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Biographer Chronicles The Life of Neil Young

"Shakey" was a nickname Neil Young's pals gave him after they watched some home movies he had made. "His camera was none too steady," says Jimmy McDonough, who used the nickname as the title of his new biography of the rock and roll icon. "If you know the cat," he tells Scott Simon for Weekend Edition Saturday, "the nickname fits… nothing is too solid about the guy."

Young's enigmatic, mercurial and sometimes-destructive nature is the main theme of this book of more than 800 pages. "Whatever happens around the guy, you can't count on it continuing," McDonough says.

The author was a huge fan from his early youth, when he was exposed to Young via the mid-'70s albums On the Beach, Tonight's the Night, and Zuma. "They inspired me to explore art," he says. "I vowed then that I was going to meet this man."

And so he did, years later when he interviewed Young for The Village Voice. "Something clicked" between them, McDonough says, and Young later asked him to write some liner notes for an upcoming album.

Getting Young to sit down to talk for the biography proved tough, however. Young kept promising, but not delivering. It took McDonough three years to meet with Young, but when he finally did, he got many hours worth of tape.

Young, who was born in Toronto and attended high school in Winnipeg, Canada, loaded up a hearse with musical gear and drove to Los Angeles in 1966. There, he met up with Stephen Stills, whom he had known in Canada, and they founded the seminal California band Buffalo Springfield. Tension among band members, particularly Stills and Young, led to the group's early demise.

Nevertheless, after releasing a couple of solo albums, Young joined up with Stills again to form Crosby Stills, Nash and Young, a group he has been drifting in and out of for more than 30 years, even as he developed his solo career.

Young has always bounced from musical form to musical form, but in his early career he limited his bouncing within the country-rock/rock and roll continuum. In the '80s and early '90s, he confounded many of his fans as he lurched wildly from the strange electronic experimentation of Trans to the greaser rockabilly of Everybody's Rockin' to the feedback-noise of Arc.

He's settled down a bit since. Even so, he continues to turn unexpected corners. His latest album, Are You Passionate? includes the super-patriotic post-Sept. 11 song "Let's Roll." It's a number that makes some listeners question whether this is really the songwriter who wrote the anger-filled "Ohio" about the Kent State massacre some 30 years ago.

In his art as in his life, "There's a consistency to how inconsistent he is," says McDonough. "I've never met a guy with so many contradictory impulses."

Young once said that rock and roll is "where God and the Devil shake hands." McDonough says he's not sure whether he agrees with that statement. But he does know that Young represents "an odd collision of restraint and abandon that makes for a hair-raising biography and some great music."

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.