Things Living

Interview with Don McLean

by Nikki Tranter


PopMatters Books Editor

“Every thread of creation is held in position by still other strands of things living.”
—Don McLean, “Tapestry”

Don McLean is a quiet man. He’s composed, serene. He doesn’t interrupt; he doesn’t raise his voice. For him, the simple things are what counts; love, generosity, spirit. All things best discussed in soft tones. Talking to the man, the very image of American music, becomes therapeutic. His history is such, that when he talks about music, you listen. When he moves on to art and expression, you listen. You can’t help it.

But McLean would probably resist such veneration. After all, his music comes from a place he doesn’t fully understand. His lyrics—he can’t articulate their origins either. He’s never studied poetry, and he can’t read music. A more romantic writer might wonder if he’s, in fact, been delivered to us, wrapped in a guitar-shaped bow, to inform us of those important things, those simple things. There is no discernable source for songs like “Empty Chairs”, “Magdalene Lane”, and “Crossroads” (possibly the greatest song ever composed), because the source is everything.

Lori Lieberman expressed McLean’s effect in her song, “Killing Me Softly”, performed by Roberta Flack, like this:

He sang as if he knew me,
In all my dark despair,
And then he looked right through me,
As if I wasn’t there,
And he just kept on singing,
Singing clear and strong.

That sentiment has remained accurate. Don McLean has simply kept on singing. And, he says, as long as people keep loving the songs, he’ll sing them forever. He sings them again on Rearview Mirror, a project conceived by McLean and his friend and producer, Joel Dorn. The CD (which comes with a bonus DVD featuring rehearsal footage with the Jordanairs, the “Headroom” video, and a live duet of “And I Love You So” with Nanci Griffith), features some new and rare performances of McLean’s songs, including the more popular “Vincent”, “American Pie”, and “And I Love You So”, alongside some lesser known tracks, and some covers, including a couple from McLean’s Marty Robbins tribute record. There’s also a new song on there. “Run, Diana, Run” is about the death of Princess Diana. It’s brutal, but, as with all McLean’s songs, startlingly pertinent and powerfully expressed:

The camera shot her every day,
In fact, it shot her dead ...
They like to feed on fantasy,
Like lions feed on meat,
They like to shoot her every day,
And bring her home to eat.

PopMatters spoke to Don McLean about the CD, the Princess, and other enlightening things.

PopMatters: What do you think about when you look back on that DVD rehearsal footage?

Don McLean: What do I think of? The inexorable passage of time. Two of the Jordanaires are dead. Duane West and Neal Matthews passed away in the time that has elapsed since that rehearsal tape was made. I am fundamentally the same. I’ve just been lucky enough to be married now and have two children and great home life. I would say that one of the things that’s different, is that I have a much better life than I had in those days. My life was basically traveling and doing shows and now, it’s that, but it’s also many other things. So, it’s improved a lot.

PM: Do you find that your songwriting comes from a different place when you’re happier?

DM: No. There’s always a fundamental misery that’s with me that I always relate to some bit of loss or something. I don’t know what it is about me, but even though I’m happy on the surface, there’s something there, I guess. So, it all comes from wherever it comes from. I really don’t know where that is. That’s not a very good answer is it? Basically, I have no idea how I do anything. I never have. You know I just started playing guitar and started singing and started working on this act that I would call “Don McLean” when I was probably in high school. And I have been doing this for 40 years, adding songs and writing things, cobbling together albums, doing live things, you know, albums and tours. And then I have records on the charts. I have no idea how this happened.

PM: Does it feel like 40 years have passed? Is it strange to think of that length of time?

DM: It is. I don’t really feel any different. The world is so much different. I actually feel I’m in a much better place than I’ve ever been, because I’m thankful people still love the songs that I’ve written and they seem to like me. And they come to the shows in droves and they get all excited and I can still hit all the notes and I don’t look terrible. It’s great to have all these wonderful accomplishments under your belt, instead of always just starting. That’s the hard thing—getting started. You get started for a long time until you finally get to this point where people call you an icon or whatever they call you. It’s nice. Suddenly the audience is with you more and they help you along and it’s not so much that you have to do everything.

PM: How do you live with the icon tag—do you separate that from who you are at home?

DM: Well, you know I’m me; I’m just who I am. But, you know, the songs have gone on and had achievements and they turn up in movies and they end up being recorded by people and meaning more to people and so they reflect back on me again. That’s how it works. You probably know a lot of examples of people who have done well in say a decade or so, in the ‘70s or the ‘80s maybe, and everything changed and their music didn’t matter anymore and so the music, sort of, takes them down. And then there are people whose music seems to get better or it seems to matter more. I don’t quite know how to explain it but that reflects back on the artist. Like Van Morrison, who gets better and better as you listen to his stuff, and it didn’t go away. Then there are people probably from the same era where you listen to it and you think it’s no good, I don’t like that, the world’s changed too much to handle that anymore.

PM: What has happened, do you think, to politics in music?

DM: Well, everything has become very corporate and very careful. Before we had a real democracy going and there were a lot of freedoms and now there’s this terrorism thing that everybody’s focused on, which is really a boondoggle in my opinion. It’s just an excuse to clamp down on people’s free speech. And corporations intimidate people and everybody’s gotten intimidated and that’s really what it is, and they just keep going along. It’s almost like—a little bit like that Charlie Chaplin movie, Modern Times, or 1984, Orwell. I’ve always been on the outside of all that stuff so I just sort of watch it and I’m appalled and I think people should be screaming about a lot of things right now and they’re not. They’re just letting everything happen. I don’t know. At some point the wheels are going to come off and we’re going to have a real problem. The people are going to get angry and it’s going to be too late.

PM: Do you find that you can even listen to current popular music? Is there anything you connect with now?

DM: It’s a video world now, you know? It’s not a musical world. It’s a video world. I can watch videos. I see videos, you know, Britney Spears, she’s sexy. I like to watch her videos. It’s not like the music is what I’m hearing. It’s different now. But it’s not my world. It’s the world of young people and they have what they want and they have what the technology and the society produces as a result of all these advancements that have occurred. And the in the future we’ll have something else. Maybe we’ll have holograms and, you know, all kinds of stuff. Maybe artists won’t even tour anymore. You’ll just go to theater and just see a version of the individual?

I’m living in a world that was created a hundred years ago with vaudeville and people traveling around and medicine shows and things and making live music on stage and I’m still doing that. I like it that way. I like to present something to people that’s had 40 years of being honed and perfected. It’s something that you’re not going to find with an artist who’s been around for two or three years, or even ten years. And, plus, the songs have grown old with the families—they’ve grown up with them, children have grown up with them, parents have grown old and their children have become parents and so there’s a longevity there and it’s very nice.

PM: Your website has a lot about you and your music and other people’s interpretations of the your music. Was that your idea?

DM: No, not at all. I am very uninvolved in the Internet. That was Alan Howard’s idea. Several websites started around the country—one by Bob Gregg in Australia and one by Alan Howard in England. And then there was one that’s just about guitar work that I do. There’s another one called Don McLean in Belfast. I used to go to Belfast, Ireland, throughout the last 30 years and it was really dangerous and so they had these photos and things. But Alan’s site grew and grew and became this leviathan. He’s a terrific guy and he improves it all the time and he likes doing it. I asked him, “After all this time, do you still like doing it? ” He said, “Yeah, I do.” That’s nice.

PM: How did you go about choosing the songs for Rearview Mirror? There’s so few on there compared to the span of your career.

DM: Yeah, well, what happened was—it’s in the notes—my friend Joel asked me if I had any tracks around that I hadn’t released. And I could only think of about three or four and I didn’t want them out anyway. But then I realized I had a whole garage full of 24-track tapes that have been there for decades. I started realizing I had that and I had a lot of video upstairs and I had reel to reel and I had cassettes. I had boxes and boxes of stuff—basically, I had hundreds and hundreds of things. So I started transferring them over to CD and DVD because they were basically deteriorating. As I would do this I would listen to some of the stuff and send it to him and we chose, I think, a very interesting performance of “Vincent”, “Wonderful Baby” ... a hell of a performance of “Prime Time” and “Infinity”, which came from 1990. And then I put a new song from an album I’m working on, [the song is] called “Run, Diana, Run”. Did you like that one?

PM: Where did you come up with that? It sounds upbeat, but the lyrics are really harsh. What drove you to write that?

DM: Well, it was written a couple of years ago. About eight years ago I was in England and, I thought—basically, one day it occurred to me and I’d never thought about it before because [Princess Diana] was always the center of attention wherever she went. I was there for a month and they were focusing on entirely on the fact that they had got some photographs of her exercising and you could see her crotch. This was entire month’s worth of press—the entire goddamned month that I was in England was about her crotch. And I told my wife, she was with me, “You know what? They’re going to kill her. This is terminal. This is too much for anybody to deal with.” And they were certainly involved in the whole accident and everything that happened, flashing cameras, and so it says, you know, at times you can be killed by “photographic rages”. That’s the essence of the song.

PM: No one really was held responsible for that.

DM: We don’t really know how it happened, but the press, the photographers were a component. Now, of course, they were flashing away while she was dying. That’s the other horrible thing about it—the sacrificial lamb, which she was. And I believe, in a sense, John Kennedy, Jr. was the same thing. These are people that we loved so much that we drove them berserk with all the attention and they basically didn’t have any particular stellar talents. They were just in some kind of a position somewhere where we fixed on them and they became, literally, sacrificial lambs. I think it’s a very good thing to write a song about and I’m happy with the way it came out. I’m very happy.

PM: Do you ever fear that kind of anger in your writing? Do you hold back or push the emotion as much as you can?

DM: I just go with the song. I go with the song and try to tell the story. So the story may be “Wonderful Baby”, which is a little song. Or it might be a gentle song, “Empty Chairs”. Or it might be a rock and roll song like “Prime Time” or “Run, Diana, Run”, or “American Pie”. I don’t know where it’s gonna go. I don’t have any idea what I’m doing. I just do it. I just keep doing it. I keep taking advantage of opportunities that are offered to me so I can continue to move forward.

PM: Have your songs changed their meaning for you over the years? I know when I was really young and I listened to a song like “Empty Chairs” because my parents listened to you—

DM: Oh, wow.

PM: As I grow up and have relationships, they mean so much more.

DM: Well, you know the idea of that song is very interesting because so much of our experience is illusion. When you think about “Empty Chairs”, you know that had someone in it once; it’s almost a metaphor for so many things. Everything is slipping through our fingers and we try to grasp on to it and hold on to it, but we’re aware in some deep sense of the futility of trying to do that. Art is supposed to help us, I think, come to terms with the reality and to be good to us in a sense. And part of what I don’t like about what I hear now is there’s so much hatred and ugliness around and I don’t need ugliness. There’s enough ugliness—you know, we got wars going on and people dying and sickness and everything. We don’t need to have our art be ugly. But it is, in a lot of it. And these people justify this crap by saying, “Oh we’re just representing what’s out there, man”. Basically, you’re making it worse and number one, the artist’s job is to elevate people and to lift people up and to give them a place to go, something to hold on to.

So, you know, there’s an interesting ... you know what quicksilver is? It’s a term for mercury; you know what mercury is? You know what it looks like in your hand? It balls up and moves around—you can’t hold onto it. Well, there’s a great line in a movie called The Magnificent Ambersons by Orson Welles. It’s wonderful movie, and the guy is leaving and the Ambersons’ whole world is falling apart because, you know, they didn’t have the bonds or the things they thought they were going to have. They’re going to have to struggle now—the uncle says to Georgie, he says: “Time and money, like quicksilver in a nest of cracks.” And that’s our life—it’s slipping through your fingers all the time. That’s why a song like “And I Love You So”... What do you have? You have love. That’s what’s left—who did you love? Who did you give something to? Who did do something for? Not the other stuff. And so much of everything is going in that direction, you know, where it teaches people to be hollow minds, hollow people. Art is supposed to change that.

PM: It’s actually really sad.

DM: Well, there’s a certain part of the music that is fashion. And so if you want to be up with everything then the music’s a part of that. But if you want to use music for something else, there’s so much out there and available. And you keep going back for decades ... I love to search for things. My great fun is, I used to go in high school, I used to go to New York, to the New York Public Library and look up microfilm on Buddy Holly because there was nothing about Buddy Holly and I wanted to read stories that were actually in the papers. So, I’d be on these little quests that interested only me and, I think, that I was having fun all my life by doing that and, in a sense, my music is still like that. And, I’m gonna say this and I really mean it—I’m very thankful that I’m not a huge star. I’ve all the stardom and celebrity that I can handle. But I also have peace and quiet. I am left alone. And I am not recognized everywhere I go and it’s perfect. I can come and fill the theatres and I get on stage ... people say: “Well, oh yeah, that must be him,” you know?

PM: What’s it like performing to audiences now with that icon status? Do you find yourself connecting on a personal level as much now?

DM: Oh, much more, actually. They really feel they know you. They really feel close to you. It’s different when you were younger and newer. When you start out—singer songwriters were the fashionable people, there’s some element of fashion. I had to come in on a fashion wave. It’s always a part of music.

PM: So, how does it feel to see a modern performer, George Michael, singing your song on national TV?

DM: Oh, that knocked me out. I thought, first of all, I really admired him for what he did. Secondly, I was very honored that he chose my song to do it with. And he had a lot of guts. When everybody else was crawling under the table, he was out there saying the truth. And he used my song to do it.

PM: Did you know beforehand it was going to happen?

DM: I found out as it was happening. I was told about it. And I watched the Top of the Pops—they happened to have it on BBC here and I caught it. I saw him do it.

PM: You never actually learned poetry, right?

DM: No.

PM: That was instinctive for you?

DM: Yeah, it’s really hard to teach me anything. I can’t read music. I never learned how to read music. I read books about things and try to learn—I don’t like to learn from anybody. Later on I would, once I’d get the hang of things. Like I ride horses, I’m good at that, Western riding. I learned all about it reading and studying. I’m always learning about horses, I like that.

PM: Is there more for you to learn as a musician?

DM: Oh, yeah. All you gotta do is think of the song in your head. And it doesn’t matter whether you can play it or not, you can get somebody to play it. With songs I’ve written, [there’s] a song called “The Statue”, which I can’t play. There are songs that I’ve written that I’ve actually just hummed on—there’s a song on one of the albums they have there on the Internet called “My Love Was True” and it’s almost operatic. I can’t play it. But I can sing it. I get the piano player to figure out the chords.

PM: Do you think with the version of “Vincent” on Rearview Mirror—you can hear “Vincent” a hundred times but when you sing it live on a track it’s almost as if you’re hearing it for the first time ...

DM: Well, [that was] at the beginning when it was number one in England—and I think that’s when it was recorded that’s why the audience is very excited. I had 30 more years of singing it to go. And I still, when I sing it, when I sing any song, I approach the song as if I’d never sang it before. Fortunately the music is interesting enough that I can enjoy singing the songs.

And, with that, Don is called to dinner.

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