Book of the Year

Shakey: Neil Young's Biography—all the ragged glory and more.

2002 yielded the proverbial bumper crop of rock ‘n’ roll books. One remarkable connecting thread among the best of them: an intimate, you-are-there tenor. Thus, we got behind-the-scenes peeks at the Grateful Dead (A Long Strange Trip, by longtime Dead publicist Dennis McNally), the Germs (Lexicon Devil, by Brendan Mullen, former operator of L.A. punk mecca the Masque), Lynyrd Skynyrd (Lynyrd Skynyrd, by band security chief Gene Odom), Tim Buckley (Blue Melody, by the late singer’s guitarist Lee Underwood), Keith Moon (Keith Moon, by Dougal Butler, Moonie’s personal assistant)—even a reissue of On the Road With Bob Dylan, journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s celebrated backstage account of Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour.

It was journalist Jimmy McDonough’s outrageous and massively detailed 800-page marathon Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography (Random House), however, that put you between the sheets with author and subject. Three hundred interviews—including 50 hours spent grilling Young—spread across eight years yielded the most comprehensive accounting to date of the rocker. In particular, the creative peaks of the mid-’70s and early ’90s are exhaustively chronicled; the book’s only downside is that the timeline comes to a close in ’98. Young attempted, for typically mysterious reasons, to shut down the project, leaving McDonough having to file suit to see the book through to publication.

As McDonough notes he still wouldn’t trade those eight years of research for anything in the world. “Sure, there were rocky patches,” he says. “Let’s face it, chaos surrounds the guy. But I still had the greatest adventure of my life, and he let me do it!”

Indeed, reading McDonough’s version of the time spent in the eye of Young’s hurricane certainly proves the literary adventure of the year.