The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

two books on Neil Young

I read two books on Neil Young last week, in advance of the announcement that his new record will feature a song called "Impeach the President." First up was Kevin Chong's NEIL YOUNG NATION, which Chong calls "a quest, an obsession, and a true story." In it, Chong and his college slacker buddies (ten years after their heyday) drive Neil Young's "historic" route from Winnipeg to Toronto and down through the U.S. via Route 66 to L.A. Chong is a "Rustie," a member of the Internet-based Neil Young cult. It's an interesting project: he combines personal reflection, jokey asides on his travelling companions, reports on meetings with marginal figures from Young's past, and a good deal of biography.

It's that last that's problematic, because although Chong is likeable and funny I kept feeling that too much of his book was cribbed from other sources; that is, from Neil Young biographies. He doesn't pretend that he's doing any original research (except for meeting with those people from Young's past), but when I read Jimmy McDonough's SHAKEY: NEIL YOUNG'S BIOGRAPHY, I felt that a lot of the anecdotes that Chong retells come straight from McDonough, and often in very similar language and detail. If my students turned in work that was this close to its original sources I'd have them do it again and give them a stern lecture on academic integrity. (Chong has since gotten in touch with me to let me know that McDonough and he both took many of these episodes from John Einarson's book on Young's early years, DON'T BE DENIED.)

McDonough's book got a lot of publicity when it came out in 2002, including a NYT Books review by Rick Moody, and it deserves that attention--it's exhaustive, well-researched, and based on extensive contact with Young and his circle. McDonough does a great job of cataloguing the damage drugs did, and continue to do, to Young and his cohorts even when Young won't admit it. He's a perceptive reader of Young's lyrics and a fan of the Crazy Horse work above all. It's not a traditional biography, either; McDonough gets in on the act (fitting, because although Young commissioned this authorized biography he later tried to prevent McDonough from publishing it) and transcribes many of his interviews with Young directly. The prose is at best workmanlike and at times irritating: it feels like none of the hundreds of figures he talks about is introduced without a sentence beginning "Born in PLACE on DATE,..." (Chong also notes in his book that there are significant numbers of factual errors in McDonough.) But in the realm of rock biographies, in which workmanlike competence is still not something readers can take for granted, this is a pretty good one.


  • At 10:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    more workmanlike prose from McDonough here:

  • At 5:45 PM, Anonymous K C said…

    Hi, there. I found this entry the other night. First off, thank you for reading my book. And thank you for caring enough to blog about it. I often do vanity searches, though I don't normally respond to blog postings, good or bad. I felt I had to respond to your posting (and if you had included an e-mail address I would've just sent this to you privately... here's mine: because I make my living as a writer and journalist and being accused of plagiarism or "extremely close to plagiarism" isn't something I take lightly. As you mention, my book wasn't intended to be another biography featuring original research, but more of a fan letter. Some stories and incidents from NY's life had to be rehashed as a springboard for my own personal reflection. Nevertheless, the book's sources are cited often--within the text, in my note on sources, and my end notes. I don't know what passages you feel are close to plagiarism, but insofar as cribbing from McDonough, I'd suggest you read his endnotes because most of my cribbing was done from John Einarson, Young's Winnipeg biographer who appears in my book. In his discussion of Young's early career (as opposed to the Young's word afterwards) McDonough cribbed from Einarson, as I did. I also draw from some of the same magazine and newspaper articles that McDonough did. Anyway, thanks again for reading my book.

  • At 6:26 PM, Anonymous G. W. said…

    IMPEACH KEVIN CHONG...for writing a very dull book. But nowhere NEAR as dull as anything by that master of Canadian dullness, John Einarson. For all the alleged "open-mindedness" of their fearless leader, NY fans sure are a touchy bunch, ain't they?


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