By: Juliette Jagger (@juliettejagger)
On the heels of the release of his eighth book, Neil Young: Heart of Gold (November 2015, Backbeat Books) Los Angeles native and veteran music journalist Harvey Kubernik was in good spirits when I called him at his Southern California home earlier this month. Harvey and I met about a year ago in a very twenty-first century sort of way––he had read a piece I’d written on the legendary Wrecking Crew and sent me an email to say hello. I was, of course, familiar with Harvey’s work and in fact had his 2014 book Turn Up The Radio! Rock, Pop and Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972, on my bookshelf already.
Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s, Kubernik came of age right along with the music and so The Wrecking Crew will always have reserved seating in the dining room of his heart. In light of our mutual musical appreciation, he invited me to attend a Wrecking Crew tribute show at L.A.’s Catalina Bar & Grill a few weeks later while I was in town. As it turned out, it was on that same evening last April that Harvey wound up completing his book on Neil Young.
Commissioned and released to coincide with Young’s 70th birthday, Neil Young Heart of Gold serves as a complete celebration of the life and work of a true Canadian rock legend. What makes it particularly special is Kubernik’s unique understanding of Canadian iconography as it pertains to the canon of rock ‘n’ roll. For someone who has never stepped foot in the country, he has an acute sense of both that which drives the Northern musical tradition and the artists that have helped to define our sound.
With Young’s career spanning more than five decades, one tends to wonder why any writer would bother with such a loaded topic, especially one that has been approached already a countless number of times. But, Kubernik has accomplished a real feat with the publication of this book, which includes a plethora of exclusive interviews with fellow musicians, record producers, engineers, music journalists, film directors, music collectors and loyal fans alike. Accompanied by retrospective commentary on Young’s studio and live albums, a complete discography and more than 50 never before published colour photographs, he has gone above and beyond to flesh out the real stories, private moments, and even ancestral genealogy (things you can’t get on Wikipedia) and compiled it into a comprehensive aural history that places Young’s musical achievements within the context of his life.
While music fans will surely be familiar with names like Nils Lofgren and Graham Nash or Robbie Robertson and Andrew Loog Oldham, Kubernik has this incredible ability to get the reader interested in the stories and names of people they’ve never even heard of––that’s the magic of this book.
In a time marred by clickbait headlines, celebrity perspective, and throwaway tabloid coverage, Kubernik completely ignores the literary “rules of engagement” and goes deep to deliver 224 pages of long-form music journalism revealing the connective tissue that ties each of us to Neil’s music and beyond that ties us to each other.
Particularly interesting is that Kubernik isn’t some die-hard Young fan; he’s a veteran rock ‘n’ roller in the truest sense of the term. Right from the get go, he captures his readers’ attention and cracks them wide open when he playfully reveals that he doesn’t have every record in Young’s catalogue and that at the time the book was in negotiations he deliberately missed Neil’s show at the Hollywood Bowl on account of hefty ticket prices and the venue’s terrible parking. But, that’s the sort of real time perspective that makes this book such an endearing read.
In Neil Young Heart of Gold, the narrative of Kubernik’s own life runs right next to that of Young’s and they never once compete for the spotlight. In this way, Kubernik has been able to unselfishly inject so much of himself into the book and it’s because while the stories occur on parallel timelines, they’re really one in the same.
“I’m aware that I have a long view of rock ‘n’ roll,” says Kubernik. “But I don’t hide that. I’m very proud to have seen The Beach Boys in ‘62, The Stones in the late ‘60s, and Buffalo Springfield twice. I’m someone who was hit with the magic growing up. I was there at a very impressionable age and I still have recall of that. I think that’s a big part of why people have responded to this Neil book the way that they have.”
And he’s absolutely right. While lifelong fans of Young’s music will certainly appreciate the book’s often-delightful candor, new comers to Neil’s catalogue are also in for a hell of a good ride.
With the publication of Neil Young Heart of Gold, Kubernik has also made tremendous strides in redefining Young’s career from a traditional media standpoint. Not only does he do an excellent job of covering and contextualizing Neil’s early musical life but in an effort to push beyond the typical nostalgia that tends to accompany most books written about legacy artists, Kubernik has unearthed new history and re-introduced his readers to a musical icon that so many have come to know and love.
“When I was first published in 1972, I didn’t have a game plan,” recalls Kubernik fondly. “I didn’t anticipate books, the Internet, my catalogue or my archives––I was covering this stuff for the pure joy of it and occasionally getting a free album or concert ticket from time to time. I did what I did because I thought it was important and because rock ‘n’ roll was a part of the fabric of my existence but the thing is that I’ve been doing it in service of the music the entire time.
“Someone once told me that I would lose the reader by doing long-form, multi-weave aural histories because the machine of publishing books and articles just wasn’t set up for that. But you know what? They were wrong. We are all stuck together because of our connection to the music and to rock ‘n’ roll and I truly believe that. I think that this book reminds people of what existed a half-century ago and now somehow I’ve become a bonding agent in all of that.”
You can purchase Neil Young: Heart of Gold via Amazon.com now.