and critiques of the songwriter’s music into the narrative: as they pass landmarks of the singer’s life, Chong and his friends simply pop in the appropriate album. What follows is a kind of geographic discography, in which Chong ties Young’s lyrics and music to a sense of place.

These natural segues are perfect for discussing Young’s life, as well as how the locales have changed in the intervening years. Chong’s observant prose also captures Young’s musical style, right from the introduction, describing “his electric guitar chugging along like a steam engine, his acoustic guitar chopping like paddle strokes in a lake.”

Along the way, Chong stops to interview characters connected to the singer. These range from former bandmates and friends from the 1960s to such tangential figures as John K. Samson of the Weakerthans, a current Winnipeg-based band.

Chong’s honest and lively delivery carries off these encounters. After meeting a former Yorkville hippie who joined Young for his California voyage, who “isn’t exactly thrilled to be going through this again,” Chong decides to get her drunk. After he hears her story, they part with hugs, and he punches his fist in the air for success. This associative feeling is deliberate, and creates a more abstract impression than a full portrait, as Chong collects the different pieces of a puzzle to piece together his obsession.

The book is not pure hero worship. Chong freely acknowledges that moves like releasing pro-Ronald Reagan songs (in the 1980s) and wearing buckskin jackets (in the 1960s) weren’t Young’s best moments. But it is the entire contradictory picture of Young that he finds compelling.

The narrative starts to lose momentum in the last quarter of the book, after we meet one too many Neil Young fans, or “Rusties.” As we meet one fan after another, we become less and less interested in their cult-like club. There are rock fans with the same freakish level of devotion for every musician from Madonna to U2, and all of them would sound more or less the same. Chong presents his fans without reflecting on the bigger picture: the need for cult fandom itself and the role it plays in people’s lives. Even Chong himself appears to lose interest at this point, perking up only when one of the fans mentions meeting Iggy Pop.

The travellers’ final voyage takes them up the West Coast to Washington State, where the man himself is performing at the Farm Aid concert. Having finally reached this zenith, the book’s finale is underwhelming. Chong states from the beginning that he does not want to interview Neil Young. He freely references other biographies, content in acknowledging that his is more of a personal journey, not a new addition to their canon. But his description of seeing his hero in the flesh at the official Farm Aid press conference feels flat and matter-of-fact, and fails to reflect on the import of the moment.

After so much build-up, the end should have made readers realize why they’d hung on for so many miles and chapters. We would have been left with a much more memorable work if the author had burned out, rather than let his book just fade away.