a conversation with James McDonough      


Do you feel like you stormed the barricades in your research for this biography?

Not really. I just dove into the darkness and let my missiles fly, to quote a friend. I think anybody with a natural curiosity would've done the same. I had a great interest in—and admiration for—nearly all the characters in Shakey, so it was easy.

Would it be more apt to ask if you walked through a funhouse mirror?

A friend of mine described the book and everything attached to it as a "twelve-year acid trip." I'd have to agree.

What inspired you to go to these lengths to analyze the life and work of the expressive/elusive Neil Young?

I was a quizzical lad who obsessed on things: first it was dinosaurs, then sharks, and then Abraham Lincoln. When I visited Ford's Theatre—I must've been eight or nine—the tour guide had to call for help just to answer my pesky questions. Dinosaurs are extinct, sharks don't talk and Lincoln is dead, so Neil Young seemed the next logical step.

Your willingness to call it like you saw it about the quality of his work at different stages in his career never seemed to close the door to your project. What do you think was the key to your continued access?

Persistence. If there is one thing I learned from Mr. Young, it's this: if you have a dream, you should be willing to go to the ends of the earth for it, no matter who or what might get in your way. It didn't hurt that I had guidance from Mr. Young's long-time producer, David Briggs. Briggs was the greatest. David produced everybody around him, including me.

Neil Young read the manuscript pre-publication. What sort of response have you gotten from the ranch since publication?

Several people close to Mr. Young have expressed their admiration for the book. As far as Shakey himself, I really have no idea, which I believe is more than fitting. The book took twelve years to create, so maybe I'll get a phone call in 2014: "Hey, Jimmy, that chapter on Zuma, I just wanna tell ya..." Then again, maybe not. One never knows with Neil.

What are you left with in respect to the artist Neil Young?

As bassist Tim Drummond would say, Neil Young remains "one of the mighty few." My excavations into his life and art only leave me with a deeper respect and admiration for him.

What do you think of Are You Passionate?

Two great songs. 'Goin' Home,' a bad nightmare in which Mr. Young seems to adopt the persona of Custer, an odd turn considering his continuing interest in all things Native American. And the title cut, which is so simple, direct and utterly emotional. Listen to way he comes back in on the last verse: "Are you scared of it?" Neil Young at his best.

What are you going to tackle next?

I don't really know. For the first time in decades I am a man without an obsession, which is a bit unnerving. At the moment I have another book out, 'The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan', a strange tale concerning exploitation films and 42nd Street. As far as music books, I am a little, as the hippies are wont to say, burned out. For a long time I have been working on the autobiography of producer Jack Nitzsche, who not only is a big part of Shakey, but an unsung legend who worked with everybody from the Rolling Stones to Tammy Wynette. Jack put his entire existence on tape for me before he died, and he had an uncanny recall for the sad details of life—you could say he's the rock n' roll Proust. I have also been working on a novel that will explore some of my more private obsessions. Heh heh...heh.

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    Photo credit: Natalia Wisdom