Music still makes Don McLean smile

Music still makes Don McLean smile
Picture: G. McDonnell / VIPIRELAND

As Don McLean gets ready for an Irish tour, he tells Lorraine Wylie why he’s still making records almost 50 years after his debut album.

IT’S been almost fifty years since Don McLean penned American Pie, the song that launched his career. A string of hits, including ‘Vincent’, an homage to the artist Vincent Van Gogh, helped cement his reputation as a gifted song writer.

Now, at 72, McLean shows no sign of slowing down. As part of his 2018 tour he’s gearing up for a visit to Ireland when, he’ll introduce fans to his latest album, Botanical Gardens. Taking time out from a busy schedule, McLean starts the conversation with a trip down memory lane.

“You know, I’ve so many fond memories of Ireland,” he says, in a lazy American drawl.

“My first trip over was in 1972 when I stayed at the Gresham Hotel, in a grand top floor suite. Supposedly, Liz and Dick [Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton] also stayed there. I remember the place being bigger than my house and had lovely peat fireplaces which I enjoyed very much. The show was held in a movie theatre across the street from the hotel. We had a great night but afterwards, when I returned to the Gresham, the whole audience was there. Over three thousand people had surrounded the building. It was a welcome I never forgot.”

The young star was even more impressed by Ireland’s talent. “My favourite Irish performers were the original Clancy Brothers. I know all their songs,” he says. “I even had the chance to play banjo on several tracks of one of their albums, Clancy Brothers Greatest Hits. It was quite a thrill for the young Don.”

Unfortunately, his own debut album, Tapestry, proved a less exhilarating experience.

“Getting Tapestry out there was the hardest damn thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “I was adding songs in, then taking them out again, it was incredibly stressful. One minute the record company liked it and I’d think I had a deal. Then they changed their mind and I’d have to start all over again. I think the problem was that each song was so different and they didn’t know what to make of it. In the end Tapestry found a home with the greatest record man of all time – Alan Livingstone at Mediarts. He believed in me and thought I had talent. I’m not sure I’d have been a success without him.”

Livingstone’s show of confidence is a sharp contrast to his father’s attitude at home.

“My father had Scottish roots and was a very down to earth kind of a guy,” he says. “He thought music was more of a distraction, not something to choose as a career. He wanted me to work in an office but, I was determined to do my own thing.”

McLean might have dreamed of a music career but his early aspirations seem somewhat limited.

“Well I knew when I got my guitar that I could write songs. My thought was that maybe I could get on stage as an opening act,” he explains. “I knew if I could do that, I’d definitely make an impact. You know, make them realise I was there. But I never imagined anything much beyond that.”

As it turned out, McLean’s songs have set the benchmark for success. Hits like ‘American Pie’, ‘Vincent’, ‘Castles in the Air’ and the beautiful ballad ‘And I Love You So’ all share the same elusive component that makes them timeless. So what is the magic formula?

“Oh I don’t know,” he laughs. “It’s impossible to say because, really, all songs are unique. You put them out there and they take on a life of their own, you never know what’ll happen. But there are some basic ingredients. Firstly, you need a strong melody, that’s the most important thing. Then you’ll have to have a good chorus that captures what you want to say. Next come the lyrics that tell the story.”

He pauses before adding... “And you’ll also need a lot of luck!”

Over the decades, the star has seen many changes in the music scene.

“It’s not the same now. But then it’s a different world now. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, when I was growing up, life was much quieter. There were less cars and, not everyone had a phone or a television. If people wanted to watch something on the TV, they’d go round to someone who owned one and watch it there. Even in our house, there’s wasn’t a lot of dialogue. It meant we had to time to think. Now, it’s constant mayhem and noise. People spend time chasing useless information, attention spans are shorter, there’s no time to just sit and be quiet so it’s bound to have an impact on music.”

The conversation turns toward his latest album, Botanical Gardens.

“The really is a great album,” he says. “It was inspired by the Botanical Gardens in Sydney, Australia. I was walking through them and thinking about being young. So, I guess you could say the album is really a story about dreaming. It’s about youth and romance.

“You know, I think that romance is one of the things we’ve lost today. People are so technologically minded, they forget about the beauty in life.

“They believe in sex rather than romance and don’t understand the best part of life is its poetry. We ignore the lovely and focus on ugly aspects like crime and violence. I like to think this album is one of the prettier things.”

McLean’s personal life hasn’t been without incident. In 2016, he pleaded guilty a domestic violence charge against his then wife Patrisha McLean, and the charges were subsequently dismissed when he fulfilled the terms of a plea agreement. The couple were subsequently divorced.

When he isn’t writing or touring, McLean enjoys spending time at his home in the state of Maine. “In my professional life, I’m on stage, surrounded by people, screaming and shouting at me, sometimes they even throw things,” he chuckles.

“But, in private, I like to get away from everyone. I love being in the countryside, spending time with my children and two lovely granddaughters. Sometimes I’ll be around my horses but the thing I enjoy most is browsing around shopping for antiques.

“I’m very into Oriental rugs at the minute. I don’t know what it is but whether its mundane things like fixing the roof or buying a gorgeous old table, I love making my home beautiful.”

- Don McLean’s upcoming gigs in Ireland include Vicar Street, Dublin, May 20-23; University Concert Hall Limerick, June 1-2; and Marquee, Cork, June 14

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