“I don’t understand this stuff that’s out there that they call music. I don’t understand what young people sing and what they write. The songs never have a melody that I can whistle and, if you can’t whistle it, it’s not worth much in my opinion.”
So says an empowered Don McLean, the native New Yorker who might know whereof he speaks after more than half a century in the business. As one of the most revered songwriters in American musical history, he first paid his dues in the New York club scene of the late 1960s before slipping into the 1970s with his fuse lit.
With enchanted, guitar-plucked songs, some of which are now firmly embedded in the Western psyche – such as American Pie, Vincent, Cryin’, And I Love You So and Castles in the Air – McLean evinced an enduring partiality for dwelling in an emotional landscape. And with such songs of the purest melodies wedded to a trenchant lyricism, it is perhaps no wonder that he is perplexed by the apparent apathy of modern songwriters.
“I had a calling, put it that way,” he tells me, “and nothing was going to stop me and nothing was going to get in my way… and I can’t begin to tell you how much was put in my way. But it didn’t make any difference. I didn’t know what I was going to do with music, but I knew I wanted to try and keep growing.”
The force of McLean’s creativity first stirred in the 1960s when America decided it was time to put itself through one of its national convulsions. But perhaps the secret to the longevity or agelessness of his songs is that they were written at a time when an American cultural vanguard had begun to focus on the country’s spiritual vacuum; and questions, asked well, usually lead to pointed answers.
Some 50 years after the release of American Pie, McLean says that back then he was on a personal journey. “All kinds of doors would open and it was like Alice in Wonderland. Career doors would open, personal doors would open and creative doors would open. I would walk through the door and I would be in a different country, in a different place. And I was never afraid to walk through them and into that other place. That’s what I’ve been doing and what I’m still doing.
“So I worked hard at writing and reached a point where those albums of the 1970s – the Don McLean album, the Tapestry album, American Pie, Homeless Brother and Prime Time – really found me in the groove, where I was really expressing myself and writing different kinds of songs.”
McLean appears not to trade in faux humility, preferring instead to recognise where he has come from and what he has achieved. He possesses a youthful speaking voice – a gentle East Coast drawl – as if the soul within refuses to grow embittered, the pauses before speaking revealing a careful cerebration. “But believe me, I hated every thing I did. I hated the way I sang, the way I played, I hated the songs I wrote. I was always thinking ‘Godammit, you’ve gotta do better than this’. And there was so much great talent out there. You had Dylan, but there were also a hundred other really good songwriters and groups doing wonderful things. So the competition was fierce and mighty. And to break through, you became ferocious. So I didn’t so much admire other musicians because I was competing with them. And they were drawing more out of me.
“I had to admire The Beach Boys and The Beatles back then, but no particular person in those groups. Except perhaps Brian Wilson because he and Mike Love wrote the songs, produced them and created the voicings, the harmonies and everything. So many groups have a lot of outside help, but The Beach Boys were it. And to some degree I was it in terms of making records back in those days because you had to write and arrange the song. And in my case I had to choose the producer and even fight with the producer when I didn’t get what I wanted. But I always knew what I was after, and I always knew what I was supposed to do with my life.”
But what of the effect of his songs, songs as poignant as Vincent, upon the listening public. “I can’t really be aware of such a thing,” he reflects, “but I am aware that people love that song very much, that it has a very powerful effect on people. And when I perform it it shows. It’s interesting because, if I think about my life, and what I did with it, the idea of bringing some sort of beauty into people’s lives, and maybe into billions of people’s lives, is hard to comprehend. But it makes me feel good because I was able to do that.
“But I think it’s important to say that if you met someone on the street and you said to them ‘I want you to write a song about something that you love’, like your dog or your wife or your child, they would not be able to write anything. They wouldn’t know where to begin. So even if you are writing bad songs, you at least know how to write a song. That’s a special thing right there. So if I’ve got a message to other songwriters, it’s to just keep working at it, because eventually you’ll come up with something that’s real special.
“You know, if you’re on a team, and I was on a swimming team once for about six years, in summertime, and the coach was from West Point… My father had joined this club to put me in boot camp for six years, so that I could overcome my asthma and become a healthy person. And on the swimming team my competitors were my buddies. So they were making me do the workouts, they were making me want to lift the weights, they were making me want to win the contest. So, in the same way, when I wrote songs, I was faced with a ferocious competition that was making me want to do better, and reach for a higher standard.”
McLean is half Italian and half Scottish – he went to Catholic high school and college but says “he wasn’t buying into it” – and agrees that his Celtic blood may have played a role in the path his life has taken, but with an important caveat. “I did that ancestor thing, you know, and found out I’m more Greek than I am anything! But it’s the work you put in that counts. If you wrote a little half-assed song and then said to yourself that you’re talented, you’re not gonna get any place. You have got to be critical of everything you do.” But what of Lady Luck when he was writing and recording in the 1970s? “I could tell you all the ways in which I’ve been lucky,” he chuckles. “You wouldn’t believe in how many ways. We could be all day talking about how lucky I’ve been, and that ain’t no lie.”
A songwriter is a phenomenon that is devoid of rational explanation, but McLean only half agrees with the assertion. “I reached a point where I was able to write a song like Vincent, but it took a long time. It was hard to begin with because I had to figure out how to write a song about a man who was a painter, who had a difficult life, and without it being mawkish or overly sentimental. The song had to tread right on that edge.
“Songwriting was hard work, but it’s been fun. If you’re digging a ditch for somebody else, it’s not as much fun as if you’re digging a ditch for yourself. There’s a feeling of satisfaction that comes with that. Doing things for somebody else, for wages, that’s not a great feeling because you’re wasting your life and your time enabling someone else to have their own agenda. So I’m having my agenda. It’s always been fun and satisfying and rewarding.”
The reward being measured in the amount of creative freedom one has. “I don’t give up, I don’t quit. I love what I do and on whatever level I’m able to do it. Right now I’m at the top of my game with my touring. There’s the new documentary [The Day The Music Died, 2022] and a Broadway show that’ll be coming along in the next couple of years.” Not to mention the WBC world heavyweight champion taking every grandstanding opportunity to sing a particular song of McLean’s… “Yeah,” he laughs, “I’ve got my man singing with me too.”
He says that Mick Jagger is the one person he’d still like to work with. “I’ve always respected the Rolling Stones’ message which is you keep on going, no matter what. And I am of that same belief. I hope that my message to people in general is that you keep on, that nothing stops you. Because you love what you do and you want to entertain people.”
Of the acclaim following the release of the American Pie album, McLean says “that he knew he had the tiger by the tail”, adding that “if the song helps people love music the way I do, then that’s something I’m very proud of”. And without hesitation he says American Pie is the song he’s most happy with. And it’s hard to disagree, the song encasing the best distillation of McLean’s lyricism. “In some ways it changed the world, and set a standard that nobody seems able to beat. And I like the fact that it’s really driven by the English language, as well as having a great melody.”
If the humble songwriter believes he is no longer relevant, then at least he can rest easy knowing his works always will be – because time can dull the best of us. But McLean says he’s waiting for what he calls “the itch” to start writing again. “I like to let things accumulate. Some people say they can write a song a day, but that’s not how I do it.” And of the upcoming UK and European tour he says “there’ll be four or five guys with me on stage, but they’re masters, so they’ll sound like 10 people. We’ve been playing together for many years and it’s an enormous sound.”
His instincts, both poetic and political, appear intact despite the weight of years. McLean grew – artistically speaking – out of a period of political and social turmoil, but now finds himself in an America content to rake over the coals. “There’s a lot of [political] extremism in the US right now. On both sides. Each side has an unwillingness to cooperate with and have respect for the other. And there are a couple of other big problems in America right now. Number one, America is awash with drug addiction. Of all kinds. And mostly the kind that doctors prescribe. There are a lot of pushers out there. And this was not the case back in the Sixties. Back then people experimented with a little weed, you know, and that was it. And it was a big deal then that people smoked a little weed. But now the country is awash, with every single type of thing that you can think of.
“Number two, we believed then that we were right and the government was wrong – especially with regards to the war in Vietnam – and we were right! Even Robert McNamara, the big cry baby, who worked for both Kennedy and Johnson, even he changed his mind about prosecuting the Vietnam war. So we were right. As we were with the civil rights movement. But now, it’s a much different situation in America because we have secret wars, and we don’t see the boys coming back with the flag on the coffins. We don’t see anything. We don’t know who got killed today in Iraq or Afghanistan, but I guarantee you some people did. So now it’s very Orwellian.”
He says also that the planet has been destroyed and cannot now be saved. “When I was with Pete Seeger in the Sixties, we knew a lot of left-leaning scientists who were talking about what was going to happen if we continued the way we were, environmentally, and every single thing they said, 50 years later here I am as an old man watching it all happen on television.” Which is not the same as it all coming true. “But we’ve always had issues in America and we’re going to have many more problems coming down the road. I don’t even want to get into what I think, but we’ll always have problems because the human race is a race of barbarians. No matter how much you wanna put lipstick on a pig, when it comes down to it we throw everything out the window and go to war. And what could be more barbaric than that? It’s always been that way.”
McLean, however, attempts to maintain a distance from the ongoing pugilism that constitutes modern-day American political discourse. “I think everything is a vector, yin and yang, moving forward in a certain direction, and as we move forward and overcome the things that we’ve done wrong, we create wonderful knew things. So it’s not all doom and gloom. Certain things have happened and we’re going to have to make the most of it. People are extremely creative, so you never know what they’re going to come up with.”
And when the lights go out, when the music dies, still the camp fire will beckon. And to songwriters like Don McLean we must bestow our thanks after all these years because, had we known it then – us insouciant, fatted, post-war babes – one day we would actually need songs like his to help us mend lives recently made unliveable. In the end, the book of life is brief. And only art provides succour.
For more information on Don’s upcoming 2022 UK and European tour, visit donmclean.com
Portrait courtesy of Hush PR