By Kevin Chong. GreyStone Books, 287 pp, $22.95, softcover.
If you want to create a legend, you cram a pack of proto-hippies into a 1940s hearse and set out from Toronto, headed for California and the rock 'n' roll big time. That's what Neil Young did in the spring of 1966, and this much-mythologized trip has fuelled his writing ever since. It also inflamed the imagination of Kevin Chong, novelist and Vancouver Sun blog walla, and Neil Young Nation is in part an account of following old Shakey's footsteps-a pop-music pilgrimage through such storied locales as Thunder Bay, Zuma Beach, and Omemee, the "town in north Ontario" immortalized in one of Young's loveliest songs, "Helpless".
Unfortunately, the difference between riding out in a beat-up death wagon in 1966 and piling three space-cake buddies into a Suzuki Grand Vitara in 2004 is about the same as that between voyaging off the edge of a map marked "Here Be Monsters" and taking dad's Bayliner out for a spin on the lake. Young sailed on the leading wave of a vast cultural change; Chong follows its generation-old wake, salvaging whatever flotsam and jetsam have been cast up on the beach.
He's got a keen scavenger's eye, though. Let's give him that.
Chong does not get to meet Young during his peregrinations, although he claims an audience with the great man was never his intent. Instead, he circles around the legend, interviewing the vice-principal of Young's old high school, people who knew the guitarist's sportswriter dad, the surviving members of the 1966 hearse expedition, fan-club regulars, and West Van tax specialist David Ingram, who once managed the Winnipeg venue where Young made his coffeehouse debut. Interspersed with these recollections are Chong's own musings on growing old (he's 30 this year; Young turns 60 on November 12), male bonding, and the always slightly surreal nature of the road trip.
At times, Neil Young Nation threatens to become a typical postmodern memoir: full of well-observed detail but ultimately empty at its core. But it's redeemed by the way Chong uses his elusive subject as a metaphor for all those things we search for but never quite find. Still looking for happiness, community, and fulfillment, Chong is a genuine seeker-and his journey is a ride worth taking.