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New documentary showcases an 'American Troubadour'

March 5, 2012 1:14 p.m.


Don McLean, American singer-songwriter.

Related Story: New Documentary Showcases An 'American Troubadour'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Singer/songwriter don McLean has a career that spans more than 40 years, and he's written more than three hundred songs. If you only remember his big hits like American pie and Vincent, you are remembering two of the most celebrated pop classics in the 20th century. He has produced distinctive songs and created a legion of devoted fans, among them some of the biggest names in music. Don McLean is the subject of a documentary airing this week on KPBS. It's an honor to welcome him to the show. Hi, thanks for doing this.

MCLEAN: Hello there. Thanks for having me on your show.

CAVANAUGH: What's it like seeing the story of your life from child hood on wrapped up in a documentary?

MCLEAN: It's very freaky. But the thing about it is, I wanted to do this for my own children, and my grandchildren and whatever, and then PBS liked the idea a whole lot, and they decided and asked if they could participate. And then Time Life got involved as well. And the funny thing was that it all made sense because the music comes out of this experience in life that I've had. So it all really is germane to the songs that I wrote, and the records that I made as you'll see when you see the show.

CAVANAUGH: It's called Don McLean, American troubadour. And that isn't a word we hear very much anymore. What do you think that says about your music?

MCLEAN: Well, in my case, I'm a rambler, and kind of a guy who sings a lot of different kinds of songs besides writing songs. And I also certainly write about America and different things that are going on. There's some interesting songs on the CD that Time Life has, songs like have you seen me, about missing kids and PrimeTime, which I wrote in the '70s where I felt America was kind of like a game show. Stuff like that, that's been on the edges, people know these songs who come to my shows. You the broader public might not. And then songs like tapestry, which were really about the environment and I wrote that back in 1969. And all the things that we're dealing with now, we were talking about back in those days.

CAVANAUGH: Anyone who watches this documentary will find out if they don't already know that you love a lot of different types of music. Has that ever gotten you into trouble when people wanted to type you as an artist?

MCLEAN: Well, I totally confused everybody all along, I suppose. But that was fine with me because I didn't really want to be all that famous. I wanted to make the kind of music that I wanted to make, you know? And a few things like and I love you so, castles in the air, American pie of course, Vincent, Crying, snuck out, sort of. But the record companies really never knew what to do with me, and that's understandable. But I wanted to write the kinds of songs about the kinds of things that meant something to me and meant something to my life. And as I look back now, I'm really glad that I didn't ever veer from that because I had to fight for this. This was not something -- I was always -- and I'm really not a guy who likes -- I like harmony, I like to be harmonious with people, but where my music is concerned, I found that there was a lot of effort really on the part of everybody to try to stick me one place or another. And I just couldn't do it. There's a thing in there, I think I talk about Clive Davis, he signed me for a while and sent me a lot of songs that he thought my voice could make hits out of with the right production. He's probably right but I told him, I really can't is sing this stuff. It has to mean something to me.

CAVANAUGH: Talk to us a little bit about American Pie. There's been a whole cottage industry developed trying to elaborate on the meaning of that song. Why do you think it intrigued people so much?

MCLEAN: Well, you know, the song was dynamite from the minute is came out. And I'll be darned if I know why. They all understood the buddy Holly thing, they understood that there was something about America that I had gotten hold of. I am an -- I was then and I am now very interested in what's going on in America. And I got a hold of something by not writing a song that was, like, an obvious song, but writing around the edges, using rock and roll music and politics and a kind of a dream sequence moving forward. And I had no idea -- again, it was way too long, so I had a lot of resistance there. But right out of the box, they started playing Buddy Holly songs with American Pie, oldies started coming back, I remember I was on the cover of Cashbox magazine, don McLean is bringing American music back, because it's an such an English thing for so many years. I guess people were ready for something. It was a phenomenon. And people have been talking about it for a long time. I think it kind of dumbs the song down, so I never get involved with that. But it is really supposed to be a dream, where one thing morphs into another. And again, it was just an experiment on my part. I knew I had one more album to make, I thought that would be the last one I'd be able to make, and it turned out to be the beginning of my career.

CAVANAUGH: American Pie was selected as the fifth greatest song of the 20th century. Wow. I've been talking to you for a while, we haven't been playing your music. Let's just play a little bit, from your 1972 album, self-titled, Dreidel.

(Audio Recording Played)

CAVANAUGH: That's Don McLean, are Dreidel from his 1972 album. And do you like playing your old hits?

MCLEAN: Well, that's what people come to hear. I like entertaining people, and of course I like making a living. So it's been well-known that people who decide not to sing their hits are quickly playing for themselves in the living room. So yeah, I playing my hits.

MCLEAN: It's not something that you get to like, you know what I'm saying? It's your job. I actually like the songs so that's the thing that's good. I've often said, if the song was lousy, I'd have a rough time doing it. And I try to think of other artists who have these certain songs they sing all the time, and boy, I don't think I could sing that one every night.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: A lot of people over the years have praised your song writing. But your singing is also extraordinary, and it's showcased in this PBS documentary. When you released your version of crying in 1980, Roy Orbison said your version was better than his. What inspired you to cover this song?

MCLEAN: Well, once again, I got a lot of -- had a lot of static about this. You're not supposed to sing other people's songs. You're a singer/songwriter, you're supposed to sing and write songs. I said, look, I just do what I feel. And I felt I could really own that song. I felt I understood that song. And I adored that song. And I had an approach to it that I wanted to take which would turn that song into a bullwhip. Roy Orbison's version is the great version. He is the great artist. But he did it in a more lilting way, almost like -- I was all right, dum, dum, dum, that little backbeat to it, almost like a Spanish thing. But I wanted to sing it in a more slow way, which would unwind the song and create enormous tension. And it worked because of the great producer, Larry butler, put me in the studio with basically all of Elvis's A group, and the minute I heard that thing, I said I don't know if anybody else is going to hear this, but this is one of the best records I ever made.

CAVANAUGH: This is crying performed by don McLean.

(Audio Recording Played)

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, in putting together this documentary, were there any things that you yourself had forgotten about and said oh, look! I played there! I forgot about that.

MCLEAN: Well, not that I forgot about, but there was -- again, because the story of my life is the story of my music, and not the story of, you know, one more award or one more, you know, hit record or whatever, there was some pretty songs that I -- one pretty song called if I hadn't met you, which I wanted for the very longest time to use in a certain way, and there's a segment in the movie about my wife and our family. And I'm very excited about that one and I think Time Life is going to, you know, make something out of that.

CAVANAUGH: Now, in the documentary, we learned that you and Pete Seger became great friends. And Pete Seger is well into his 90s, still appearing musically, is that the way you see is that the way you see yourself in the future?

MCLEAN: No, I don't. I'm not really a political person at all. I'm an iconoclast of some sort, an individualist. I don't have an agenda of any kind. I'm sort of an American independent. I see things on both sides, I agree and disagree with. So no, I would say I'm really nothing like Pete Seger.

CAVANAUGH: But are you going to keep playing music?

MCLEAN: I'm going to keep playing music. I can't really kind of croak out these songs. I have to sing them well. And they are demanding. So as long as I have the voice and I'm not an embarrassment, that could last for a few more years. But I can't see myself going on and on and on. It's very difficult to imagine that. But then again, it's very difficult to imagine that I'd be sitting here at 66 years of age and talking about some of these songs over the last 44 years.

CAVANAUGH: I have to tell everybody that the new PBS documentary don McLean, American troubadour airs several times through the month of March on KPBS TV. You can check out times at Don McLean, thank you so much.

MCLEAN: It was really nice talking to you, thanks a lot. I think you did a real good job. Asked some good questions.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you! Bye-bye.