Thursday 14 December 2017

From Buddy to Britney with Don McLean

Has there ever been a more quintessential American song than Don McLean's 'American Pie'? Driving the Chevy to the levee; James Dean; Buddy Holly; teen trysts and high school proms . . . So much of what we think about the land that stretches from sea to shining sea is in those extraordinarily cinematic eight-and-a-half minutes.

It's as much America's national anthem as 'The Star Spangled Banner'. If its author is weary of explaining how he came to write it after all these years, he betrays no sign of it.

The song's been good to him, has brought fame and fortune, and remains the jewel in his glittering songbook. Next month in the Olympia, you can be sure every word will be sung in unison by a thousand Don McLean fans.

So, one more time with feeling, how did he come to write it?

"I was trying to write a closer for my show -- which it still is," says Don, down the phone from the US.

"I wanted it to say all roads lead to Rome; this is your American music, all these different songs that I write about, and all these people and events, whether it's poverty or the environment or a love song or a song about an artist or Princess Diana . . . all of it leads to 'American Pie'.

"I wanted it to be about American politics and music. I couldn't get a handle on this idea until I decided that politics and music run parallel to each other. I felt the music of the 1950s is like the politics of the 1950s, and the same with the 1960s -- tumultuous.

'The Buddy Holly idea came to me, and I sat on that for a while, and then the slow part in the beginning, and the chorus came to me some months later. So I had the opening and the chorus -- and then I knew I had to speed up the chorus and tell the story and then speed up the verse and then slow it down at the end.

"This is how my mind works. I could never do another song like that. Every song is different."

Did he know he had a classic on his hands? How was it received when it first came out?

"To my surprise, I was immediately attacked by Rolling Stone magazine for saying the music had died," he says, incredulous.

"Really, it has died. If you look around, there are no more melodies out there. They're not made by people anyhow. They go out and lip-sync the track -- and they admit it.

"There's no brains attached to this. There's no Gershwin or Irving Berlin or Bob Dylan -- they all had brains. Now it's a mindless image and empty."

Take that, Britney!

Don's on a roll now.

"Nobody ever understood me really; I'm a fusion artist. I fuse old-fashioned popular music with rock 'n' roll and folk music, and most of the people who started out -- except for The Beatles -- did not pay any attention to old-fashioned popular music."

I ask Don about his tribute to the Dutch master Vincent Van Gogh, another song that has struck a chord. Did he go to a gallery to see his paintings in the flesh before writing it?

"I'm a conceptual artist who has these notions," he answers. "I read a book about Van Gogh and his brother -- his brother was sick, he had the same problem Van Gogh had. Then the thing took on a life of its own.

"I created a lot of fantasy stuff and used the colours, movements, circularity and energy in the painting of 'Starry Night' to write lyrics. The painting itself is the template for the lyrics. The lyrics are the artist, the artist is his painting is his work."

Amazingly, Don's visit to Dublin is as part of a tour to celebrate his 40 years in the music business. Time Life has just released a two-CD career retrospective, a book and a 90-minute documentary feature film, all with the title American Troubadour, which has been two years in the making -- and which will be shown on TV here soon.

Has Don, who recently turned 67, seen the documentary yet?

"I've seen parts on YouTube. I wanted it to show a lot of the highlights, like when I first began I sang with Pete Seeger along the Hudson River in 1969 and they broadcast the song on PBS television.

"I sang a little song which had a line about the Pope. And when I sang that line, lightning struck and rain came down -- and everyone in the country saw this and that's how my career got started."

You could say that was the day the music was born . . .

American Troubadour is out now. Don McLean plays the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, on November 2

nkelly@independent.ie

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