From gas-guzzler to eco-warrior: the rock star waxes lyrical about his love of cars and the open road, then makes a sharp turn
In 1974, the singer-songwriter Neil Young was hanging out in a bar near his Californian ranch – the bar where his future wife Pegi worked – when a friend told him about a car he’d just seen, up for sale at $1,800: a 1950 Plymouth Special Deluxe four-door sedan. Young wasn’t exactly short of cars. But after his recent success as a solo artist, following his earlier success with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash, he wasn’t short of money, either. He went straight out and bought it.
Every car he has owned prompts memories but the Special Deluxe prompts more than most. He remembers his Tennessee bluetick hound, Elvis, taking up residence on a blanket in the back seat. He remembers lending the car to his father, from whom he’d been estranged when his parents’ marriage broke up but who liked to come and hear him perform. He remembers driving it on the potholed roads near his ranch, the wipers beating away the winter rain, the six-cylinder engine firing up whenever asked.
This memoir takes its title from that car though “special deluxe” also applies to the book’s physical appearance: the thick, slightly glossy pages, the handsome typeface, and the author’s colour illustrations of his many cars. For a time Young toyed with a different title, Cars and Dogs, but dogs play only a small part here and as far as he’s concerned cars are the more fully sentient beings. They “live” in the barn he has built and flourish under his care (“Nothing hurts a car more than being ignored”). They “talk” to him and tell him “things about themselves”. They have “soul”. And all too predictably they’re feminine: when Young converts a 1959 Lincoln convertible into a hybrid (part‑electric, part-biofuel), he calls it Miss Pegi after his wife and rhapsodises over its/her womanliness:
Every morning I would polish and clean her beautiful metal and chrome lines, caressing her classic American Metal Dream shapes with soft cloths. She was truly one of a kind, beautiful in form and function … And she was definitely feminine. She loved attention and would do things to get it. Having a lot of guys standing around trying to figure out why she would not do something seemed like it was fun for her. She was unpredictable and predictable at the same time. If you did not do the right thing, she would always let you know.
Young admits he’s obsessive. But without obsession he’d not have written his songs. He’d not have written this book, either. Having published a 500-page autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, only two years ago, he’d be forgiven for running out of things to say, or for saying them all over again. But this book isn’t a retread of its predecessor. At its heart is a fascinating struggle between Young the nerdy, old-style macho collector (of cars, guitars and model trains) and Young the tormented, gentle hippie friend of the Earth, desperate to curtail our carbon emissions before it’s too late.
Where Waging Heavy Peace was sparing in its account of Young’s early years, Special Deluxe recalls them in loving detail. The trips out from the small Ontario town where he grew up to the nearby swamp or millpond, to catch frogs and fish; the long stay in the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children, where he was treated for polio; Christmas holidays in Florida; a year spent in Winnipeg, while his parents tried to repair their marriage; the paedophile who invited Young and a gang of friends into his house and whacked off in front of them; the plastic ukelele he got for his 11th birthday; the return to Winnipeg with his mother, when his parents finally split up. It was a peripatetic childhood: always the new kid, he’d been to 12 different schools by the time his formal education came to an end. But he doesn’t bleat about feeling neglected or sit in judgment when his mother hits the bottle. All he owns up to is a sadness that seems as seasonal as snow, “like an invisible, chilly coat I wore beneath my skin”.
Cars release memories: take the brake off, and there’s no stopping them. When Young describes his dad, a journalist, taking him away for the weekend to forewarn him that the family might not stay together forever, he remembers the conversation taking place in a yellow Triumph TR3 convertible. It was after his dad left that Young took up music. At 17, he had his first gig, with a band called the Squires. A single soon followed and the Squires went on the road in a 1948 Buick hearse that became their trademark. Mort, as Young called it, was heavy on fuel but perfect for carrying equipment (for smuggling groupies in the back too). When the first hearse died, he bought a newer model, then an ambulance-hearse after that.
If you can remember the 60s you weren’t there, it’s said, but Young gives every impression that he was. True, he’s surprised, reading old reviews of Buffalo Springfield gigs, to learn how many times he left the band. He’s also baffled to learn that he suffered epileptic seizures onstage. Not so, he says: the problem was anxiety about performing. Sometimes he’d have a panic attack, freeze and stop playing. There were other traits that didn’t endear him to the rest of the band, including a volatile temper (“I had too much energy and didn’t know what the hell to do with it”, “Usually I would just lose it”). But he wasn’t alone in being out of control: “self-indulgence and selfishness were the rule of the day.”
Young isn’t afraid to criticise himself, whether as band member, husband or parent. Why should he be? Confessing to failure won’t alienate his fans, who know he’s had some tough times: break-ups, fires, lawsuits; physical afflictions affecting his children (one son with cerebral palsy, another who’s quadriplegic) and himself (polio, colour blindness); more recently, since completing this book, the end of his 40-year marriage to Pegi. For the most part his artlessness is winning; it’s at one with the rambling style. But there are moments when the memories become too troubling to record. “I guess you might say that I don’t want to talk about it,” he says, of an unhappy period in his life and the desolate album he recorded at the time. More to the point, there’s his compulsion to buy cars, which he admits is a kind of disease. Does it spring from some inadequacy he’s trying to cover up, he wonders, before bottling out: “I won’t go into that.”
Rather than go into it, he recounts his conversion from gas-guzzler to eco-warrior. It came 11 years ago and ever since he’s been waging a battle against US Inc – the oil companies, car manufacturers and climate-change deniers who’re jeopardising the future of the planet. His most attention-grabbing act has been to buy a Hummer, that epitome of waste, pollution and militarism, and to run it on biodiesel, with environmentalist slogans daubed on the olive green chassis. There was also a gasoline-free drive from California to Washington, during which the unreliable Miss Pegi almost conked out several times (to the delight of a US media keen to discredit Young) before reaching the final destination and proving, to the driver at least, that fossil fuels have had their day.
The last quarter of the book is more harangue than memoir. But it’s not as if we haven’t been warned. Even when he’s recalling journeys taken in more innocent times, Young throws in his recent research, as if in atonement. “The gas price was set at 30 cents per gallon, and cruising at 8 mpg … we added 1,153 pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere,” he writes of a trip taken in 1964. Or of another trip, 12 years later: “Gasoline was priced at 57 cents per gallon. And during the journey we deposited 411 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.” As the stats mount up, so does the author’s retrospective guilt: if only he’d known then what he knows now.
Guilt hasn’t destroyed his love affair with the car. On the contrary, he still feels bad about all the vehicles awaiting repair (and conversion) in his barn. Perhaps they’ll come out of hiding one day, just as the many unreleased album tracks he mentions will too. He marvels at their engineering: the leather seats, the stylish lines, the pleasing clunk of their heavy doors, how the great models of the mid-century – Chryslers, Lincolns, Buicks, Packards, Plymouths – symbolise the American dream of freedom. There’s nothing more pleasurable than driving country roads high on good weed, he says. But those days, for him at least, have gone.
Special Deluxe tells a story from “the proud highway of second thoughts”, nostalgically meditating on a 20th‑century icon from the perspective of a new century. Its biographical insights, career anecdotes and generous quotations from his lyrics make it an ideal present for Neil Young fans. And even those who don’t know his work will find it endearingly wacky and oddly wise.