By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
When New York writer Jimmy McDonough interviewed Neil Young for the 1989 Village Voice feature ”Too Far Gone: Fucking Up With Neil Young,“ McDonough had no idea what his subject had in store for him. In an auspicious moment of candor, Young announced, ”The farther you go into this abyss called ’obsession,‘ the more dangerous it becomes. It’s like a drug. You can completely lose touch with your family, the people who count on you, people who would do anything to help you.“ Young was so impressed with McDonough‘s resulting article, he asked the journalist to pen liner notes for a forthcoming 25th-anniversary CD anthology. That project was so successful, Young invited McDonough to serve as his authorized biographer.
At that point in his career, McDonough was one of the best music writers in the nation. Almost single-handedly responsible for re-introducing the public to presumed-dead R&B-jazz balladeer Jimmy Scott via his groundbreaking Voice cover story, McDonough characteristically used the money from the story to pay for a Scott demo session; not long after, the singer had a Warner Bros. contract and a chart-topping album. McDonough’s writing is tough, probing, full of street-hustler style, yet hits with a cerebral impact. He was ready for a challenge, and Young magnanimously offered him a free hand, typical of the singer‘s renowned image as an unfettered, purely creative force: He consented to sit for five consecutive days of interviews and would have no approval over McDonough’s work, save for passages dealing with specific members of his immediate family. With this assurance, McDonough committed himself to ”devote his exclusive services and full time“ to the book, and a lucrative deal was struck with Random House in August 1991; the contract was a $350,000 deal; the initial advance topped $100,000, with $85,000 going to McDonough and $20,000 to Young. McDonough relocated to the West Coast in 1991 to begin research, which is when I first met him. Although Jimmy left California in 1993, as a fellow biographer, fan and pal, I watched his blunt style and relentless technique with no small fascination.
”Jimmy‘s a wild man, and he obsessed on [the book],“ says attorney George Hedges, who helped finalize McDonough’s initial agreement with Young. After years of painstaking work and exhaustive research fleshed out by no less than 300 interviews -- and supported by a loan of some $50,000 from Young -- McDonough produced Shakey: The Authorized Biography of Neil Young, personally handing the nearly 800-page manuscript over to a seemingly pleased Young in 1998. ”The day Jimmy delivered the manuscript to Neil,“ Hedges says, ”he called me and said, ‘I feel good about it, it’s really gonna happen. I feel so relieved.‘“ Random House too was eager to publish, but soon found that matters would not go exactly as planned.
In December of the same year, Young’s representatives, without explanation, abruptly announced he would block publication. No one saw it coming. Random House spent the next year trying to reconcile subject and manuscript, but eventually chose to capitulate, citing in an April letter to McDonough both Young‘s ”sabotage“ and the fact that it was contracted as an authorized -- not unauthorized -- project. Then the publishing house asked for return of the nearly $200,000 it had by then already paid McDonough and Young.
On May 1 this year, McDonough’s attorneys filed a $1.8 million suit against Young, seeking publication of the book and charging the rock star with, among other things, fraud and breach of contract. The suit McDonough vs. Young, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleges that over a period of several years, ”McDonough devoted himself to writing the biography. While doing so, he was repeatedly assured by Young that the musician would abide by his agreements with McDonough, and that McDonough should trust that Young would allow the biography to be published. Young repeated these assurances to McDonough . . . even on the day the manuscript was delivered to Young.
“In December 1998, however, Young revealed himself to be a contradiction in terms, using the wealth and power he had accumulated from his musical and business success to squelch publication of the Biography. Unilaterally and without contacting McDonough, Young, through his handlers, repudiated his agreements with McDonough and with Random House Inc. . . . without ever stating a single specific objection to any material in the Biography. But for Young‘s actions, Random House Inc. would have published the Biography.”
Thoroughly weird stuff, but from the start, the entire project was unusual; Young not only insisted that McDonough agree to donate 25 percent of his earnings to the Bridge School in the Bay Area (which Young founded), he also insisted that McDonough submit to physical examinations so Young could take out a $350,000 life-insurance policy -- with Young (or his designee) as beneficiary. Merely negotiating the 13-page agreement was difficult -- and McDonough, a notorious hardnose, didn’t make it any easier. At one point, wrangling over a detail with Young‘s representative Irwin Spiegal Osher, McDonough admits he cried, “Go ahead! Do it -- and I’ll blow my goddamn brains out all over your cheap fucking white shoes.” Osher did not return the Weekly‘s calls.