Hippie Historiography: A Much Belated Historical Review of Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace

By Andrew Nurse

youngI don’t think anyone is going to claim that Neil Young is a philosopher. If he himself is to be believed, his turn to prose as a medium of expression is the result of dope. Or, more exactly, his decision to quit smoking dope which has, he says, had an effect on his ability to write music. And, like many aging — or, at times not aging — pop music icons, his subject is himself. Young’s Waging Heavy Peace (2012) came to me as a gift bought because it was so widely acclaimed. In short, if Young had turned to prose as a way to replace music, his transition had been successful. What interests me about the book, however, is not its snappy title, Canadian content (and Young is all about Canada), or the supposed insight into the rock-folk/country world he crafted over the span of fifty years. What interested me was how Young remembers the 1960s, what he does with those memories and what they might tell us about how the hippie generation has located itself in time. The text is, after all, subtitled “A Hippie Dream.” What was that dream about? And, where did it lead? 

Popular music autobiographies might be seen as their own semi-genre of nonfiction writing. Most of this stuff is kind of shaky and plays out according to its own logic.  As a genre, it has become a way to settle old scores, encourage further profits, and promote continued celebrity in a field that is built around a culture of celebrity. Waging Heavy Peace is, interestingly, not all these things. It is an autobiography but it also fits well with the renewed interest Canadian historians have devoted to the diverse counter-cultural trajectories that came out of the 1960s. For Canadian scholars, the 1960s were a moment in which more long-lasting cultural patterns were forged as marginalized communities built new models of political engagement, challenge the horrors of imperialism, and crafted an emancipatory politics that refused duplicity with the ideological dynamics of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Is this how Neil Young remembers this time? Is this how he remembers being a hippie?

The answer is “not really” but the historiographical culture he mobilizes to assess his “hippie dream” is interesting for what it neglects. Young reflects on Buffalo Springfield and the iconic Stephen Stills penned song “For What It’s Worth” while drawing only a minimal connection to the 1960s southern California politics of protest. Likewise, he has little to say about the civil rights movement, Red Power, or feminism. In fact, the only comments he has to make about gender come awfully close to outright sexism when he talks about his own sexual education with “hippie” girls. The context of these comments is entirely personal. Because it is set within the framework of Young’s life, we don’t get any reflection on the so-called “sexual revolution” or even any guesswork on what might have led young women to hippie culture.

These are significant omissions and one has a bit of trouble imagining that as politicized a musician as Young has no view and no memories he wishes to share on this subject. Instead, I’d guess that the decision to omit the 1960s-1970s protests that inspired songs like “Ohio” and “Southern Man” are conscious in the sense that they allow Young to focus on other things. And, it is these other things that constitute the narrative he wants to set before his readers: the trajectory of his hippie dream. Young’s history is, in this way, an active history that moves in a specific direction and carries with it particular importance.

For Young, history has a number of characteristics. First, time is embedded, as a processes of remembering, in meetings and celebrations with friends and family.  Young is certain that this has something to do with his age, but also certain that renewing relationships recodes memory while ensuring what he sees as the forward movement of time. He writes with regard to plans for a get-together with one old friend: “Time pases, and these events are a way for me to keep track, to keep history moving forward. The older I get, the more important things like that are to me.” (292). Said differently, history is embedded in relationships — in personal connections to other people — both as a way to keep track of the past and as a way to build the future.

Second, history illustrates interesting patterns but is itself unpredictable. Music might be the example that he uses most frequently to illustrate this point. There is, Young believes, a spontaneity to art that cannot be reduced to the history in which it is embedded or the time and events or emotions to which it speaks. But, Young’s sense of the unpredictability of history goes beyond art to encompass life in general. In this sense, time brings with it a future that is unpredictable, conditioned by “on-the-spot” decisions and chance or unforeseen events. History can be written but it is the necessary product of the broader and wider trends that historians frequently isolate: the economy, class formation, gender. What this also means is that Young’s history is personal. It centres on the individual: their responses to different situations, their connections with other people, and, in this case, the culture they create even if they cannot specify exactly how they have done so.

Finally, in terms of cultural history, the story Young tells is one of both optimism and pessimism. Here, Young grapples with the broader framework of historical change. It is pessimistic in the sense that Young views the development of popular music as a story of the triumph of commercialism over art. “That was all before music became a business, an industry, a commodity, or an asset for any of us. Music was more important than ‘making it.’ It seemed to be more down-to-earth to me […].” (343). This is nostalgia, to be sure, but it might be nostalgia with a point. The argument is not new and recognizes what a host of other commentators have noted: the ways in which commercialism transforms and corrupts the very culture it promotes.

What is interesting is that Young feels the answer to this problem lies in technology. He is enthusiastic about music streaming technology and the ability to use this technology to construct better, more artistic, and more accurate modes of music dissemination.  According to Young, the problem with music streaming is not streaming but the incredibly poor quality of sound reproduction. The answer is that technology will save us. It will allow a better, higher form of reproduction that can recapture the artist’s original intent. The “hippie dream” and commitment to music that first animated Young and his career finds, then, it’s odd fulfillment — its escape from the corruption of commercialism — in new communication technologies and Web 2.0.

Waging Heavy Peace is well worth reading for a variety of reasons. It is good if you’re a fan of Neil Young or Crazy Horse or Buffalo Springfield or if you have an interest in the last  couple of generations or popular music. It is also interesting in its approach to history, what it means and its direction. As Canadian historians begin to think more concertedly about the meanings of hippie culture, protest, and the politics of dissent, Waging Heavy Peace also allows them to think about what hippies thought about history.  Young is almost certainly not representative of that generation. Personally, I think he makes an odd hippie. But, I also don’t think he’s too far off the mark in his reflections on history and its meaning for that generation. I don’t find it surprising, for instance, that he sees commercialism as corrupting and technology as one solution, a possible redemption of the artistic ideals of that time. Nor, do I think that the idea of memory and a sense of time as embedded is personal relations is unusual.  Reunions, memory drawers, momentos, old songs, and a range of other things become mnemonic.

Does this mean that the hippie dream ends on our iPhones? Not really and this is not Young’s point. But, there might be more of a connection between that dream and our ability to text people, call someone any time, set up meetings, and listen to music than we allow. At least, this is what Neil Young seems to think.

Andrew Nurse is a professor of Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University

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4 thoughts on “Hippie Historiography: A Much Belated Historical Review of Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace

  1. Veronica Strong-Boag

    Andrew, it would be great to see you compare this with the recent Bruce Springsteen volume 🙂

  2. Michael Cross

    Stuart Henderson wrote an honours thesis at Dalhousie that took a very wise look at Young’s paradoxical relationship to hippiedom and Canadianism. It is called The Rich Rock Star Blues.

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