Neil Young Book Review


By David Downing

Neil Young News

Subject: Review of "Dreamer of Pictures", David Downing

Rusties: As a result of web-surfing I found this German review of Downing's NY-book, which has often been criticized here on the list. Some of you might be interested in this man's opinions, so I'm reprinting the review without permission - it's rather good, IMO. It can be found on the homepage of a magazine, called the Fryburger, at this URL:


reviewed by Malte Oberschelp

After completing his Mozart-biography, Wolfgang Hildesheimer spoke about the impossibility of writing another man's life-story. He considered the amount of emotional energy and personal empathy necessary for such a project to be unique and unrepeatable (thus he chose a non-existing person to carry on with his 'biographical' writing: Andrew Marbot). David Downing, author of the latest book on Neil Young, doesn't seem to have similar reservations. According to the blurb, he has written "numerous filmbiographies", and one notices this kind of assembly-line-biography-writing in the author's relationship to his object.

Downing is neither a die-hard fan nor totally distant. Of course he likes Neil Young, but one can't see any deeper involvement,i.e. there's no compulsion for him to write a book on that specific person. In a way, the author tries to hide behind 'the facts': he would rather say"This album is bad";than "I don't like it". But despite some doubtable judgements on certain records (for example re-ac-tor from 1981), in general Downing always strives for balance. The following quote on Harvest (1972) represents the attitude of the whole book: "More than twenty years later the album seems neither as good as its sales suggest nor as poor as its critical reputation". There are only few parts in the book where a significant connection between the music and the biographer's being becomes obvious. And this is mostly while speaking about the past, for example, some concert he saw about 25 years ago. So the book is actually more careful craftmanship than inspired writing. It can be a lead-in to NeilYoung, but people who already have an average knowledge of him will tend to be somehow disappointed.

The reader is given a chronological and detailed overview of Young's career. Downing discusses every album and feels obliged to write at least one or two sentences about every song; here, completeness leads to stereotype. He tries to describe the disparate elements in Young's music (Buffalo Springfield; Crazy Horse; Crosby, Stills & Nash and the partly strange solo-works) without losing sight of the musician as the coherent author/artist. This method and the ordinary biographical mixture of art and life functions pretty well for the most part of Young's career. But there are times that deserved a more in-depth analysis, especially the 80s: after being voted "Artist of the decade" in 1980, Young 'stopped being Neil Young' and turned out a series of unsuccessful genre-albums, ranging from Rockabilly to Synthie-Pop. Downing mainly endeavours to explain this development with a combination of Young's family problems and his conflict with Geffen Records, but misses the point in terms of 'artistic' (or just 'fun') reasons.

It's kind of unfortunate that the book ends in 1993 and, therefore, doesn't contain Young's latest release Sleeps With Angels and it's connection with Kurt Cobain's suicide. Thus, there is no discussion of Young's status as a simultaneously successful and yet somehow anti-commercial role model in the contemporary sell-out of so-called alternative-rock. But as his music never stays the same, a regretful statement like that could be made at any time of Young's career. So the time to publish a biography is always unsuitable and doesn't matter anyway - at least as long as Neil Young is alive and still making music.

David Downing, ADREAMER OF PICTURES. NEIL YOUNG- THE MAN AND HIS MUSIC, 248pp.,Bloomsbury, London 1994, ISBN 0-7475-1881-5,[[sterling]]6.99

Neil Young Book Reviews

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