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Enjoy Magazine

Don Mclean at the Cascade Theatre

01/25/2018 05:00AM ● By Phil Reser

Beautiful Ideas

February 2018
Story by Phil Reser
Photos Courtesy of Don Mclean

Since first hitting the music charts in 1971, singer-songwriter Don McLean has accumulated more than 40 gold and platinum records worldwide and has been inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. 

Over the years, his style of writing has found favor with a multitude of artists from the world of pop, rock and even rap. These include cover versions of his songs by Elvis Presley (“And I Love You So”), Madonna (“American Pie”), George Michael (“The Grave”) and most recently, Drake’s sampling of songs from McLean’s 1977 album, “Prime Time,” which the rapper used for the song “Doing It Wrong.”

But McLean will forever be identified with the classic hit song “American Pie,” one of the most famous songs in pop music history. The song was originally inspired by the death of Buddy Holly. “The Day the Music Died” was February 3, 1959, when Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash after a concert. 

“For some reason I wanted to write a big song about America and about politics, but I wanted to do it in a different way. As I was fiddling around, I started singing this thing about the Buddy Holly crash. The thing that came out was, ‘Long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.’ I thought, ‘Whoa, what’s that?’ And then the day the music died, it just came out.  I came up with this crazy chorus, and then about a month later I just woke up from a dream and wrote the other five verses.”

On that same “American Pie” album was another classic song of McLean’s – “Vincent,” a heartfelt ballad about the life of painter Vincent Van Gogh. 

“I was reading a book about Van Gogh and I decided that it was an interesting idea for a song, and the idea of using the imagery of his painting, ‘The Starry Night,’ to tell a story. I’ve always striven to find beautiful melodies to sing and beautiful ideas to sing about, rather than angry ideas or ideas that were ugly. I think one of my purposes for being in the world is to find some kind of beauty and create music that’s beautiful in some fashion. I think The Beatles had an influence on me; I love the diversity of the things that they did, and I am really a fusion artist in that I fuse old-fashioned popular music with early rock and roll and folk music.”

In 1969, McLean began his friendship with musician, environmentalist and peace advocate Pete Seeger, with whom he learned a lot about the art of performing. 

“I realized through my work with Pete Seeger that I didn’t want to spend my life as an entertainer that just sang love or sentimental songs. I also wanted to sing songs about what was going on in the world. So I wrote ‘Orphans of Wealth’ about poverty, and ‘1967’ and ‘The Grave’ were about the war in Vietnam.”

During that timeframe, he accompanied Seeger on his Clearwater sailboat up the Hudson River in 1969 to protest environmental pollution in the river. Aboard that sloop, he wrote several new songs, including his environmental song “Tapestry,” which was an inspiration for the formation of the Greenpeace organization, along with editing a songbook entitled “Songs and Sketches of the First Clearwater Crew.”

“That was more than 40 years ago, and one of the things about knowing Pete Seeger in those days was that all of the intellectuals, writers, artists and scientists who supported his point of view, and who knew the environment was going to be in trouble, gave lectures and wrote books about what would be happening in the years to come,” McLean says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that global warming is brought about by the factors that these scientists referenced because I have seen it happen during my lifetime. We had a warning about this and we did nothing.

“The way my mind works when I write a song is that I like to combine opposing things, and what I figured out was that politics and music run parallel going forward in history. That’s just my theory, but we do have a perfect example of that still being true, at least as I see it, because we have a kind of loud, spectacular but rather mindless form of cultural entertainment now coupled with a sort of mindless administration in Washington, all about how things appear and having no substance.”  •

Don McLean • Saturday, March 10

Cascade Theatre, Redding •