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Shakey - Neil Young Biography

Interview of author Jimmy McDonough

NPR: Weekend Edition - 06/22/2002

Neil Young News

Interview: Jimmy McDonough discusses his new biography of Neil Young "Shakey"

NPR: Weekend Edition - Saturday
Copyright 2002 National Public Radio, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Interview: Jimmy McDonough

(Soundbite of "Ohio") SCOTT SIMON, host:

There's possibly no anthem that came out of the tumultuous 1970s more familiar than this one, "Ohio," written by Neil Young. It's a song that conveys the anger over the killing of four students by National Guardsmen at an anti-war protest at Kent State University in 1970. (Soundbite of "Ohio")

Mr. NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) Ten soldiers and Nixon coming. We're finally on our own. This summer I hear the drummin', four dead in Ohio.

SIMON: But that was then. This is Neil Young today. One of the poet laureates of protest has written an anthem for America after the attacks of September 11th.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) Let's roll for justice. Let's roll for truth. Let's not let our children grow up fearful in their youth. Times runnin' out. Let's roll.

SIMON: Through his 35-plus-year career, Neil Young's music has ranged from acoustic, folk, to electric rock, to country, to driving grunge, and taken a few side roads in between into '50s pop and electronica. The artist himself has been nearly as hard to pin down as his music. Neil Young rarely grants interviews. He has rarely talked about his music, his mind, or his person to the public. Jimmy McDonough is a journalist who's written for The Village Voice, Spin and Variety. He was granted exclusive access to Neil Young. Over 10 years, Jimmy McDonough recorded 50 hours of interviews with Neil Young. He also spoke with 300 of Mr. Young's friends and colleagues. He has written an authorized biography of the singer, songwriter and cultural emblem. It's called "Shakey." Jimmy McDonough joins us from Portland, Oregon.

Mr. McDonough, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JIMMY McDONOUGH (Author, "Shakey"): The pleasure is all mine, Scott.

SIMON: And who is Shakey?

Mr. McDONOUGH: Well, back in the '70s, Mr. Young started making these rather furry home movies starring some of his more colorful friends. His camera work was none too steady. Thus gave birth to the alter ego Bernard Shakey. The nickname Shakey stuck, and if you know the cat, the nickname fits.

SIMON: How did you ever persuade Neil Young to let you get close to him?

Mr. McDONOUGH: Oh, boy. When I was a kid, three records of his changed my life, and that was "Zuma," "Tonight's the Night," "On the Beach." They inspired me to explore art. I vowed then I was gonna meet this character one day and write about him, even though I was a teen-ager. Cut to decades later, I'm writing for The Voice, and through a chain of events I got to interview him. Something clicked. A few months later, ring, ring, comes the phone. `Jimmy? Yeah. Yeah. It's Neil. I'm doing this box set of my work. I thought you might want to contribute some liner notes. The only requirement is you gotta have an old typewriter with a few of the keys--they can't work very well.' It turns out, Scott, I had a typewriter that fit that requirement. But being not a liner notes kind of fellow, it morphed into this biography, and that was in 1 BC, Scott, and here we are in 2002 and it's done.

SIMON: I want to get you to read a section of the book, if we could, that gives you some idea of the quality of Neil Young's--I imagine it's casual spontaneous expression while he's speaking. If you could read a selection about White Bucks(ph), maybe set it up for us if you could.

Mr. McDONOUGH: Oh, boy. Neil had a funny idea of what cool was, and in my mind, people who have a funny idea of what cool is or was are the coolest of all. And we're talking about these shoes he wore. `I had to wear these (censored) White Bucks. I liked the fact that your feet were light and you could move around. I had this sandy white stuff I use to clean them. This white stuff in a bottle with this sponge thing on the end. You could paint them. It's like whitewashing your feet. I was always about two or three years behind everybody. There was nothing new about White Bucks by the time I started wearing White Bucks. They were like out. No one was wearing them. That's when I got mine. They were enough of a statement to piss people off. They set me apart.' And that's Neil Young.

SIMON: Yeah. When he first got attention, a lot of people talked about his voice. Kind of a tenor, countertenor.

Mr. McDONOUGH: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: How do you describe that voice and the effect it had in rock?

Mr. McDONOUGH: The interesting thing is he kind of talks about voices in the book, and he mentions an obscure record, "Tell Laura I Love Her," and he also talks a great deal about Roy Orbison, and he says there's something sad but proud about Roy's music. And I would say that's very true of Mr. Young, and there's certainly something as sad yet proud and very compelling about his voice. I mean, in a way it's almost genderless.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain with the Barkers and the colored balloons. You can't be 20 on Sugar Mountain. Though you're thinking that you're leaving there too soon, you're leaving there too soon.

SIMON: He contracted polio as a child.

Mr. McDONOUGH: Right.

SIMON: And we're gonna enter in an area of some confusion and controversy. When he was performing with Buffalo Springfield, he started to suffer epileptic seizures.

Mr. McDONOUGH: Correct, yes.

SIMON: He's talked with you about his epilepsy?

Mr. McDONOUGH: Oh, yeah. There's a long rap in the book that's just very out there, and the gist of it is, at the end of it he says, you know, he didn't like being on the drugs they had him to control the seizures, and, you know, basically says, `And, Jimmy, I learned how to control that by mind over matter. And once I learned to control that, I learned to control other things.' You know, there's Neil.

SIMON: I'm wondering if you ever see or hear his epilepsy in the music?

Mr. McDONOUGH: Jack Nitzsche, who was producer and arranger and played piano on one of Neil's tours, to great comic effect in the book, helped Neil create what is really, I think, his first solo record, "Expecting to Fly," and there's a very weird sense of time in that record. The drum beat comes in and out of time. Jack arranged in a specific way that's very--it almost puts you off center, but it's very seductive. And when I asked him about the record, he really said--he connected it with Neil's epilepsy, and I don't know what you could say other than to listen to the record and keep that in mind, because it conjures up something.

(Soundbite of "Expecting to Fly")

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) By the summer, it was healing, we had said goodbye. All the years we'd spent with feeling ended with a cry, end--ended with a cry, baby. Ended with a cry.

SIMON: I wonder, all the people that you talked to who knew Neil Young, this is the oldest question biographers confront.

Mr. McDONOUGH: Right.

SIMON: How well do any of them actually know Neil Young? I mean, even if they had washed his socks in 1957. That's not the same thing as knowing him. How do they...

Mr. McDONOUGH: That's right.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. McDONOUGH: A theme of this book is that he's kept everybody at arm's length. At one point I was just going nuts because book contract had been signed; we'd spent, you know, a few years yelling and pulling out hair over that, and I thought, wow, let's go man. Now we're gonna do the interviews. No dice, Scott. This guy kept me in a cat-and-mouse game for another three years. And at one point I said to David Briggs, who was, you know, the producer of some of his greatest records and really my mentor in this project, I said to David, I said, `David, you know, I did all the research, I've X-rayed the guy, I've been through his garbage, I've climbed his walls, I've talked to everybody he knows, but yet I haven't hung out with him,' and he says, `I feel for you, bro. Neil just doesn't hang out.'

SIMON: He's got two children, and his son, Ben, is seriously disabled.

Mr. McDONOUGH: Correct.

SIMON: How has that affected him?

Mr. McDONOUGH: In the book there's a long passage where he talks about how it was a real struggle for him because--How do I say this best?--in order to sort of keep his family intact and be there for them, he shut down a part of himself that was accessible for music. Although even in that period you have--he does this record, all electronic music, "Trans." I mean, you know, people who were expecting a hippie in patches, here the guy shaves off his hair in a new wave hairdo with a little tie, wrap-around shades, talks through a vocoder. It's like something out of a bad '50s science fiction film, and yet when you boil it down, one of the songs, "Transformer Man," is just a hymn to his son that's just heartbreakingly beautiful.

(Soundbite from "Transformer Man")

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) Every morning when I look in your eyes, I feel electrified by you. Oh, yes. Transformer man. Transformer man. Transformer man.

SIMON: I've got a strange question, Jimmy.

Mr. McDONOUGH: Sure.

SIMON: Do you think Neil Young gives a damn about how he's portrayed in your book?

Mr. McDONOUGH: Oh, boy. Yeah, that's a funny question. I would say no and yes. You know, no. He would say no, I would hazard a guess.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. McDONOUGH: But yet there's something about him that seeks out every little detail, pours over it in his mind, and I think one dialogue that goes on and on with this guy is, `Am I being real or am I a Xerox?' And that's really a hard question when you've got a zillion bucks, you've got everybody around just, you know, polishing your rear end until it's shiny and new and you can see yourself in the reflection. So it's always a battle with him, and that's the thing I love. I say it at one point in the book, you know this guy's gonna go down kicking and screaming because there's just something about the guy--call it arrested development, call it a youthful abandon. He just embodies that spark that makes your parents wag their finger and take your records away. There's something about him that just is rock 'n' roll, and it's a great thing.

SIMON: Jimmy, thank you so much. Nice talking to you.

Mr. McDONOUGH: Thank you. You, too.

SIMON: Jimmy McDonough--his new book is "Shakey," published by Random House, Neil Young's biography, speaking with us from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting. For more information on the book, on Neil Young and Neil Young's music, you can come to our Web site,

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) Hey, hey, my, my. Rock 'n' roll can never die. There's more to the picture than meets the eye. Hey, hey, my, my.

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