Interview with Don McLean – June 2013

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.

THE END

Comments

  1. Steve Olson says:

    Its great to hear the words of the lyrical/musical genius behind American Pie. The apex of what Rock should be! I too am saddened and hurt by the ugly music of today. Yes, it is true that “Freedom will be an Orwellian word that will mean its opposite”, but I am hopeful that the genius behind American Pie and others fighting the good fight will triumph in the end.

  2. American Pie
    I would like to know why the word “whiskey” was removed from, as I refer to, multi-tracks.
    Maybe used as a Pepsi commercial? Otherwise, sound quality exceeds everything I’ve heard, since day one!

  3. Alister McReynolds says:

    I don’t think I’ve read a more honest interview with any star of Don’s magnitude.He’s someone whose music I’ve loved since I was at school and now I’m a 61 year old retired College Principal who writes a bit.
    Don McClean what a contribution to Western Civilization!

  4. Shocking.

    The man who “got it” enough to pen these words:

    ” … that if man is allowed to destroy all we need
    he will soon have to pay with his life for his greed.” could now say:

    “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´ …

    is almost unbelievable.

    We are living through the 6th mass extinction this planet has ever known and the only one caused by a single species (us), there is nothing happening to resolve the global warming / climate change problem – except talk – … we are just about out of fossil fuels and there is no other energy source that can sustain 7 billion human beings or so (Read, for example, “The Last Days of Ancient Sunshine” but what we hear from Don now is essentially “We are Americans and we will find a way” … empty words from empty chairs.

    Don may believe in capitalism and free enterprise but we have seen clearly that they don’t work; they produce cycles that favour the wealthy while preying on everybody else, they are exploitative and destructive by nature and they are one of the major reasons we are in the mist of the environmental crisis we are in … you know, the one Don was clearly aware of 40 years ago but now basically dismisses with meaningless platitudes.

    Shocking and disappointing.

  5. Gary Shepherd says:

    I like a man who speaks his mind, and Don McLean has always been such a man. This ruffles feathers, and sometimes even devotees become incensed when their ‘hero’ says something that doesn’t align with their own credo. I’m sure that Don would care not one wit about that – and that is just the way it should be. Don McLean – a man always true to himself and no one else. Worth listening to, even when I’m not sure I agree with what he’s saying. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

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