Soulful. It’s a word Neil Young uses often in his new memoir, Special Deluxe, which is framed around his obsession with cars and dogs (but mostly cars). He applies it to friends he’s known, recordings he’s made, and many of the vintage clunkers he loves so much – cars that “talk to him” and whose weathered interiors hold histories and stories that fire his imagination. “Cars are things of metal,” he writes, “but they harbour part of my soul.”
“Soulful” applies to his writing, too. Like the folk-rock legend’s lyrics, each sentence is written modestly and from the heart. He recalls his parents’ early cars and the memories associated with them, his first vehicle – the famous 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse, nicknamed Mort, to which he dedicated “Long May You Run” – and, near the end, Lincvolt, his 1959 Lincoln Continental modified to run on electricity.
In the news lately for his environmentalism, Young addresses the conflict between his love of gas-guzzlers and his eco-conscience right off the top, acknowledging that what he intended to be a light-hearted book about beloved cars that have shaped his life might easily have turned into a political treatise about global warming, fossil fuels, and American politics.
It doesn’t. Aside from the final Lincvolt chapters and intermittent notes about the price of gas each year and how many pounds of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere on his various tours and road trips – somewhat incongruous yet endearing details – the book stays personal, and stands out for its generous, kind-hearted tone. Young has nothing bad to say about anyone, and shoulders the blame for questionable decisions he made in his youth.
He never gets very thoughtful about those things. Aside from revealing a certain idealistic romanticism about family life and nostalgia for the simpler eras to which old cars transport him, relationships (especially their endings) are reflected upon only briefly. When his mind wanders to the idea that perhaps his car-collecting obsession is covering up some deeper inadequacy, he writes, “But this is a book about cars, so I won’t go into that.”
Special Deluxe is not without wisdom and lessons learned, including ruminations on what his cars – in various states of unfinished restoration – symbolize about “broken dreams, lost loves, and abandoned ideas.” Sadness permeates the reflections, and he inches forward and backward in time, an occasionally confusing style that mirrors his wandering spirit. Through writing about cars, Young unravels his own history.
For music fans who relish details about the making of early albums and relationships with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Crazy Horse, and producer David Briggs, Young’s life gets most interesting once he has left Winnipeg for hippie California. But in Young Neil, Sharry Wilson focuses exclusively on the musician’s childhood and adolescence in Canada.
Young’s story is that of most fledgling musicians: finding inspiration in a rock idol or two; getting a first instrument; starting a band; gigging about town. Other than the fact that Young’s family moved constantly, his nascent years are unworthy of being written about for 450 pages.
Wilson bogs down the story with incredible amounts of needless detail. The average reader could not care less about the layout and renovation history of the various schools Young attended, what his second-grade classmate or teacher has to say about his classroom conduct (mostly he is remembered as a loner and joker), the dimensions of his first bass player’s amplifier, or how long it took the Stardusters, Young’s high school band, to set up their equipment at shows (20 minutes).
Though Wilson fluidly ties together her copious research, it impedes the narrative momentum and rarely illuminates. On the other hand, a sense of Young’s relationship with his parents, not offered in the many other biographies out there, eventually comes through. His closeness to his writer father, Scott Young, dominates the book’s early chapters, while his loyalty to his iconoclastic, supportive mother dominates the second half.
And, hey, did you know that Young once pursued a career in chicken farming? The financial records he kept as a 12-year-old, outlining his income and expenses for his business, Neil Eggs, are nothing short of adorable. Of course, Wilson has included images of those original documents, as well as 70 pages of appendices, endnotes, and bibliography. But on the whole, Young Neil lacks soul.