Don discusses his career and performs some hits. It’s a great interview from Irish TV in 2015.
Fascinating account of the history of Don’s car ownership and much more here in the MotorTrend magazine Celebrity Drive.
Alan Howard: “Don McLean: American Troubadour” was recently shown at the MPAA in front of a distinguished audience. Please tell us about that event.
Don McLean: That came about through the work of a friend of mine called Rick Rickerstein. Rick is an industrialist and venture capitalist who had me sing at his house a couple of times in Washington and we became friends. So when I’m in Washington I see him and we have dinner. He loves the movie business and he’s going to be involved more in motion pictures on the next phase of his career. He knows everyone who is anyone in Washington and he said ‘I know some people who would love to see this [American Troubadour] shown at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)’ and so he got the ball rolling. He got the ex-Defence Secretary, William Cohen, and his associate – a man named Bob Tyror – behind it and they brought in some Senators from Maine – Susan Collins and ex-Senator Christopher Dodd from Connecticut (who is also Head of the MPAA) and before you knew it they had it done. This showing has led to some other things that I’m not ready to tell you about yet but that are going to happen.
AH: The American Troubadour movie including some footage of your performance at Glastonbury in 2011. Was Glastonbury your greatest career highlight? If not, what tops it?
DM: I think it was a career highlight for sure but for me one of the career highlights I look back on which would top it would be singing ‘American Pie’ at the Lincoln Memorial in front of about 600,000 people at the turn of the century; seeing the entire Washington monument light up and the number ‘2000’ over the top and then being invited to the Founders’ Dinner which we talk about in our book. I think that was the first time I was ever really noticed in an institutional way by the Government as being a valuable artist. And Clinton specifically wanted me at this and at the dinner also.
Glastonbury was very important and so many wonderful people have performed there and I had a particularly beautiful afternoon even though I was tired because I had been running around like crazy for 10 or 12 days before. My voice was in good shape and I think we gave a credible performance at that show. We were lucky to be able to get the film footage to end the American Troubadour movie off with.
Back in the 90s I got quite heavy and over-weight partly because I was on some medications for a problem I had for a quite a while. I didn’t want to be photographed and so unfortunately when I was doing the White House show I was pretty heavy.
AH: Well it was excellent.
DM: It was an honor. Basically from the minute I came on to the scene the business was turning its back on me – ‘Who does this guy think he is? He’s telling us about rock and roll and he can’t follow it’ – and suddenly it’s 40 years later and all kinds of amazing things are happening. It just shows you: stick to your guns. There was a lot of negative energy out there telling me to quit, but I was still making thousands of dollars a night while my father made $150 a week so I said, “why quit?” I didn’t see the career situation – I just said OK this year I’m doing about 100 times better than my father ever did so I’m going to keep going.
AH: Talking of which, last October’s tour was your longest overseas tour for nearly 20 years
DM: It was long wasn’t it? Wow. I think younger bands would have been screaming. We couldn’t have done it without John McIvor – he’s a remarkable man and a remarkable road manager.
AH: What does the future hold for touring overseas?
DM: I intend to keep singing as long as I sing well and look OK. That’s going to be my criteria and I’m going to try to stay in shape , visit the doctor every year or two and do the things I’m supposed to do and keep this going as long as possible. That’s my plan.
If I suddenly can’t sing or if I have a very bad illness then of course I’m going to have to stop. At this point you never know what’s going to happen. I’m going to be 68 this year. I feel I really need the audience.
AH: Any other overseas dates booked for this year?
DM: There’s a possibility that I may come overseas because Paul is looking around at some festivals. He doesn’t say anything until it’s happening.
AH: Tricia Hodgson asked whether you ever get tired of pleasing the fans who come to concerts expecting all the ‘oldies’?
DM: No. I don’t. It’s my job and I like having a job and I like having an audience leave the hall saying ‘gee, I heard the songs I wanted to hear and I heard a lot of new songs and I heard some other songs that I like a lot also and I heard something I never heard before’. That’s what I like to do. The idea of giving a concert with the express purpose of disappointing an audience has never crossed my mind.
AH: What’s the most difficult or strangest audience you’ve had to play for in your career asks Bill H? How quickly can you assess how good or how bad an audience will be?
DM: I don’t see audiences as good or bad – I see me as good or bad for that audience. They are just a group of strangers who have gotten together so if for some reason that particular mix of people is not responding to me it is not their fault, it’s my fault. So I have to figure out a way, and there’s always a way, to unlock that audience, to unlock that energy. A lot of times it’s a personality characteristic that the audience has – let’s say they’re modest or they’re quiet, they’re just not boisterous people. I’ve been in certain places through the many many thousands of shows I’ve done where sometimes you’ll go into a town where people are tee-totallers – they didn’t really drink a lot – and so they’d be quite quiet. Sometimes you’d be in a place where people were always pretty up and they’d have a few before the show and they’d be ready to have some fun. So my job, as I see it, is to try to use many different techniques to unlock what I know is there and that is everybody wants to have fun, everybody wants to have a good time. A lot of times people are intimidated by the other people around them and if they tend to be in a quiet audience then that intimidation will work doubly to keep them from going the other direction. Once you unlock with humour or through some musical thing that happens that really turns them on and they realise how good this can be then you can work with that and start to build a relationship with them which unlocks that energy. So I don’t see there being any bad audiences.
Once a long long time ago I played at a very religious school and they were the weirdest damn audience that I have ever played. Nothing seemed to penetrate these people. I don’t really know what it was but it was very strange.
AH: What’s the most unusual thing you have seen happen in the audience asks Drew Fowler?
DM: Well I’ve seen lots happen. A guy fell out of the balcony in the Hexagon, Reading.
AH: Did you carry on singing?
DM: Oh yes.
DM: In Ireland at one of the big stadium shows I did, people were punching each other in the face with blood all over the place as I was singing “Empty Chairs” or something.
I’ve had things thrown at me whilst I was singing – dodging tin cans, rocks and stuff – pennies thrown with love, not with anger.
The funniest thing I ever had to do was follow at a fair a guy who was wearing a complete suit of pink tights. He was doing acrobatics from a trapeze that was underneath this helicopter. He could not hear any applause. The helicopter landed; he ran into my dress room in his pink outfit and said “you’re on Don, you’re on!” and I thought this was very strange – he was risking his life to do this.
And I once performed at a monster truck rally and had to sing to a crowd of 10,000 people in a grandstand across 100 flat cars; that was an interesting one.
But there’s been so many strange things, you know – people running on stage, all kinds of stuff.
One of the funniest things I remember was in Ireland around 1984 when we did that stadium show – it was on the cover of the Irish Independent and I still have that on my office wall. I finished the show and there were about 5000 people behind the stage (about 50,000 out in front) and when I walked off 5000 people starting running towards me and so I was in pretty good shape in those days and I jumped and got hold of the goal posts, hiked myself up and sat up there signing autographs on the cross-bar. I don’t know what they were going to do to me but they couldn’t get me up there!
AH: Bill Nisbet and Dick Brownfield ask about how you keep in shape when you’re away on the road like last October/November in Europe.
DM: I couldn’t walk as much as I like to do because on all the days off we were in the bus traveling 8-14 hours to get to the next show. So I couldn’t walk as much as I wanted and that was bad but usually if I have a day off I’ll go for a good long walk. I try not to walk on the days that I sing because I want to focus my energy on the stage. If I do too much then I’m going to drag on stage which I don’t want to do.
There are also considerations in the bus with catching things. If someone catches a cold it’ll go through the whole bus and everybody will be sick so I carry a lot of medication with me – things like zycam which nips these things in the bud.
AH: Is that the stuff you squirt up your nose [First Defence]?
DM: No you don’t want to do that, you want to stay out of your nose with that stuff because it’s been known to damage your ability to taste but you can take these tablets and kill the cold before it starts.
I also carry a back-brace with me and often that thing will go around the whole band – Tony will need it, Jerry will need it, somebody will need it – their back will go out from sitting on the bus a lot, not being able to move too much.
The thing with staying healthy is getting the exercise you need and then you need to be careful about exposing your throat to the elements too much – you don’t want to get a sore throat or some kind of issue with your vocal chords. It’s very tricky – you have to know a lot about yourself and about your physical health in order to keep going and not get something as that would tank the whole tour and everything would come crashing down if you can’t sing. Being a singer can be very anxiety ridden.
AH: But you got through the Europe tour without problem?
DM: Yes, there were no problems. It was a hard tour though but I like hard things – I like knowing I can do it. I don’t like easy things. I like to test things out and I keep doing different stuff rather than stick with the same 30 or 40 things. I always want to learn new things all the time. I like that because as somebody once said – a musician – he said when you come to Nashville if you know how to do 10 things and they only want you to do three things, pretty soon you’ll only be able to do three things. So it’s very easy to just do the things people want and pretty soon you won’t be able to do anything except those things. I’ve noticed that people who rely on a set list are lost without it – one song has to follow another or they don’t know what to do and I’m not like that and I don’t ever want to be like that. We worked on new songs all the time on that tour of Europe.
AH: When you finally get to the day when you finally decide not to tour the world any more, what do you think you will miss the least and the most about it? This is a question from Ron Buck.
DM: Well, I guess the least will be the environment in the airport, the attitude of the authorities, and the things you have to do in order to catch a plane. It’s changed from an attitude of service to an attitude where you almost feel like you’re in jail and you do as you’re told. I don’t like somebody who barely got out of grammar school telling me what to do. I find that annoying but that’s the world we live in now so there’s nothing you can do about it, I guess.
I’ll miss everything else a lot – you know it’s like breathing and I don’t know what I’ll do without it. I have to prepare for the future and I know I’m going to have to be strong if I want to survive. I’m going to have to see things taken away from me but that’s just the nature of life. The Bible says the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. It also says you come into this life with nothing and you will take nothing out of it.
Look at Mohammed Ali now. When he lost to Leon Spinks he was in the corner. He said ‘defeat is just another experience in life.’
AH: Back in June 2012 we received a fan letter written to you by a young man in Nottingham, England. By December 2012 he was the biggest music star of the moment in the UK, touring the US with Noel Gallagher and telling the world’s media that you were his hero. What do you make of Jake Bugg?
DM: I really wish people wrote letters so I could have a real letter from him written by him. That’s what I don’t like about the Internet –what you have is some typed thing from somebody. It’s really kind of sad because it’s not personal. I’m just speaking now about technology in general, you know. I would love to have a letter that he wrote on paper that means something. This means something too but it’s not the same. And you notice I still write letters and fax them to you – that’s just the way I do things. I like to spell words like when I write “California” I don’t write CA, I write the word California because it’s a beautiful word. You know Mississippi is a beautiful word and I don’t like replacing them with these two letters or a number or something – that offends me. There’s a whole war against poetry in the world and words and it’s very important to exalt in the beauty of language, the beauty of words and not get in a rush or a hurry. They make us run around so much that we can’t write out California, you know.
Anyway, I’ve seen some Youtubes of Jake Bugg and I’ve listened to him and I like him and I like his music. I think he plays some nice guitars. He plays guitars which are similar to the ones I used to play and I wish him all the luck in the world. I think he’s very young to have a lot of success – I hope somebody’s managing his money for him and I hope he has a good lawyer who’ll explain to him in simple terms what it is he’s signing so he doesn’t wake up and find himself, you know, in court which is the beginning of turning the dream of show business into a nightmare and it happens to almost everybody.
AH: Do you see a young Don McLean in Jake?
DM: Yeah, I do, I see an enthusiasm and I see a dreamy quality to him. He sees something. I can tell from his letter that he’s quite bright and he’s able to push through imaginary walls and to get to something in a songwriting way that has to do with what he’s seeing. Time will only tell how long he will want to pursue that – you know whether he finds a way to pursue that and to grow in pursing that or whether he gets distracted. There are so many distractions you know – marriages, drugs, alcohol, all kinds of stuff – not to mention court cases – that drag a person down and take the fun out of what it is you’re doing so he has to be careful about those things. I think I was a more troubled person than he seems to be. Very few handled success as badly as I did. I think it’s because singing became an obligation for quite a while.
You know artists are very self-centred and we know we’re wonderful and we think everybody should think we’re wonderful but sometimes we wake up and realise other people have agendas, they have lives, they have plans for themselves, and they don’t include you, you know. It’s eye opening especially when you’re that self-centred and I certainly was and most artists that I know are and that’s the reason why you don’t pay attention because you assume everybody loves you and has your best interests at heart and they don’t.
AH: What would be one piece of advice that you’d give any young singer?
DM: Get a lawyer who can read whatever it is you sign and write you a simple letter telling you at your level of education what it means to sign this – what this paragraph means, what that paragraph means, etc. Because it’s in legalese and a high school graduate cannot understand what this means. A lawyer who can speak to a high school (or college) graduate, who has that ability, can tell you: ‘you are signing away this right forever, do you want to negotiate that? You are paying for this record, it’s going to come out of your royalties so the chances are unless you sell this number of records you’re never going to make a dime from this deal, do you still want to do it?’ You know a lot of things like that. Of course you do want to do it, it’s going to do very well but at least you know you know.
Well the record companies today want everything. If they sign you you’re going to pay for everything and they want your merchandise, they want a piece of your performing but I don’t know what his deal is and I don’t know who represents him so that’s between him and his representatives. But it is good to have an independent lawyer who even checks on your representatives because your managers are not always the people that have your best interests at heart. But if you have an independent individual who can read these things and let you know what they really say, for one thing you’ll scare the manager – the manager needs someone to scare him to make him realise that there’s someone else looking at this stuff, who knows how to read it and that he can’t tell you a bunch of junk about this and get away with it because someone else is going to read it and tell them what the truth is. That will scare the manager into doing the right thing and managers don’t do the right thing sometimes. Managers like to isolate artists and to control information.
AH: Darren Mahodil has asked about which artists you’d consider performing a duet with and would you consider a project similar to what Sinatra and Tony Bennett did?
DM: I don’t like those projects. They’re just really commercial tools, they’re not valid artistically I don’t think. They’re something put together to give a wonderful old artist a bump and a tribute and it’s something record companies dream up to give a tribute to an older artist.
AH: Have you got any CD projects coming up, any CD releases? David Potter would like to know whether there are plans to record any new material in the foreseeable future?
DM: Yes, I’m going to release the whole Manchester CD/DVD and it looks like TimeLife is going to do that and TimeLife is going to release a 12 song version of the Christmas album and it’s going to go in WalMart next year and they will also have available the album with all the songs on it. And they are talking to me about perhaps making a new album of my own songs which I’m considering – I’ve actually started to try to write some stuff so my promise about “Addicted to Black” being the last ever may be wrong.
AH: Yeah, good!
AH: I’m turning the cassette tape over. I am using an old one – can’t seem to buy them anymore:
DM: Yeah, you can’t get CDs anywhere. I have to go to the Radio Shack now or Staples – I used to get them in the little store here in town, they’ve just taken everything away – it’s so annoying.
I have two spare fax machines up in my closet. I have one that’s working here and two more to go so I figured this will take me to my 70s.
AH: You can send faxes from your computer.
DM: I don’t use my computer that way but I love to look things up on Youtube. I just love googling people. I really really like that and I’m probably going to take one of those little ipads with me because when I’m traveling a person will come to my mind or I’ll see them in a movie and I’ll think whatever happened to that person. I’ll find out and I love that. That’s one of my ongoing areas of interest – knowing about actors and musicians, their history and what became of them or maybe a whole lot of information that I didn’t know. I’ve learned a lot in the last few years by googling everything.
AH: So you’ve got an ipad?
DM: Yeah but I haven’t got it cranked up yet.
AH: Yes, they’re very good…
DM: My wife got it for Christmas and she doesn’t use it. I don’t quite know how to get it going but my son’s going to do that.
I still use a Walkman for music – a CD Walkman. I’ve got a bunch of them – I buy them on the Internet – that’s the best sound going and I’m not giving that up. I have a burner and I have CDs and I have enough CDs to last me for a hundred years. I have so many artists on CD you wouldn’t believe it and my son burns them. We have a bunch a walkmen – he has one and I have one and I tell him use the CD as a master , don’t take it out of here. We have a little library of stuff.
AH: Ed Freeman has been talking about his time working with you. Have you anything to say about that? Alan Young also wonders whether you’ve got things to say about the producers who’ve worked for you?
DM: I just wanted to say that I worked with two of the best record producers in the world – Joel Dorn and Larry Butler – and I worked with several amateur producers which would be Jerry Corbitt, a guy named Dave Burgess and Ed Freeman.
One of the things that Ed does is that he goes around and talks about how many edits there are in the vocal of American Pie. And the reason he does that is because my vocal performances were, if I may say so, of a certain consistent standard and you can go back to Youtube and you can see me back in those days and how I sang. But he needed to feel like he was useful so he would take delight in editing several of these performances together and therefore he could direct attention to himself as the producer. American Pie was not really a produced album. Ed liked Phil Spectre and he liked George Martin but he was not permitted by me to do a Phil Spectre or George Martin number on that record or any record. When he tried it on the third record it ruined it – over produced and badly engineered – the “Don McLean” album – which in my opinion was a disaster and it was largely because of him and he admits that himself. Ed did have his moments however and when they were good they were terrific.
So you know a lot of times a producer who doesn’t have a lot of self-confidence will draw attention to himself by saying ‘well I did all these things and I did all this and I did all that’ but you know 90% of it wasn’t necessary. If he’d just got out of my way and let me perform he’d have got an even better performance and you can see that if you look at American Troubadour and you can see the performance of American Pie I gave in 1980 which is on that record – it’s the longest version of it. I don’t require that much editing but he’s very proud of having done that. Things like that, you know, annoy me. And so I thought I’d just mention that.
AH: And so where did the claim that James Taylor and Carly Simon sang on American Pie come from?
DM: Well that comes from him. He claims that they were there and they weren’t. Believe me I’d have known if James Taylor was in the room and I knew Carly Simon personally so they were not there.
Another thing I want to say and this is in general – I have been a person who was really not a joiner, I never had a lot of friends, I went my own way. I enjoyed it because I didn’t care about the future, I didn’t care about my future. All I cared about was having this wonderful adventure of seeing where my life would go if I could use my singing talents and my performing talents, and I didn’t even know I had writing talents. But it was all an adventure and much more exciting than just following the plan that was laid out for me by my parents and by my position in society which was as a white person coming from an upper middle class town in New York. Conformity was a way of life. But what I learned unfortunately about human nature is that a lot of people were very annoyed that I had the audacity to think that I could break out and do something that was different. They loved the fact that I came back to school after I had failed the first time I’d tried – when I went back to school in 1965. And I still have people who I had very little to do with setting themselves up as experts on Don McLean. And this happened in my personal life and it’s happened in my professional life where a lot of people who were associated with the making of albums with Ed Freeman who seem to think they are experts on Don McLean when in fact they couldn’t have cared less about me or what I was doing. I was just another session that day but because it turns out that they were on something that was probably their only claim to fame for the rest of their lives they were all out there making all these assertions about me and my music. I just wish they’d shut up; that’s what I wish.
AH: Is American Pie the finished version just as you wrote it or are there other verses written that were discarded, asks Michael Corrigan.
DM: There are ideas I had that I crossed out but I never really wrote other verses.
AH: Several fans have asked whether or not you have a personal favourite album?
DM: I would say one of my favourite albums is Buddy Holly’s “The Chirping Crickets”. I love the cover. This is all part of the time when I was a young boy and I was dreaming and in love with music and music was my salvation and that record was one of the albums that was my salvation. One of the wonderful things about albums was that you have a big picture in front of you and lots of words on the back. And lots of little details on the album itself and you know for somebody locked in a situation where you had to go to school and you had to do everything you were supposed to do this was a moment you’d pull this out and magic would happen – you’d look at the Everly Brothers, or you’d look at Buddy and the Crickets or you’d look at some group that you loved – the Weavers or whatever – and you’d be off in dream land, you wouldn’t be tethered to the earth anymore, you wouldn’t be earth-bound. It’s very important not to be earth-bound. Very very important and I have never been earth-bound, I don’t like it. Anything that involves that I try to stay away from and that includes my own image which I really don’t want to be any kind of a discipline where I have to be this or I have to be that because I’m Don McLean – I don’t want that. So you were free and that was one of my favourites and I always wondered what happened to Nicky Sullivan (he had glasses on there and he holds the other guitar – he’s next to Buddy – guitars go in different directions). I knew after a while Nicky Sullivan left the group. Well don’t you know back in the 80s I played the Surf Ballroom and there was Nicky Sullivan and I said “gee, I’ve always wanted to meet you, I always wondered what happened”.
He said: “I went to work for Sony”.
So that’s what happened to him!
I’ve had the answers to a lot of these mysterious questions in my life so I’m very happy about that. There’s a lot of mysteries when you’re a child and I’ve had the answers to these questions. If I’d gone on and done what I was supposed to do I would never have found out what happened to Nicky Sullivan but I met him and he told me – he was with his wife and his beautiful children, he was so nice to me. So it’s a wonderful life – life has been very interesting, I’ve had answers to all these childhood questions as I’ve pursued my career and travelled all over the world people have come forward and given me answers.
AH: Another similar question – what’s your favourite Don McLean song?
DM: I don’t really have a favourite Don McLean song or album. I don’t feel that way about them. I get more excited singing other people’s songs than my own because I’m always astounded by the beauty of the melody or the wonderful lyrics that somebody wrote whereas my songs I put them together and I sing them and people like them or they don’t. The magic is for me doing somebody else’s song and being just amazed at the composition and how it feels to sing it because it’s not something I could write.
AH: We’ve got a question about Twitter because “Don McLean” has trended twice worldwide in the past year – once during the Macy’s Day Parade and once during your performance at the radio 2 folk awards last February. The biggest controversy on Twitter for the Macy’s Day parade was whether you were lip-synching “American Pie”.
DM: Well if they don’t know then I did a really good job because I was.
AH: How did you find the Parade it being your second appearance?
DM: It was up there with Glastonbury and the White House. It’s an amazing experience – I would go down the street and all I had to do was wave and on the side streets going down as far as a whole long city block it would probably be 10,000 people on every side street both sides and then lining the streets going down for 5 or 7 miles whatever it is. There was a total of 3 million people – the biggest parade they’d ever had – and seeing people looking at me and saying “we love you” and take their hat off as I went by – all these beautiful things – I mean I almost wanted to cry, I couldn’t believe the amount of love that was coming to me, it was just too much – I’m not really very good at accepting that type of stuff.
Lenny Bruce had a wonderful routine that he used to do called “Thank you Masked Man” and there’s actually a little cartoon that somebody made about it. Lenny Bruce psycho-analysed the lone ranger and believed that the reason he rode off at the end of every episode when the problem was solved – primarily because of his intervention – he would be riding off and the folks he saved would say “who was that masked man?!” – and the answer was “that was the lone ranger!” and that would be the way the show ended. Lenny determined the lone ranger could not accept love, that was his psychological problem and that’s my problem. So I’m really bad at it, and I receive a great deal of it and it’s done wonders for me but I’m very poor at accepting it. I don’t think I deserve it or something. I don’t know what my psychological make-up is but I was over-whelmed by the parade as was everyone in it.
AH: The other Twitter big-deal was the ‘out of tune’ guitar at the Folk Awards.
DM: Someone said I should fire my guitar tech! In fact I never let anyone touch my guitar but that one night I did and the result was that when I started to play that one string was out of tune and I couldn’t fix it.
A few tours ago I was in Australia and this kid was the guitar tech on that tour and he took my guitar – I said ‘I don’t want you to touch it’. He said he ‘knew everything about guitars’ but I ended up getting a crack in the top because of this kid. They really don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They mean well but I’m the only person who messes with my guitars and the one or two times that I’ve allowed it to not happen there’s been a problem.
AH: Alison Bridges wants to know, who are the singers you’d turn out on a wet winter’s evening and pay good money to enjoy?
DM: Today? No one.
I’ve seen everybody I want to see. I mean when you’ve seen most of the really great musical artists in my lifetime, why would you want to see what’s around now?
AH: So what was the last concert you paid to go and see?
DM: I saw Johnny Winter at the Camden Opera House and I loved it. He was terrific – played the guitar how the guitar ought to be played. He sang great and he had a power trio.
AH: Gina Woodward has a good question for you: what makes you happier – knowing you’ve got a real gift (i.e. your voice and songwriting abilities) or the lifestyle you’ve had because of this gift?
DM: That is a good question. Well I think first of all my lifestyle has grown over a period of 40 years – it wasn’t something like the Beatles where within two years they had mansions. In 1966 they were living in vast English country estates. I lived in a farmhouse for more than 20 years and then I found the place that I live in now 22 years ago and spent many years bringing it back to how it should be – Lakeview is what it’s called in Camden. I’ve never had an unhappy day here – you can be in a lot of places that are wonderful and expensive and have a very unhappy time there, but to say that about this place really says it all – it’s our home; it’s the seat of our family. I have other properties but there’s none like this place.
The things that I have at this point in my life have to do with my way of life and things have gradually accumulated over 45 years. My abilities – I don’t think of myself as having talent – I have instinct which has taken me to where I am. So everything I did was instinctive and to some degree people seeing me as having talent has to do with the effects of what I have done have had on them and their families. Had I had no effect on them they would not think I was very talented. Do you know what I’m saying? So these are all after the fact looking back over your shoulder kind of questions because if I had had no communication with people and impact on their lives then they wouldn’t think much of me at all and the only reason I had that was because of this instinct that I have and the same goes true for the lifestyle I have. I have acquired things because of a sense of style that I pursue – I like a certain harmony in my life and a harmony in the things that are around me and I seek items and colors and balance – which has to do with being a Libra, which is what I am. I don’t like things to be ugly or strident – this is why so much of the music that is around today not only annoys me but it hurts me.
AH: Jeremy Green asks: have your politics got more conservative as you’ve got older or do you still hold onto the ideals and values of the 60s and 70s?
DM: I don’t know what the ideals of the 60s and 70s were. I was brought up in a conservative environment. The Vietnam Way radicalised me for a time and I don’t think that I had the knowledge I have now about world affairs back then. I was more emotional and more idealistic so therefore subject to being influenced by the left wing more than the right wing. I would say I am as American as you could possibly be as far as my politics go because I’m an Independent. I don’t like politicians of either party and I don’t particularly like political people because they always have an agenda. Therefore I would say I have radical opinions that are both on the right and on the left and I am not a team player, I don’t have an agenda. This is why I’m not accepted either by the left or by the right. And I don’t have that type of a following, where everyone falls in line behind you because you’re one of them – well I’m not one of them – I’m liable to say anything. I do believe in capitalism, free enterprise and democracy; I don’t believe in socialism or communism. I don’t know of any example of communism anywhere in the world that pays any attention to civil rights, social justice or the environment and I am always surprised by liberals and ultra-leftists in the United States who espouse these things and say they belong to the Communist Party. I’m confused about that but I think there’s a deeper political motivation that’s hidden. I would like say that a perfect example of that is Pete Seeger, who on a personal level is a guy who would pretend to be your best friend in private, and in public would hardly know you. He is a guy who hates the capitalist system but lives on royalties – he must be a multi-millionaire by now so it would probably be a good idea if he gave all those songs into the public domain to avoid being seen as hypocritical. I believe that and I think that anyone who has that sort of extreme stance against our economic system shouldn’t benefit from evil royalties money.
I think the best person I’ve ever met in the United States is Ralph Nader because he doesn’t have a political agenda, he’s not working for the Chinese or the Russians or the Vietnamese or whatever. He believes in good citizenship; he believes in transparency; he believes that corporations should be brought to court and made to pay for their sins – he believes in the court system. He saved billions of lives by taking the automotive industry to task – he put air bags into cars and all sorts of safety features saving literally millions and millions if not billions of lives worldwide because these are standard features now.
All this truth in packaging is because of Ralph Nader and his belief that the airwaves should belong to the people instead of NBC, CBS and Jay Leno. He also sacrificed his whole legacy and had his own people turn against him because he wanted to start a third party which he feels is the only way to save my country from the two party system which basically just hands the country back and forth and continues the same policies. So he is a very important person and I would encourage young people who read this to go see Ralph Nader or listen to one of his speeches or buy one of his speeches and listen to them and avoid people, not matter how seductive they may be, who have political agendas on the right or the left. I find the right and the left, as I’ve got older, the more extreme they are to have very little difference and they’re both preaching about the end of the world all the time. The right wing is preaching the end of the world because the bible says so and the left wing is preaching the end of the world because the environment is in bad shape. But basically, and this is the thing about America that confuses and confounds all these radical people, America finds a way through and we continue muddling through and the human race continues on and on and we will continue on and on – the world is not coming to an end.
The greatest feature of America is that it’s flexible. I once asked a psychologist what’s the secret to maintaining mental health as you get older – you see so much, so many people die, so many people get sick, you see so much history. He said ‘mental flexibility’ – you have to have a flexible mind and the American system is flexible but these other systems are not flexible and they crack. When you get too radical and too extreme you’re inflexible, so this is what confounds many political beliefs in the world about the United States and that’s pretty much what I have to say.
AH: Tapestry remains a song much associated with the environmental movement, In 2013 do you have any strong views on global environmental issues such as climate change and pollution?
DM: As far as global warming goes, here’s what I know about it and I’ve never called myself an environmentalist but I love the land and I love the animals. I was very interested in the environmental movement when I started and I learned a lot and all I know is that 40 years ago we were being told that global warming would happen and now it’s happening. So the predictions of the scientists I heard 40 years ago have come true in my lifetime so therefore I have to believe there is a connection between these gases and the changes we’re seeing in the weather and the environment – that’s the first thing – because I’ve lived through it. The second thing though is that we’ve only really been watching the weather for about 100 years which is a blink of an eye. And the earth, the weather, the environment, the universe is changing constantly so the mountain range we see now will, in a million years, be a swamp with palm trees and dinosaurs again or some other form that we don’t know about. So the earth is very malleable and changing.
The third thing I want to say is that these gases are no good for people so even if they weren’t causing global warming we should not be putting out these kinds of gases if we can help it. They probably contribute to the epic of asthma and cancer in my country.
AH: Do you generate your own electricity at Lakeview?
DM: Well I have a generator – I can go for about 2 weeks without any power.
AH: Have you got solar panels on your roof yet?
DM: No I haven’t gotten around to that but I will. It’s a good thing and they are learning how to make these cells better and better. The thing is that we’re just behind the curve. There’s so much that we’re on to now but I really think we need a visit from an alien to tell us what to do. I hope I’ll see that. There is so much rain in Maine that if we could heat our houses with it we’d be set.
AH: Recently you were in the news around the world following your court appearance to contest a motoring offence. That generated a lot of jokes about chevys and levees and the vehicle you were driving…
DM: A Chrysler – a very good car, excellent car. I have one car my Chrysler, my wife has a car and I have a truck, that’s it.
AH: Anything to say about the court appearance?
DM: I’ll say that I fought the case because I did not see the warning lights that said the zone that I was in was a school zone. We were able to get the man who sets the lights and makes them go on and off to testify and he also said in an affidavit that the lights were computer controlled and off at 7.40. I was booked at 7.41 – so at the speed I was going, I went through the school zone when it was demonstrably provable that the lights were off but the Judge decided to give it to the police officer. So that’s what happened.
AH: Are you still annoyed about it?
DM: Yes. (Laughing). Because I still don’t see how I could have lost. I mean it’s so obvious that the god damn lights were off and it just shows you – don’t go to court if you can help it.
AH: Is it your first brush with the motoring police?
DM: In the 70s I actually had to go to driving school – I lost my license so I had to take a course – that shook me up pretty well but I haven’t had a ticket in many many years because when I had children they were in the car and I became very concerned about driving very carefully so I got used to do doing things like that. That’s why this annoys me because it didn’t happen but I was convicted.
AH: Something completely different and this is from Jordon Legendre. What brought about the Spanish language versions of Crying and It’s Just the Sun?
DM: Those were recorded phonetically in Spain and they were done at the request of EMI and they felt they could sell a lot of records if we put those two songs in Spanish. So I went to Spain, had a wonderful trip to Spain and worked phonetically with the guy in the studio and made the record with the tracks. Just like Nat King Cole used to make all his Spanish albums. I love Spain and I would like to return to Seville with my son and hear beautiful Spanish guitar playing.
AH: Any chance we may see those on a CD?
DM: Yes, I guess I own those. I guess I’ve never thought about that. Yeah, OK, that thought will remain in my mind.
AH: Are there any unreleased songs – like Echo, etc- that you now think should really have been included on the album?
DM: I went through a long long period– perhaps the last 8-10 years – of archiving photographs, videos, masters of songs, out-takes, I have everything but I’m through with it now. There are many unreleased songs and 100s of unreleased recordings. I have a huge box of stuff and there’s another box that Tony has in Nashville of the same stuff. So we have two complete sets of just about everything but in answer to that question, there are a few things but I’m not going to be digging around to find them. I’ve done all I’m going to do with that – for the movie, the book, Rearview Mirror – all these different projects but I’m really through with doing all that now.
Maybe in a few years, if I get the gumption or there’s a really good reason, I may dig in this stuff and listen to every single thing but for now I’ve gone over everything enough and gotten what I want out of it and I know where everything is which is very important because I’m my own librarian – I have to know where everything is and I do. If I don’t then I spend a lot of time finding it and it becomes time consuming and I don’t want to spend that much time doing it anymore.
I’m in a really good place right now – I just want to travel and sing, maybe write some more songs. That’s what I’m doing. All my work is done, you know, and it’s turned out pretty well so I feel pretty good about that.
AH: People have asked about your daughter getting married and how you’re feeling about that.
DM: Well my daughter has just written a novel and she’s also written a play and she’s a wonderful singer and she’s got a very nice fiancé that we like very much. He’s a teacher and my daughter is doing substitute teaching and she’s very happy, she’s got a wonderful little dog. And so we’re very happy for her and she’s happy and we take it one day at a time and we’ll see what happens but we like her fiancé a lot and we’re going to have her wedding here, June 30th . There are so many partners that she could have chosen which I wouldn’t have liked because it’s very easy for that to happen and she chose somebody I like quite a bit. He’s very sincere and hard working with a good job.
AH: Excellent, that’s very good news.
DM: That’s what you want for your own daughter right. He takes good care of her and he makes good decisions, he really does – that’s what I like about him.
AH: What is your favourite word?
DM. My favourite word is “Freedom”. I realise lately that I’ve been reading Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. My father used to read Tom Sawyer to me when I was nine or ten – we would sit on the couch together and read and he would laugh in spots where he would read about how Tom and Huckleberry Finn lived a free life in the summer time and poking out of their clothes and running away from church and avoiding responsibility and living in the woods and without anyone to tell them what to do. Mark Twain said that Tom Sawyer learned that work is what you have to do and play is what you choose to do. So you may do the same things but if you have to do it, it’s work, and if you feel like doing it, it’s fun. So I never call going to the hall to sing work; it’s not work, it’s fun. Basically I realised my father created the person I am inadvertently.
Today we are all being watched. As time goes forward this will become more profound and Freedom will be an Orwellian word that will mean its opposite.
I’d like to wish everyone a merry Christmas and a happy new year. I want to give special thanks to people like David New, Jim Monaghan, and Ron Buck – who wrote those beautiful pages in the biography – and to all my fans who have been so supportive including the usual gang, people like Bill Nisbett, Hannah, Annie, Bill Hamilton and Kristin who show up whenever I play Ireland or Britain. I’m really blessed and I almost think of these people as family; in fact I’m closer to them than to some distant relatives.
We have received lots of questions from fans around the world wondering whether you’ll continue to tour. Some British fans fear that the destruction of their currency may mean it is no longer economically viable.
I’m going to continue touring the world until I cannot sing anymore or until physical impairment prevents me from doing that. It will have nothing to with money or currency exchange fluctuations or anything like that; I will just continue to go on for as long as I can go on. 2009 will be spent in the United States and Canada with my agents the Agency Group and my agent Steve Martin. 2010 will probably bring me back to all the places I have been – including Australia and the UK and the places in Europe that were very keen to have me on the European tour that we had to cancel earlier this year. There will also be Canadian and USA dates in 2010.
Another frequently asked question concerns the “Till Tomorrow” DVD. Will this be released anytime soon?
That comes up every now and then about whether or not it can be put out and we seem to run into a road block over certain requirements that I have about the songs that are on the DVD. It may come out; I’m not going to say that it won’t. There are portions of it available on the Starry Starry Night DVD.
Won’t it all be on Youtube before you get to release it?
Let me talk about Youtube for a minute. I was approached by a very powerful legal firm in California a couple of years ago and they asked me to spearhead a lawsuit against Youtube. I thought about it and decided I really didn’t want to be involved because it had to do with artists getting paid and I felt something would be worked out and they would be paid. Also it was probably a good thing for artists that fans are able to access performances. I wasn’t aware how extensive my presence was on Youtube until they sent me a DVD with all these things on it.
The fascinating thing is that my son, who is becoming a really good guitarist, is very computer literate and he was suddenly reintroduced to me through Youtube. I don’t think he realised quite how far back I go so that’s been a very nice thing to share with my son at this point in his life.
Will there ever be a DVD of one of your recent performances – a DVD of a whole concert with good sound quality. I have seen your concert lately in Turnhout, Belgium…..and it was great.
Yes there may be a DVD of something we’re doing right now. The Milwaukee PBS station wants to come with their crew and six cameras and record my show there soon. So that may end up getting networked and we’re negotiating with them right now.
Is there a label for the new CD (“Addicted to Black”) or is it only to be available at the shows or on the web?
No there is not a label for the CD. It will be on Don McLean Records and it will be sold in shows and on the Web. Eventually it may find its way on to some label but it won’t be able to be in the stores because there are no stores.
I loved the Shakespeare sonnet that you sang on A & E’s Sunday morning breakfast show from about a year ago. It was listed in the show as “Lovers Love the Spring”. My question is: is this song appearing on your “Addicted to Black” album?
Yes it is on the “Addicted to Black” album.
What aspect of your career has turned out to be the most satisfying to look back on? Are some songs more satisfying to have written than others and, if that is the case, what is that makes them so?
This is going to sound strange but I don’t really think of myself as a poet or a songwriter or anything. I don’t really think of myself as anything. I’ve only done this my whole life; I’ve never worked for anybody or been in an office setting or been around a boss. I’ve made up my own life as it’s gone along and did what I felt like doing. So in the days when I had recording contracts and I was a young artist I drifted into songwriting but I also loved singing other people’s songs and so I did that as well.
I received a lot of flack for everything that I ever did. If I sang other people’s songs I wasn’t supposed to do that and if I wrote my own songs I got criticised for the kinds of things I wrote sometimes. So it was always a swimming upstream type of situation. American Pie was too long and couldn’t be a hit; Vincent was too weird.
Nowadays some say they’d like to see me solo and that they don’t like the band – and I must say some people go out of their way to criticise the band and it hurts them; it’s painful. I don’t like to see that. I would like them to keep those thoughts to themselves because I’ve been with these people for over 10 years and they’re an integral part of what I do and fans have to accept that.
I have seen many artists that I love very much and there would be songs that would put me too sleep or bore me and then they’d be one that would knock me out and that’s the nature of live performing.
How did Vip Vipperman come to join the band recently?
Vip is our current guitar player because Pat Severs has got a wonderful job with NBC in their band for the Nashville star program. It pays him benefits and a lot more money and he gets to stay home and not travel. In addition he has pursued the quest for an adoption and it’s taken him two years and it’s been an absolute bureaucratic nightmare. First he started out looking for a daughter in Vietnam and after almost a year of constant work that fell apart. And then he pursued a young son (8 year old boy) in Russia and succeeded in doing that and he now has his son. He and his wife are deliriously happy.
So he’s been so busy with all this stuff he’s been distracted from just about everything and he perfectly understood that we needed to have someone there for every date. Vip Vipperman is a songwriter and a wonderful guitar player and he is with us now but we always keep the door open to all of the guitar players including Kerry Marx, Pat Severs, who gave nine years of his life to me, and Mike Severs who was with us this summer. You’ll be seeing other guitar players from time to time and maybe two in one show or I may bring Pat with me as a steel guitar player at some point because he’s a terrific steel guitar player; that’s his forte. So we don’t fire people but occasionally we add another person to the band.
But going back to the point that I don’t really see myself as anything except as this musical creature: the touring and the singing have been the most satisfying. Making records is very disappointing a lot of times. You do your very best and people don’t care about it or the record company hates it. These days it’s very sad to see the music business basically evaporating. There are no music stores to go to in America. You can’t go and enjoy being around 1000s of albums and choosing things and coming back with a whole bunch of things. The studios are closing. The idea of going into the studio and making a recording with talented side men and a great producer is pretty much over because they can email their parts in and everyone is working from home. The whole culture of the music business from making the records to selling the records to hearing them on the radio (because the DJ liked the song rather than because the DJ got paid a lot of money) is all over. It’s a different business now. It takes $1m for a young artist to get on the charts and they shove it up the charts with all this money and then when people are sick of it it falls away and you never hear of it again.
So it is the live performing part of it that I have always enjoyed despite the fact I find travel very difficult. It’s ridiculous – I was telling my wife that I’ve heard so much applause; you know – how many people hear applause? It’s just been part of my life and so it’s weird and it’s wonderful.
The difficulties you had in getting your first album ‘Tapestry’ to market are well documented. It seems ironic that things seem to be even harder for your ‘last’ album ‘Addicted to Black’! In what ways do you think life is now more difficult for a recording artist than when you started in the late 1960s, and in what ways easier?
I think I’ve covered that. The music business doesn’t exist anymore so it’s a mystery to me how anybody gets started. My album, Addicted to Black, will be coming out on the Web and will be sold at shows. We are looking to EMI in the UK to put it out possibly. Those are the only options I have.
When will that be?
I’m working on the artwork right now so in the next month or two it’s going to be out. And I do have plans to put out the Live in Manchester album and DVD in one package because I had that transferred from tape to RADAR, which is a digital format. That was the show we did in Manchester in 1991 with the green shirt. That’s my next project.
How about the new book about Don McLean?
Yes, in addition I’m working on a very large coffee table book which will be called “Don McLean’s American Pie” . It will use a lot of photographs taken here at my home of my guitars, clothes, all these various collections I have – as well as handwritten lyrics to many of my songs. It will probably be a 375 page book with a slip case; the whole nine yards. It will focus on 12 albums which will be discussed and which will cover my entire career.
However just to finish Bill’s question the first album is the hardest album to get out because you have to get a record deal. In those days it was fairly straight forward – you could either get it or you couldn’t depending on whether or not the record company liked you. Most of the record companies liked me but didn’t like the Tapestry album. They didn’t think it was cool enough and so it was very difficult. I had to hold on to my beliefs that the Tapestry album was what I wanted and best reflected me. Eventually it did sell a lot of records and got on the charts so it did quite well and continues to do well – it’s been out for 40 years.
But you’re an unknown so everybody tells you what to do and you really can’t rock the boat too much. You have no power and you’re basically operating on the goodwill of someone who hears you and likes you. So you have to be careful how much you push for what you want. You see that’s the problem – I could never do what people wanted – I could never sing the songs other people wanted me to; I could never fit into the mould they wanted because I just didn’t feel comfortable not being myself. It wasn’t that I was above it all – I would have done just about anything I would have felt comfortable with to get what I wanted – to get started but I just could not feel comfortable singing a song I did not love or writing about a subject that I didn’t think was important. So I just couldn’t do it; it’s not that I wouldn’t have done it – I don’t want people thinking I thought I was above it .
You have recorded a number of albums of interpretations, from ‘Playin Favourites’ and ‘For the Memories’ to Marty Robbins, the Cowboy album and the Christmas album. More recently there was your take on Shakespeare’s hit ‘There Was a Lover and his Lass’. Have you ever considered recording an album of traditional British folk songs?
No I have not. But I do like Francis J. Childs and a lot of those songs very much but I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing an album because that would put me in the position of appearing as a traditional folk singer and I’m absolutely not and never could be. But an occasional song like that I wouldn’t be opposed to at all; they’re very beautiful.
The question I’d like to ask Don is whether you still write poetry? One of my prized possessions is the booklet ” Songs and Sketches of the First Clearwater Crew ” that you compiled and edited , and , aged 15 , I fell in love with ” for Pete ” and ” for Alan ” , and memorised them both. I never missed an occasion to recite them , much to the bemusement of my schoolfriends, who found David Cassidy and Donny Osmond far more interesting!
I am not a poet; I have written very few poems. But thank you for liking the few that I have written, I appreciate it.
All I want to do now is basically continue singing and I may write a song every now and then but I have no interest in sitting down and saying I’m going to write poems or I’m going to write this or I’m going to write that. I feel like I’ve said a lot of what I have to say. I really don’t want to be repeating myself number 1, and number 2, I don’t care anymore about promoting “Don McLean”.
It’s strange – I’ve just sort of gotten passed myself in a weird way and all I really want to do is sing for people and then go about my business. I have many other interests. I’m satisfied is what I’m saying. I’ve done what I’ve done and I continue to do the performing side of it but I’m just not burning with ambition anymore to do other things.
You have said that you do not read music .So how do you get your music written down? After it has been written down does someone play the written music back to you so you know that they have got it right for you? You are truly gifted but there are a lot of musicians out here who want to play your music but don’t have your intuitive gift with music.
The way I write songs, which is not very often, is to sing the song on the guitar into a tape recorder. Then I get the feeling how big or little the song is going to be and work on the song live on the tape recorder. I’ll listen back to parts that I like and parts that I don’t like. Then at some point when I’ve got the melody to where I want I’ll finish writing the lyrics and then try the whole song on the tape recorder and listen back to it.
Is there ever a day in your life where you don’t pick up a guitar or sing?
There are quite a few days after I have stopped touring. Though I must say in the last two years there was almost never a time when my bags weren’t packed and I wasn’t prepared to leave for a show. I have an old desk in my office. It’s called a “roll top desk” and it’s got little cubby holes and I will have a contract and a plane ticket in 3 or 4 of those cubby holes and each time I do a performance I’ll remove a contract and plane ticket and move the other ones up and put one more underneath. Those cubby holes were always filled with shows for the last two years.
But for a week or two after touring I don’t touch the guitar or sing much and that’s good for your voice – to not sing at all for a few weeks. You’re not meant to be singing with that thing – you’re meant to talk with your voice and maybe yell for a minute if you need to get a cab or if you’re angry with somebody. Your voice is not meant to be used in the way a singer does – it’s a very stressful thing that you’re doing to your vocal chords and it has to be done correctly. So giving it a rest is a very good thing and is also part of my longevity as a singer.
When is the new songbook appearing?
That’s going to be called the “Legendary songs of Don McLean” on Hal Leonard and will have 27 songs on it and will be out momentarily. That’s the first larger songbook that they’ve put out.
I noticed on your last tour of the UK in 2007 that you had started to use sometimes an electronic guitar tuner, is this because of the acoustics within concert halls making it hard to hear your tuning?
The electronic tuner that was on the floor was very good. When you work with a band and with this group who are phenomenally talented musicians and are used to being in the studio where everything is very much in tune. So if you’re out of tune it really clashes with the group. So I need a tuner of some sort.
I love it that you never sing the same set list of songs, what makes you choose certain songs at a concert and how do you decide what you are going to sing first ?
I’ll have a couple of songs or maybe someone will mention a song and at the sound check and we’ll fool around with a bunch of things. I might decide that a certain song needs more work so we’ll work on that one and then I’ll maybe do three or four others and I’ll think they’re good and the guys really know them so I’ll have those in the bag and I’ll do those somewhere in the show along with all the ones I usually do. So every night they’ll be different songs. Then I’ll do three or four sound checks still working on the song that isn’t quite ready then they’ll come a night when I lay that one on the group and I can tell when they’re ready to do it and that then becomes part of the repertoire.
Right now we’re doing “Believers”, “I Tune the World Out”, “Love Letters” – a whole bunch of songs. So that’s how I like to do it – you do your rehearsal at the sound check.
It’s good because it gets you going. It’s not just a perfunctory testing of the equipment, it’s a chance to flex your muscles to see how you’re sounding and how the hall sounds and how things feel and so on. This is in stark contrast to the 1970s when I never did a sound check. I don’t know what I did – maybe I had a road manager do it and in the 1980s John Platania always did the sound checks. I wanted to be in the hall as little as possible and I wanted to be on the road as little as possible. If I could get a bus home after the show I would do it. It was really difficult for me to leave the house but I did it and now it’s much easier and I actually enjoy the camaraderie of the boys that I work with. It’s a bit like a family and we’ve been together for so long and do so many things.
But it’s different now – I was very singular in the 1970s; I was off by myself, it was very unique but very singular. Today it’s more of the democratic approach to the road and to everything because everybody has feelings and opinions and sometimes disagreeable political positions and you have to be democratic so it’s good for me as a person. The band has made me grow enormously as a person.
A lot of times I will change the first song that I do but a lot of times I always do the same song. It’s usually a Buddy Holly song I start off with but sometimes it’s something else. But it’s funny how you get used to that song setting the tone for the show. If you try something different it might work but if it doesn’t work you find yourself having to climb up hill for a while to try to get back to where you would have been immediately after the first correct song. I don’t know if that’s a good answer but it’s almost like a lot of times I liken my kind of concert to being like a fighter in the ring – you know, you jab and then maybe a get a flurry of a few things going but it’s a long long haul – it’s not over in a minute – it’s an hour or two of back and forth until finally the audience completely capitulates and you’re not even thinking about the show anymore; they’re all with you and you’re going. That’s a terrific experience and it’s different every time so you’ve got to figure out how to get where you want to get to with a different audience in a different locale.
I think you are very brave in the way they you bare you very personal feelings in your songs, such as Angry Words or Perfect Love and I thank you for that , Obviously they were very personal to you when you wrote them but do you when you sing them feel the same way?
For some reason I’ve always felt that I just wanted to be naked when I would sing songs about delicate subjects – love songs, the songs about individuals – and just say the truth. I think that’s a nice thing to say about what I’ve done. Those songs are just very exposed.
How do you continue to look after your voice so that you can carry on singing indefinitely for all you fans , you know that we all never want you to stop.
I don’t smoke and as I say I take long periods of time when I don’t sing. I also try to keep my overall physical condition in a reasonable area and not let myself get too out of hand with too much drinking or eating or lack of exercise. I live in a big place and there are a lot of stairs to go up and down and a lot of ground to cover. If I’m going to walk down to the barn it’s one tenth of a mile and then come back and I’ve done a fifth of a mile. My wife is quite athletic and she’ll prod me once in a while to get on a bicycle and I ride my horses. I look after them myself – I don’t have a stable boy or anything, I’m the stable boy. I take care of my horses, I doctor my horses so I’m down there fiddling around, lifting shovels and rakes, bales of hay and things so the general way of life I have keeps me in pretty good shape. You can’t really be weak and sing. You have to be physically fit overall to sing, not just vocally fit.
You have always said that you love Christmas and I wondered if you have any old traditions from your childhood that you have carried on for you own children.
No we don’t have any things like that but we do a lot around here at Christmas for ourselves and our friends and our community. The Don McLean Foundation gives away a lot of money every year for homeless shelters and food banks. They’re very stressed this year and it’s very sad to see people lining up for food, reminiscent of the Depression and not looking like it’s getting any better any time soon.
I attended your concert in Turnhout, Belgium in July, it was a great success, thank you for a memorable performance. One of the things which struck me was the sheer physical effort required from you. I watched you conduct the sound check in blazing afternoon sunshine in the Gross Markt, following which I saw you do TV interviews and then come on stage at 10pm for a near 2 hour show. Do you find this exhausting or is it food and drink to you?
It is exhilarating, almost like a work out at a gym because it is physically exhilarating but it is also mentally challenging because you’re again trying to get to a certain place via a different route every night. The thing that kills artists is that they put a set list on their guitar and that’s the only way they know of getting from point A to point Z – do the alphabet, do one song after the other in the exact same order and that is the kiss of death. There was a guy once who told me if you can do 10 things and they only want you to do three things and you do those three things after a while you’ll only be able to do three things. So that’s one of the reasons I do many different songs in the show. You are either expanding or contracting and you’re either keeping your mind and your artistic idiomatic mastery flexible or it becomes rigid and you’re afraid to move outside of those boundaries. So I like to go to the end of the diving board and dive off and I’ve learnt that if I fail, so what? I’ll figure out a way around that.
Will you please settle a difference of opinion on the last line of the chorus of your song “Jump”. I maintain that the line is “If you don’t jump, jump, jump, into the seat by and by.” Others claim the word is sea or sweet. Your confirmation would be much appreciated.
Into the “sweet” by and by.
The footage on the site of your Hong Kong concert suggests that this was a great performance from you and the band. Is there any prospect of the DVD being released for public sale? If so I would be first in line to buy it.
I do not anticipate the release of the Hong Kong concert DVD but that doesn’t mean it might not happen.
I have an LP, released in November 1972 by the United States Air Force. You take up one side, being interviewed and singing. The other side features someone called Jimmy Castor. I have never seen nor heard of this recording elsewhere. Do you recall making it? Do you have it? If not do you want it?
I’ve no idea what this is. There are a lot of secondary releases out there which use interviews and live performances. There are hundreds of them that have been put out legitimately and illegitimately but I have no idea what that one is about.
How influential a figure was Bob Dylan for your own songwriting and how do rate his work in terms of overall cultural significance?
He has become overwhelmingly pervasive and the nice thing about Bob Dylan is that prior to his appearance, other than Woody Guthrie songs, which were brought to the American public by the Weavers, the idea of a composed folk song was a song like Scarlet Ribbons or Foggy Foggy Due and that was as far as it went. So Bob Dylan opened up a whole world of lyric writing and brought forward a terrific knowledge of traditional melody. He just really created a genre himself that is huge and influenced people like me because I had a lot of early Dylan. I quit listening to Dylan in the 70s because I was busy with my own career – in fact I quit listening to everything. I didn’t have time to get into any new artists and I didn’t care because I thought most of the artists I liked were right for me and were from before the 1970s anyway. I was in the middle of the singer-songwriter movement and there were a lot of good songwriters around in those days that were really challenging but no one like Dylan who I found for me opened up my eyes and made me realise I could write anything I wanted and about anything I wanted in any way I wanted to write it. So that’s how he affected me.
But today it seems like every kid tries to sound like Bob Dylan. I think his singing is more pervasive influence today than it has ever been. So what you have – this is just talking about his singing now and singing in general – are two camps that I notice. One is the Dylan camp which has kids trying to sound like Dylan. And the other is the Motown camp in which they try to sound like Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson or Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston. There are problems with both of those styles – and you see them on American Idol. The Dylan camp does not really realise how good a singer Bob Dylan is and how beautiful most of his melodies are. So they just hear the raw side they decide if they could just write a lot of gibberish lyrics and sing terribly that somehow they are profound. The other camp is more technically facile as singers but they seem to have to sing 14 notes when two will do. So they’re both equally amateurish and they’re awful; just awful and I find them very difficult to listen to.
Is this just a problem with talent show contestants? Who do you think are good singers at present?
I would say that Mariah Carey is an excellent singer and so is Christina Aguilera – they are both very good singers in that mould. But then you have the kids trying to copy them singing way too many notes; they just don’t get it.
Obviously today’s popular “music” is sub-par. But many things in life are cyclical. Do you envision a return someday to music that is written and performed for the benefit of the heart instead of the bank account?
First of all, music that benefited the heart has always been for the bank account. We must never forget that we’re in show business. What we have seen however is a change from being about music to it being about video and about looks and about television. What’s gone is the songwriting craft and all that went with it. Will it return? I do not believe so. My friend Joel Dorn was a very wise person and he once said, and I agree with him, things have a beginning and a end. The big bands are not coming back; the songwriters are not coming back; 50s rock n roll is not coming back. So my answer to that is fairly unequivocal – I don’t believe any of it is coming back. I think that you should get ready for the future, whatever that is.
I once heard you mention that your children were “flabbergasted” when they heard ‘Castles in the air’ playing while they were in a supermarket. Would you say that they now have their ‘heads wrapped around’ the idea of who you are?
I would say yes they do but I don’t really know what that means. There is so much out there on Youtube and the website. I am amazed at the presence I have on the Internet so I don’t know what they do in their spare time in terms of finding out about their father.
Were he alive today it’s unlikely that Jim Croce would still be writing and singing about truck driving and drinking in bars. But have you ever contemplated what subjects he might have explored musically?
I have no idea what he would have written about but I can tell you that Jim Croce would have had a lot of hit records. He wrote hits; that’s what he wrote. He didn’t write songs which, like I do, once in a while get lucky and become hits. He wrote songs that were stone cold hit records and he would have had a lot of them you can be sure of that.
Approximately what age did you become aware that your talent was of the VERY rare kind and was it one particular event that told you that or a gradual accumulation of successes that told you that?
I don’t think my talent is rare. What’s rare about me is that I’ve defended all efforts to try to make me into something I’m not. The only thing that makes me rare, if I am, is that I haven’t been turned into something I’m not. What can happen when you’ve been around for forty years, and this is something that happens a lot, you start to become a parody of yourself. You go through the motions and you become an impression of yourself. You don’t really do yourself anymore, because you don’t know who you are and that comes when you become very famous and then you work a lot all the time and I just think that happens to a lot of people. That’s the reason I don’t work an enormous amount because I don’t want to parody myself.
What is the longest period of time you’ve gone without picking up the guitar?
Oh I don’t know, a month maybe.
It seems obvious that Buddy Holly would have loved American Pie – but have you ever asked yourself what he would have thought of it? And what did you decide?
I’ve no idea what Buddy Holly would think of anything but I can tell you that he died when he was 21 years old and he probably had 60 major tracks recorded, and every one of them a hit record – and he wrote most of the songs himself. Let’s see somebody beat that!
An artist has to be fairly stupid to really want to do the same thing over and over again; either that or so mercenary that they don’t mind becoming a parody. Buddy was very smart and got bored with the same thing very quickly. He tried many different things including recording with a classically trained flamenco guitarist; and singing different songs in a different way – which you can hear on The Buddy Holly Story. He was becoming more Buddy Holly “as himself” and moving away from The Crickets. He was an enormous talent and he had a lot of creative interests.
Your mother lived quite a bit longer than your father and was around to see your success. What was her basic reaction to your “overnight success” in 1971? Was it more: “make sure to bank your money” or was it more: “so THIS is what you’ve been doing all day huh?”.
My mother never thought about money and she never really understood what was going on. My mother always believed in me and always loved my singing. She thought I had magic in me; of course all parents think their children have magic in them and all children do have magic. The problem is society knocks it out of them; it knocks the creativity out of the kids and makes them into little automatons. But they’re creative – oh my god they’re always making pictures and writing songs, singing and dancing and expressing themselves. Then they get in the school system and by the time that’s finished with them they’re afraid to think. Between the school system and religion they’re completely screwed up. My continued illnesses took me out of both of those institutions successfully and I think this is probably the reason why I found things to latch onto that satisfied me and gave me so much pleasure and happiness singing and later playing the guitar and later performing and later writing songs and making records. All of this stuff was just so much fun and so I never was sucked into the system.
My mother was very supportive and I would kid around with my mother and one day I told her that I was going to try out for the singing contest at the World Fair. I said ‘you just be ready now for the trophy I’m going to bring him.’ She said ‘Oh Don stop that…’. Anyhow I walked in the door with the trophy, it was about four feet high. She was always getting surprised by me but often said “I didn’t raise you; you raised yourself.” My mother was very honest and would come out with very cogent blunt assessments of things that were right on the money.
Are you an early riser?
Yes I am but I’m also an insomniac. I’m up all hours of the night and day. I take a nap in the day and I’ll be up at two in the morning. I get up at 6.30 usually and may snooze for half an hour and then go to 4 in the afternoon so it’s really weird; I’m completely messed up as far as my sleeping habits go.
Are you a black coffee man?
No but I am a coffee man and I like milk in my coffee.
What’s your favourite food?
I can tell you that I’ve eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world but every now and again we will be on a bus tour of the UK and you know stop somewhere at a pub and have roast beef and beer and all the fixings and I think that’s probably my favourite food. Or we’ll go to a place in Ireland and have corned beef and cabbage – I like the straight down the middle working man’s dinner.
What you normally eat at home?
My wife is a terrific cook and she makes all kinds of different things which is part of the reason I’ve put on weight in the last 20 years. But I wanted to mention something about that also. I had a medical condition which required some cortisone use for a couple of years and it caused it to appear that I put on a tremendous amount of weight. People may wonder why that happened but that’s why. Also I never really shook the 20 pounds I put on when I got married because my wife cooked for me so well. Alan, you have never put on any weight which is remarkable – your wife must be a terrible cook!
I do most of the cooking.
It must be highly indigestible!
My wife is a natural cook and she loves sweets and never puts on weight. So she’ll go to the restaurant and have four deserts and encourage me to have a bite of each but I just look at those deserts and put on 10 pounds. In the horse world that is known as being an “easy keeper”.
“Everybody Loves me baby” IS about the coming of Dubya, isn’t it? Remarkably prescient of Don.
Well it certainly does sound like it! I have to admit!! Unbelievable! And I invented that guy!
Is it a safe bet that Don Mclean will not be fundraising for Sarah Palin in 2012 (or any other time)? 😉
No I won’t be fund raising for Republicans period. They’ve really disappointed me in this last eight years and I would say that as far as Sarah Palin goes that she is the embodiment of blind ambition.
A friend suggests that often Don is just playing with words and doesn’t mean for his songs to mean anything.
Well I do play with words a lot and often in songs I would coin words and I would make phrases like “teenage broncin’ buck” – I always thought that referred to my bronchial condition. It’s a little inside joke for myself, you know!!
So I would do things like that that were basically silly and correct they have no meaning at all; it was just for fun. There’s a lot of that in Narcissisma.
You spoke very thoughtfully in your book about songwriting technique. Recently a version of American Pie performed at WMUC radio in College Park Maryland has surfaced. In that recording the line appears often as: “I drove my chevy…..”. The actual recording omits the “I” of course. Can you give your reasoning for the omission or was it more a spur of the moment decision. Please excuse the song question; but I do think this unearthed recording excuses the questioner to some extent 😉
I’ve no idea what this recently surfaced tape is all about. I don’t know what it is. I’m not surprised – I sang the song and I would change around with the lyrics and have fun with them. It was so long ago now and I was a child. I didn’t have any idea that anything I did would be talked about all these years later and that every little change I made would be seen as meaning something. I would just do it just for kicks.
The day the music died happened on my first birthday. JP Richardson was best man in my sister-in-laws’ second wedding, and one of Buddy Holly’s cousins works for my aunt and uncle in Gainesville, Texas – they have a commercial florist growing business. I’ve memorized the entire song……and have always felt a particular closeness to it.
My question – how you ever been to that place – where the plane went down? What did you feel there? How does Buddy influence today – in contrast with the way he influence you so long ago.
In the eighties there were some pictures that surfaced of the plane wreckage and I was appalled. No I have no interest in going to where the plane went down or any of that stuff and I think it’s tacky and I think people shouldn’t do things like that. I’m sure it’s not a place Buddy Holly wanted to be so I don’t think there’s any reason to go there.
I love your song “1967”. The lyrics are so real ! I would like to know when did you write that song exactly, and if “buddy Joe” really existed for you.
No, Joe did not exist and I was not in the Vietnam War but it was a fantasy and I’m very proud of that song. I think the Headroom album was quite an artistic success from my point of view. Again, I had to fight uphill – no one involved with that record liked it, nobody wanted to do what I was doing. It was such an extra burden that was placed on me in order to get that record made.
1967 was a fantasy and I wrote it a long time after Vietnam. It occurred to me that we were very cruel to a lot of the Vietnam veterans because this country hated that war just as they hate the war in Iraq. Although we’ve learned not to be cruel to the soldiers because we’ve realised they went just where they were sent. So the song says “I went because they sent me”. There are some young men and women who don’t think passed that point because their country tells them to do something, they feel it’s their patriotic duty obligation to do what the country says. You have to respect that even though it’s not the best result you would hope for after a long period of time in the educational system but it has to be respected.
Is there a story behind your song “You have lived” ? What does the phrase “this frightened atmosphere” mean?
It’s one of those songs about a girl whose not afraid to be herself. The “frightened atmosphere” is the way things are always. Look how frightened we are all the time. In fact the Bush administration has made a career out of frightening the American public. Just recently we’ve been frightened into giving 700 billion dollars to the people who stole it. So it’s always a frightened atmosphere – that’s the world around you and that song respects the individual who will be his or herself.
Your “Homeless Brother” L.P. is a huge favourite of mine. Among the tracks is George Harrison’s “Sunshine Life for Me (Sail Away Raymond)”. I would like to ask you how you came to record this song. It is a fine, fine version and I wonder if Harrison ever made a comment on it. Thank you.
I have no idea where I heard that song – maybe it was on a Ringo record. But Joel Dorn got one of the greatest percussionists in the world in that studio – Ralph McDonald. Ralph McDonald was a terrific person, a wonderful guy and a phenomenal talent. Ralph McDonald created that whole thing and it sounds like birds and jungle and it was remarkable. That’s the kind of thing Joel Dorn did – he handmade a recording. He would spend hours and hours and hours overlaying like a tapestry and stitching together a track. I just loved him and I miss him. His tracks were also very delicate. You could see into them a great distance and there were tiny sounds. You could listen to the track a 1000 times and always hear something else. That to me is the art of making records that I miss and the people I used to work with who could do that are no longer around.
Don, my favorite song of yours is “Empty Chairs.” I’d always thought the woman, who was the object of the song, had given up on the relationship and walked away. But now, 30 years later, when I listen to the song, I believe the woman has died. What, in your mind, did happen to the woman?
It is the end of a relationship – that’s what that song is about.
I have seen you many times over the last 36 years and most recently in Manchester and Liverpool where you were kind enough to sign my 1973 English tour programme. Your performances have meant I have discovered older music songwriters and artists which I would never have known. You are almost a curator of music history which without you would be lost. Have you ever thought of documenting your encyclopaedic knowledge of songs ,musical style and songwriters in a book, future recordings or a documentary? It would make a great TV series .There are few people left who can pass on this legacy with both integrity and authenticity. Many thanks for enriching my life,
That would require work and I don’t like work, I like fun. My idea of doing a TV series is not fun so I have no interest in any of that stuff. But I love interviews, interviews are great. I like interviews over the phone too. Alan – I love your wife, I love your children – they’re terrific – but you’re getting the chicken pox so I wouldn’t want to be in the room with you doing this interview. I’d be thinking about how you looked and whether I saw any indication of your disease and it would cause me not to be able to think clearly about the answers. So the phone is great. In fact I thought a great idea for a documentary movie would be to have a lot of phone calls with me answering questions while they’re showing the footage of stuff.
I have a very disjointed and spotty encyclopaedic knowledge of music. You know I know whole repertoires of people I like but then I know a lot of dumb songs and I know a lot of pop songs and a lot of folk songs; a lot of rockabilly and rock n roll songs but there are huge areas of country music that I’m not familiar with and many artists in country music I’m not familiar with. Then I have a lot of areas that are of interest to no one but myself so I don’t think it would make a great TV show as I would really have large areas that I was ignorant of and then small areas that I was very knowledgeable about. It’s spotty.
I´ve been a Don McLean-fan for forty years but I´ve never seen you live. I´m not sure if you ever been to Sweden or Norway.
I’ve been to both Sweden and Norway.
But I know you never been to Finland – so have you ever thought of playing a few gigs in Finland?
I have been to Finland in the seventies. I like Finland and I like the way they love reindeer over there – they eat reindeer, they play with reindeer. You hear the reindeer all the time and I like Christmas, so I love Finland. And I like the people there.
May be you think I have a sort of strange question. Although I’m only 56 years old, I sometimes think about the music that should be played at my cremation.
I think it’s better to choose the music myself – although I may not hear it then – than leave it to my relatives. I know exactly what I want the people to listen to. It will be the last message to my beloved ones. The song that surely must be played is “Oh my what a shame” from the Don McLean album (your best album ever, I think). My question is what is the reason for writing this song and do you think that the lyrics are suitable for a funeral/cremation?
Well first of all I don’t think you should be thinking about your funeral when you’re 56. I think you should plan to live till 96 and live that way. But I understand the reality and I guess it is fun to think about what people will think if you’re not around. I’ve learnt that the older you live the less people give a damn when you die because they feel you’ve had a great life and now it’s time for you to get out of here.
Did you ever think about the music you want to be played at your funeral or cremation?
- When I die I have no idea of what my wife will do if I pre-decease her but my music will be played all over the place so you won’t be able to get away from me for a while.
Beside “Oh my what a shame”, I want to have played “Rain on the Roof” by The Lovin’ Spoonful (my all time favourite), a song by Buddy Holly (possibly “True Love Ways”) and a song by Madonna (“Live to Tell” or “Gone”). By the way, great concert this year at Turnhout. Thank you very much for that.
The song “Oh my what a shame” is influenced a little bit by “The Water is Wide” and also by the fact that we never really understand why we do so many things – whether it’s go to war or fall in love or why things happen the way they do. It’s an interesting little song. A lot of songs I wrote I don’t even know what I’m writing until I’ve written it and then I look at it and think ‘oh that’s interesting’. There’s just something about life that’s not what you think it is. I mean Alan you’re right in the middle of a wonderful time period with your children and your wife – it’s just such a great time but someday they’ll walk out of the door and they’ll go to school and you’ll look in the mirror and you’ll be older and you’ll think ‘what happened?’ I’m kinda there now – my daughter is at college, my son is six inches taller than I and so it’s quite a mystery. It’s like a river that flows along and things move very slowly and soon some things are just out of sight and some things are so far out of sight like my friends at Iona that I can’t even remember how it was anymore. I’ve now had 22 years of married life, raised my children but the great part about it is that it keeps coming around and around because now the kids are older they are great friends and we’re all very close and hopefully the tribe will increase and become more dynamic. So you lose and you gain so that’s why I think it’s a very poor use of your time to think about your cremation. There is so much living to do.
There may even be a time in the future when I’m totally inspired to write a lot of songs and maybe I’ll make a double album of all new things because some switch got switched on. But right now that switch is off and the album Addicted to Black will be the last album of my own songs unless a switch is switched on at some point. I don’t believe in being a bore or putting out a lot of crap that nobody cares about and I don’t believe in repeating myself and I never was very impressed by songwriters who weren’t very good but say “I’ve written 600 songs” – well so what. I just try to do a few things that matter to me and this album does matter to me and I think people will like it.
Hi Mr. Mclean. I have been a devout follower of your music but as yet not saw you in concert. Do you think realizing a dream coming true there is a loss to the dreamer? In other words if I saw you in concert will i lose the awe that i currently have of you or should i take the risk. I am a Muslim and my religion preaches against holding any human in too much esteem as it is a form of worship. What do you thing of that concept? That is why Muslims have no idea of what the prophet of Islam looks like. This way we can concentrate only on God and not on for eg. Jesus- whom we consider a great prophet of God and a Brother to Muhammad and just that. A fan always.
This is a very interesting. Well I would say that we don’t understand Muslims as well as we should. I would also say that we don’t understand other countries as well as we should. We definitely, and I’m speaking as an American, do not respect the strength and the traditions of people in foreign countries. We have learned the lesson repeatedly in America that we think we can go over to a country like Vietnam or to Iraq and step on these people and think they’re just going to roll over because they’re poor and we’re rich and they’re weak and we’re strong. In fact we find out that they are strong and we are weak. We need to learn this lesson and it’s a very important lesson to learn.
A guy like George Bush never learnt this lesson because a guy like George Bush never went to public school. In my public school in New Rochelle, if a guy like George Bush was around he would have been beaten up once a day every day until he didn’t have the attitude that he has. But he never had that happen so he avoided that part of his education which we as public school kids had to learn and that is to respect the other guy; respect the little guy; respect the quiet guy; and don’t think that you’re a tough guy just because you’re a rich guy. Anybody can be rich but it takes a lot of character to really be tough.
I would say that this individual should do what his heart tells him to do. I would love to meet him and to have him come to one of my shows and I’m sure when the show is over he would not hold me in too much esteem but he would say he had enjoy it.
It is said that you intended your free concert in Hyde Park in 1975 to be a thank you and a farewell to your UK fans. Was that genuinely your intention at that time, what did you plan to do instead, and what made you change your mind to the extent that you still grace our shores 30 years later?
This is an urban legend. I don’t know where this came from.
It’s in the book.
Well it’s your fault, you did it!
No, no, I never intended it to be a farewell. I was just getting started; I don’t know how that got out. Did I say that?
I think you did. It was in all the original interview material for the book. You said ‘the pressures of three and a half years superstardom had become so intense that you yearned to step completely out of the public eye.’
Oh well. I want to correct myself.
It had to do with my withdrawal in 74 when I kind of cracked up a little bit, which was written about in the book so it might have been connected to that whole thing. I probably did want to step out of the spotlight but I never intended to retire or give up or anything like that. People have always thought I should retire but I never planned to do that.
In the book you actually say the concert was “torture”:
The 1970s were torture. It was basically my poor mind adjustment to the requirements of success. I found that being successful required so much of me and being fundamentally a guy who wants to do what he wants to do I found myself in a straight-jacket a lot of the time, racing around from radio station to radio station and doing this and that. This was the part I didn’t enjoy. Also there were a lot of personal things going on – I was married at the time and miserable with that situation; it was just horrible. It’s sad because it was such a great time for me and I should have been able to enjoy it more.
That’s the reason that third album, “Don McLean”, was written and is the way it is. I’m just a conduit; just a camera – I try to keep telling my story and other people’s stories as I see them through that lens without any kind of filter and without any kind of apology. It’s not a commercial approach to being in the music business; that’s not the way they do it. The way you do it is you sing songs that become hits. That’s not how I do things but in spite of that fact some songs have become famous, so I don’t know, how do you explain that? I don’t have an answer.
There are other urban legends by the way. One of them is that I didn’t play “American Pie” for a long time. That’s totally false. I always played that song because I knew it was what people wanted to hear. They pay a lot of money to hear me and I would never not play it and disappoint them. It sometimes sounds like I am always doing everything to please myself but I’m actually very interested in pleasing the audience and making them happy while at the same time enjoying it myself so we both have a good time. I think that’s the key to my longevity – I still enjoy my performing, it’s not torture. I’m very concerned that I give everything I possibly can because it might be the last time I’m ever there, you never know. I treat every show as if it’s the last one.
I love your songs from the Believers album, they are truly unique and were recorded I believe after you’d been living in Israel for a period of time. Was there something particularly inspirational about that country or that period of time in your life?
The Believers album could have been better – I sort of fell down on the job on that one. However we do quite a few songs from the Believers album now with the new guitarist.
The Israel experience was a life changer for me because I realised how incredibly safe America was relative to a country like Israel where you could hear the Iran- Iraq war progressing every night and bombs were going off and the PLO were around. People experienced all kinds of violence on a daily basis; everyone carried a gun and there were a lot of soldiers around with military weapons. So once I got through with that and I came back to America I realised that we didn’t have any problems and that I didn’t have any problems so it was a big step forward in becoming less self-indulgent for me.
Have you returned to Israel since the 1980s?
No I have no intention of going back to that area again. It’s quite different and I wouldn’t feel comfortable there now but it was an interesting experience.
Do you have the time or inclination for sightseeing when you’re on tour?
I do sightseeing when I’m on tour because I’m in a sightseeing bus. We stop at all sorts of places and have dinner or see some beautiful historic place. So yes I see a lot as I travel around but I’m not a guy that brings a camera and does all that. It all goes in my head and that’s how I like it – I want to remember what I remember.
With all the touring and travel you’ve had to do over the years are you “averse” to vacationing? Is it more of a vacation if you get to stay at home?
Well it is a vacation when I stay at home and that’s why I have a wonderful place that is very hard to leave. I have taken vacations with the children and we may do that again. However I am somewhat averse to travelling unless there is a musical reason for it or some reason to do with it that has to do with career. I’m just done so much that I’ve almost got an allergy to airports.
Do you ever take an overseas vacation?
Oh god no.
They even asked me to speak at Trinity College in Ireland but I couldn’t do it, I just couldn’t travel over there. I didn’t even go to California when BMI wanted to give me an award when ‘American Pie’ was going great. You couldn’t blast me out of this house with dynamite and so I’ve turned down a lot of things like that and sometimes they offered me a lot of money and I just have to say I’m sorry I can’t do that. There’s something to be said for sleeping in your own bed on a regular basis.
f.a.martorana 68 Iona:
I had the pleasure of meeting you again in Mason, Ohio in 2004 after 36 years. You were signing autographs after your concert. I brought the 68 College yearbook up to you because i graduated the same year. and was in a couple of economics classes with you taught by Bro. Anthony Glennon. There was a long line waiting for your autograph and i wanted to ask you who was the red cherub face guy that you used to pal around with. I remember his face but for the life of me can’t find him in the yearbook. I think you and he played in a group but i could be wrong. i know you were friends with him. He looked Irish or Scottish and i think you used to play music together in the concerts in the library or in Mcspadden hall, but i can’t say for sure.
I do not remember that individual.
f.a.martorana 68 Iona:
Do you ever socialize at all with your Iona friends or is that not possible? Anyway if you could take the time to answer that question i would appreciate it. I remember you in 68 as wearing somewhat of a cashmere coat with your guitar strapped around you neck who knew 4 years later all the world would be singing your classic hit American Pie.
No, I don’t really have any friends from Iona. I basically lost touch with high school and college immediately after I graduated. In fact I saw a very interesting biography on Weird Al Yankovic, who is a terrific guy and friend of ours. He got a degree in Architecture and he said that I knew when I got my degree, standing in cap and gown, I was getting a degree I would never use and it was the only time I’ve said heard someone say exactly what I thought the day I got my degree in Business Administration. I knew the first thing I was going to do was to get as far away from New Rochelle as possible and start pursuing my singing career. I never like the word “dream” – I never pursued a “dream”; I pursued a reality – I had goals. I really don’t like the term the “American Dream” – the problem with my country is that people really do dream too much and now they’re getting a very rude awakening. I therefore prefer to set goals for myself and try to achieve those goals so I couldn’t wait to get at those goals and try to achieve them the day after I got out of college.
I was wondering if you had any idea of just how special the American Pie album was whilst you were recording it?
No, I did not.
It still sounds incredible today. I also wondered why for so long after you didn’t perform the title track? sorry if these have been asked before.
That’s an urban myth and it seems every interview I’ve ever done I’ve been asked about that. And in every interview I’ve done I’ve said it’s not true and that I’ve always sung the song. But still people will not get it and stop asking that question. It makes me wonder how true history can possibly be when I cannot even correct a small factual error and I’m alive! It just makes you wonder, is any of the history you read true?! It makes you realise that people really believe what they want to believe. They believe the myth that it was too much of a burden for me, which was floated out there by many of the rock writers because I could never follow the song, and therefore it must be a burden and therefore I probably wouldn’t sing it. It’s just all a bunch of BS.
I haven’t missed a concert tour since 1973 – those early concerts at the Hordern Pavillion (I even have one of them on audio tape) It seems to me that the numbers which get the loudest applause are the solo numbers. Is there any chance you’ll do another solo concert tour?
There is no chance that I will do a solo tour. The applause for the solo numbers comes because of the contrast. An hour of me just singing by myself is not something that I would want to hear anymore. Maybe in the 70s it was different but I’m not tuned into the whole timing and rhythm required to do that. It is something that is reminiscent of my folk roots which were never real and permanent – they were just part of what I was. I try to keep every aspect of what I have done in the concerts so I do a solo number once or twice or sit down for 20 minutes and play the guitar. I like to listen to people play the guitar but I also like singing with a group.
Have you ever been in a movie or are you planning to be in one? I’d like to see you perform a song in the next Bond flick. 🙂
No I’m not planning on being in a movie, however my songs are all available for movies and television. I love that when it happens and it happens a lot. The last one was Charlie Wilson’s War with Tom Hanks which had “American Pie” in it.
I would like to ask about the cover to the self-titled ‘Don McLean’ album. It has always struck me as a very beautiful yet haunting and melancholy image. My question is where was this photo taken, and what was Don’s inspiration for using this image, or how does he feel it relates to the music on that album?
This is taken by a man named John Olsen for a feature on me in Life magazine in 1972. It was taken on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River in Cold Spring, NY, which was near the little gatehouse where I used to live at that time.
Goofy question (since I am a guitarist). Do you also play electric guitar ?, and what do you have for a instrument collection ?
I do not play the electric guitar. I can play the electric guitar but I would play it in the same way I play the acoustic guitar so there wouldn’t be any difference. So what’s the point?
When I come back to earth again it will be as a tall gorgeous blond who can sing.
You must mean Julie London (“Cry me a River”). Julie London is the sexiest female singer that has ever lived. In case you folks out there don’t know who she is, she was married to Jack Webb but she was the most beautiful singer that has ever lived and a great sexy singer too.
Have you been a good father and husband? The two don’t always go together ….I think.
That is a very difficult question for me to answer. My wife and children would have to answer that but I can say that I’ve done my very best.
I would be interested to know, that should you ever be stranded on a desert island (heaven forbid) which three songs of yours would you take?
God, I can’t answer that… That’s a crazy question because if I were on a desert island I would remember 10,000 songs.
Anyhow, I guess I’d need a power source of some sort – a solar record player. Let’s assume that could all be worked out and I had a solar ipod with three songs on it that would last a 1000 years. I don’t know which 3 songs but two of them would have to be “Don’t be Cruel” and “Satisfaction”. But then again there are songs that are not down the middle but that I love just as much as songs like “White Christmas” and there might just be a little song on the side that I would listen to as often as a song like “Don’t be Cruel” so I can answer that question.
Have you got an ipod?
No, I have a sports Walkman that I’ve had for 15 years!
But you’re all fixed up on the Internet and watch Youtube…
Yeah, today Universal Songs called and they asked me what my email address was so they could send me an “e-” Christmas card. I’m not calling them back because I want a Christmas card in the mail with a stamp on it, thank you.
Finally, do you have any plans to retire from the music business?
I don’t plan to retire from the music business . It really is a wonderful thing that has happened to me because I’m a 63 year old man and I still have people screaming and jumping up and down and getting excited and it’s such an honour to still be able to perform for all age groups and get the really good jobs I get overseas through the Asgard Agency and Paul Charles in London and Steve Martin. It’s a nice time in my life to be having these types of things happen and I’ve been really enjoying it lately –instead of sweating about travel and all the little things I have always worried about, I’ve just been telling myself that everything is going to be alright and just go with the flow. I’m not really a go with the flow guy. I’m actually a swim upstream guy but I’ve been doing the other thing. I guess I’ve realised that I’ve done enough.
We would like to thank all the fans who submitted questions for this interview, including those who weren’t lucky enough to have them featured here. We have included as many questions as we could manage. The transcript has been approved by Don but is entirely “uncut” from what was said in the live interview.
We are organising another interview session with Don McLean whereby fans may post a question and stand a good chance that Don will reply. The interview will be completed and available online before Christmas.
If you would like to ask Don McLean a question about his career or future plans then please send an email to email@example.com including “Christmas Interview” in the subject.
The closing date for questions is December 12th.
Questions posed by fans of Don McLean:
Carolyn: Having toured the UK since the early seventies what do you like most about our country?
Don: I like the civility of the people, I like the architecture and I like the countryside.
Carolyn: Do you have a favourite concert hall and out of all the songs you have written over the years do you have a particular favourite?
Don: My favourite concert hall is the Royal Festival Hall and no, I don’t have a favourite song.
Marie: You obviously love your family life and I was really impressed at the Hello magazine interview. With that in mind would you say your music has become less radical? And, had you been married at the time, would the American Pie lyrics have been different?
Don: I was married at the time. I have become less radical I guess over the years but I am rapidly becoming more radical as the Bush administration remains in power.
Trevor: Have your children inherited your talents musically?
Don: My children have actually much more and many more talents than I have and they are better adjusted people than I am/was.
Bill Nisbet: Your affection for Scotland is well known. Would you consider singing/recording a Scottish song? Perhaps a Robert Burns song?
Don: Yes I would and we can ask people to suggest a Scottish song. Maybe I’ll take some suggestions on that on the forum.
Matthias: Will you ever play a concert in Germany and is it possible to buy your new CD & DVD in Germany?
Don: I’d be happy to come to Germany again if I was asked. I have played a number of concerts there. The CD is available for download from Hyena Records and can be purchased by international customers from the record company website and from Amazon, etc.
Matthias: What is the story behind “Three Flights Up”?
Don: Three Flights Up is a concept song. I kind of write songs with a concept in mind and I remember sitting outside of a dormitory at a college where I was picking up a girl to go out and there were three flights to the rooms. The rooms were lit and naturally, being a young man, I was looking in the windows. There weren’t any people in them but I was thinking about the stories that may be going on in the three levels and how they might be connected. I fantasized the idea of having three different stories going on on three different levels of a building. But for the purposes of the song, or the drama, they had to be in some way interconnected. So that’s how that started.
Harry: I have heard of an earlier recording or mix of “Castles in the Air”, which is different from the one that appears on your debut LP “Tapestry”. I am curious to know whether the earlier version is available on CD. I love the song and would love to hear that first mix of it.
Don: No, the earlier version is not available on CD. The entire [Tapesty] album was remixed when it went out on United Artists so the original mix of that album and that song, Castles in the Air, as it was originally done is on the Mediarts label. Ed Freeman remixed the entire album because I didn’t like the way it sounded. So there are two mixes of the Tapestry album.
Adam: I’ve always been interested in singing and how the singing voice works. Did you ever need to do specific vocal training to reach all those high notes in ‘Crying’ and ‘Since I don’t have you’ etc.?
Don: My voice happened to always be able to sing those types of songs. I have the ability to do that but I don’t have the ability to sing, for example, like Bruce Springsteen or Rod Stewart. That’s just my particular type of voice. Every singer needs training of some sort if you’re going to preserve your voice. That includes doing loosening up exercises and involves not trying to sing songs like Crying and Since I Don’t Have You until near the end of the show when you’re sure you’ve got all your vocal apparatus in place, otherwise you’ll hurt yourself and you won’t be able to finish the show. You can tear a muscle that holds the voice box and you won’t be able to have any vocal power and you won’t be singing for a couple of weeks after that at least.
Cora: Will you be coming to Holland for a concert some day soon? That would be greatly appreciated!
Don: I would love to go to Holland. I’ve not been invited in many years. I used to go all the time and I like the place very much. The Dutch promoters turned their backs on me 15 years ago but the audience is still there.
Gregg: In American Pie, you talk about the three men you admire most. Are you a devoted Christian? What are your religious beliefs?
Don: I am not a devoted Christian. I do believe in God. I would say I’m some sort of a pantheist. I live in the forest and I think I’m living in church; that’s my God. I do not understand why people have to believe in something. You’re going to find out what the truth is one way or another sooner or later and it seems to me that the requirement that you need to believe in something in this life is like trying to choose door A or door B – are you going to choose the door to Heaven or the door to Hell and to me it doesn’t seem intelligent. I do understand a lot of people get a lot of comfort from it but it’s not for me.
David: One of the things that has fascinated me was your business savvy right from the start. How is it you were able to retain your publishing even during your first entry level contract with Mediarts?
Don: I would say if anyone wants to go into the music business the thing you’ve got to do is get a very good transactional lawyer – a contract lawyer. And it’s got to be a lawyer you know and he is the person you bring contracts to and he is the person that explains them to you. Not your manager’s lawyer and not your manager. This will keep your manager honest and it will allow you to understand in plain English what it is you’re signing. I guess I get a bit of credit for having some business savvy but I’ve had a lot of luck. A lot of things broke right for me and I was able to win a number of legal actions which allowed me to coalesce my ownership of the songs that I created but there was a bit of luck involved, so I wasn’t all that savvy.
Bill: Are there any plans for your self-released CD’s to be available from Amazon, Tower, B&N, etc anytime soon??
Don: Yes, at some point the self-released CDs will be available somewhere, I don’t know when yet. They are currently available on the Internet at americanpie.com and are sold at my shows.
Pete: Don, if you could go back to 1971 and start again, would you do anything differently?
Don: No I wouldn’t because I’m happy with where I am now. Only if you’re unhappy with where you are in life do you want to change direction or do something different.
Willie: In what way do you write down your guitar music? In notes, in a tab, or simply with symbols AM(inor) Gmaj7 etc? Or do you remember everything you composed by heart?
Don: I write symbols down like A minor, G major 7th or whatever. I write the lyric down and over the top I throw the guitar chord symbols and try to remember the melody or have the melody already sung into a tape recorder. I’ll go through it a few times and will change things till I get it right.
Janet: I love your song ‘Sea Man’. I would love to know where you got the idea from, although I could make an educated guess. I would dearly love the lyrics to this song to use with my teaching, since it seems so appropriate in light of recent disasters and tragedies in the world today.
Don: The lyrics can be obtained from the Believers album which is available internationally on Hip-o Records. The song is actually a true story of a man who lived by the sea in Heifer, Israel. It’s all true and everything in the song is what he told me about his life. He even lives in a house shaped like a fish.
Mary: Don, on reaching 60 on 11th December, I intend to continue my battle as a recycled teenager in growing old disgracefully and have purchased a bright purple bicycle. How about you? Can we change attitudes to our elders – will our generation continue to make a difference?
Don: I think our generation made a difference to our generation. I think other people’s generations make a difference to their generation. I don’t think they pay too much attention to us unless they’re open minded about different time periods and they want to transplant themselves into the 40s or 50s or 70s or 80s, which I liked to do when I was young but I don’t find a lot of young people who are interested in that. They’re mostly interested in making sure that they’re caught up with everything that is current and being interested in the past is not something they’re interested in.
Tony: I have often wondered if Headroom was really your first, albeit subtle, Rearview Mirror?
Don: No, I would say that’s not true. It’s a totally unique album with all new songs on it. Rearview Mirror is a compilation with a lot of the things I’ve done. The only thing that is really new is Run Diana Run. Of course, there are many new versions that were unearthed in the process of going through everything that I have here at the house. So that, and the DVD part, makes it interesting.
Tony: A few years ago I had the pleasure of hearing you sing a new song about ‘Eisenhower’. You explained that you had written it for a friend of yours, who was producing a Broadway musical. Did that show ever get off the ground? Have you recorded it, and would you ever consider writing a complete musical score for Broadway and follow in the footsteps of some of those great songwriters of the past?
Don: No, the musical never got off the ground. I will be recording the song and it will be on the Addicted to Black album. If I were asked and people had the money to do the show I would consider writing a musical score. But it costs enormous sums of money to do a Broadway show, something like several hundred thousand dollars a week, so backers don’t take a chance on someone like Don McLean. They take a chance on Paul Simon or on someone like that. Paul Simon had the worst black eye in the world from the one he tried to do, so I don’t think it’s a place where a lot of songwriters want to have their music portrayed and I don’t think that it’s a comfortable place for people to invest.
Tony: In the song book, ‘The songs of Don McLean’ there are words and music included for two songs. ‘I Want Her’, and ‘I Couldn’t Keep It To Myself’. In all the 30 years that I’ve seen you perform, I have never heard these two songs, although I know ‘I Want Her’ is included in the ‘Til Tomorrow’ footage. Did you ever record them in the early days, (someone must have heard them to transcribe them for this book) and perhaps you could even release them as true ‘rarities’ some day, along with Lonely As the Night and Slow and Easy?
Don: ‘I Couldn’t Keep It To Myself’ is a song that a young girl sang who was involved with the Hudson River Sloop. She came up with it and sang it so I put it in the songbook as a traditional song. I never did it but it is a cool little song. ‘I Want Her’ is a song that I wrote. It was supposed to be on the Tapestry album but it only ended up in the Bob Elfstrom movie, Till Tomorrow, never any place else. I don’t think they will ever be released but it’s possible, though I’ve got other things I want to do.
Tony: What are the origins of the name ‘Benny Bird’?
Don: It’s just a silly name I made up in the 70s.
Leah: Who does your favorite cover of American Pie?
Don: Madonna, by a long shot.
Erik: When you were on the Clearwater with Pete Seeger, were there any songs you learned that may have influenced your own songs in any way? I’m curious as a fellow songwriter.
Don: I think one of the reasons why the songs I wrote in that period were so good (let’s say compared to other songs) was that I was around so many interesting creative people who were writing songs and who were singing songs and who were coming up with new songs all the time. Definitely the environment I was in was very inspiring. I could never have written a song like Tapestry today and I couldn’t do it then if I hadn’t been around that environment.
Alan Young: I have all your albums and the one that I keep playing is “Don McLean sings Marty Robbins”. I see that apart from singing and playing, you did the arrangements and also produced the album. Can you give an insight into how you arrange the songs? I think it can make such a difference to a song. Do you find it very challenging? And how difficult is it to produce your own album?
Don: We’re not going to get into the covering thing but, for example, Sittin in the Balcony is a cover recording that I did and Don’t is a cover because I did it exactly like Elvis’ recording. Sittin in the Balcony is an attempt to do it like the Eddie Cochran version, so it’s a cover type song. But if you look at my versions of any of the songs on the Don McLean Sings Marty Robbins album there I have gone to the sheet music immediately and started with the song as if I’ve never heard anyone else’s version of it. You might want to use any number of devices to create an arrangement – that has to do with an individual artist’s creativity. But you clear your mind of any other version you’ve heard of the song and start with the sheet music.
It is not hard to produce your own record if you have really good musicians, a really good arranger and a really good engineer because the engineer does most of the work. He is the one who gets the sound. The musicians play their part and of course you’re there all the time making sure that the feel of the track is how you want it. Then with the engineer you create the mix you want but you’re not mixing it, he is. That goes for every producer. They always rely on their engineer and so the engineer is as important as the producer.
Fuzzy: I remember your mentioning some time in the last couple of years that you were reading a lot of books on native Americans. In your Cerritos concert in March this year, I heard your new song “The Three of Us”, about an American Indian family. Will this song appear in your upcoming album of originals? Also, have you written other songs about American Indians that we are likely to hear soon?
Don: The Three of Us is not about an American Indian family. It is about me and my parents. But it is in part going back to the land we lived on which was once Indian land. It uses the notion of words and how words can out last anything as a sub-theme to talk about the fact that my parents are dead and that basically I’m fading as I get older. So that’s what that song is about. I’ve never written any song about American Indians as such but I am very interested in them. That song at least refers to the Indians and their influence in America.
October 1991 was an exciting time for all UK fans of Don McLean as he had just released American Pie as a CD single (also containing Vincent and Castles in the Air). At the time this interview was broadcast the single was at No 45 in the charts; it soon climbed to the top-10 with Don subsequently appearing live on ‘Top of the Pops’ and included here is video of that appearance.
Our extracts start with Don McLean commenting on version 2 of ‘Castles in the Air’ that introduced the show followed by the first of several observations on ‘American Pie’
We hear the end of Don singing part of Pie Live. [Other Copyright restrictions (other than those attributed to the BBC) prevent me broadcasting entire songs!] We now hear more about American Pie including Don’s account of the first time he sang the song for the public.
Yet more on American Pie including Don explaining one part of the songs meaning. He then moves on to talk a little about his position within country music.
This extract starts with a pause following Don singing ‘1967’ live and then comment on the ‘new’ album, ‘Headroom’ and his enthusiasm for recording cover versions.
A burst of Fred Astaire singing ‘Wonderful Baby’.
We hear the end of Killing Us Softly followed by Don talking about his links with Roberta Flack and how he wished (wishes) she would record ‘And I Love You So’……..
The final extract talks a little about the success of ‘And I Love You So’. Don also discusses his meeting with Fred Astaire when they stayed together at Claridges in London. The show ended with the classic ‘Everyday’ sung Live
In 1991, Don McLean found himself back in the UK top-10 with the re-released ”American Pie” single. He appeared on ”Top of the Pops” with the Jamie Marshall band and gave one of the greatest ever performances of ”American Pie” .