Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Don McLean

It has been recounted many times how the song "Killing Me Softly With His Song" arose from the attendance of the young folk singer Lori Lieberman at a Don McLean concert in the early 70’s. The song in this case that “killed her softly” was “Empty Chairs”.

I remember experiencing a similar moment when attending my first Don McLean concert in the National Stadium (a boxing arena) in Dublin in the late 70’s.
However on this occasion it was the song “Tapestry” that had the effect. Though included on his first album, I had not yet the heard this song and was completely knocked out by both the beauty of the composition and the quality of the lyrics.

Indeed 35 years later I would be very much of the same opinion and would consider it quite simply as the best environmental song I have heard.

Indeed when one listens to this superbly crafted composition, one realises that it is so much more than a “pop” song with its relevance for our world even greater today than when it was first recorded.
And what poet has ever described the holistic nature of creation in more majestic terms?

Every dawn that breaks golden is held in suspension
like the yolk of the egg in albumen.
Where the birth and the death of unseen generations
are interdependent in vast orchestration
and painted in colors of tapestry thread
When the dying are born and the living are dead.”

And yet it is the manner in which such beautiful word pictures of creation are counterbalanced by stark warnings of the impending threat to our planet due to gross mismanagement of economic resources that makes it all so effective such as in the last verse:

“ Every fish that swims silent, every bird that flies freely,
every doe that steps softly.
Every crisp leaf that falls, all the flowers that grow
on this colourful tapestry, somehow they know
That if man is allowed to destroy all we need
He will soon have to pay with his life, for his greed.

As I say, I am still lost in admiration when I consider how superb this song truly is on so many different levels.

And perhaps the biggest asset of all on this - as on every one of his songs - is his crystal clear voice enabling one to effortlessly hear every word.

Don McLean would count along with Roy Orbison as my two all-time favourite male singers. In this context it was nice to know that they became mutual friends, with Roy referring to Don as “the voice of the century”. And certainly with respect to the clarity of diction on his recordings, I would go along with this!

I subsequently tracked down Don’s first album “Tapestry” after this concert which contains several other superb songs such as “And I Love You So”, "Castles in the Air" and “Three Flights Up”.

However it is his second album “American Pie” that I consider undoubtedly his best and - for me - simply the best album ever recorded.

I have been listening to the songs on this album for over 40 years and like them now as much - if not more - than when they first appeared. At least 6 – or perhaps 7 – of the 10 tracks I would consider as pop masterpieces.

As is well known the album was recorded as a tribute to Buddy Holly, to whom the title song - a marvellous sprawling epic - is dedicated.

I remember too the day of Buddy Holly’s death in a plane crash, feeling a great sadness for the untimely loss of such a talented performer. Though not as big a fan of Holly as Don McLean, I still find it easy to identify with the feelings evoked by “American Pie”. Don uses the episode of Holly’s death as the background for capturing the atmosphere of growing up in the US in the late 50's and early 60’s. He explains in a wonderful impressionistic manner, how it decisively shaped the meaning, or perhaps more accurately loss of meaning - echoed through a wider loss of cultural meaning - in so many areas of his life.

In an important sense I would see the very desire to write such an unprecedentedly brilliant tribute song (over 8 minutes long) as Don’s way of attempting to properly acknowledge and perhaps ameliorate the effects of what - for him - was clearly a key life changing event.

And in this regard he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams as “American Pie” is now widely accepted as one of the great rock anthems of the last century.

In the company of truly great songs the second track “Till Tomorrow” while fully acceptable in its own right, does not match the greatness of other tracks.

The third track offers a complete contrast  to "American Pie" in the also highly acclaimed song “Vincent”.

Listening carefully to it, I can pick up the melodic influence of “Tapestry” which thereby in this sense serves as its precursor.

Van Gogh of course is now recognised as the great impressionist painter. However for me the unique conception of “Vincent” with its “impressionist” poetic lyrics, paints an unsurpassed musical picture, which in its own genre equally qualifies as great art.
I would however consider the fourth track “Crossroads” as my favourite track of all on the album.

I would describe this song - again superbly written and performed - as one of personal transformation that again for me works on many different levels.

It is a deeply reflective “dark night of the soul” type of experience (aided by the use of the sombre sounding piano).

Having embarked then on an arduous spiritual journey, I remember the early 70’s as constituting the most trying time in my life. My former ego identity slowly unravelled over several years without anything seeming to replace it. So I was left feeling lost and entirely alone.

It was only afterwards with some newly attained perspective, that I began to realise that more accurately this time represented the erosion of an excessively developed male identity (with all its false confidence and intellectual pretensions) together with the yearning for a God with a - still unfamiliar - feminine face.

This song “Crossroads” then beautifully came to describe that spiritual transition with the lyrics of the 3rd verse especially meaningful.

“Can you remember who I was?
Can you still feel it?
Can you find my pain?
Can you heal it?

Then lay your hands upon me now
And cast this darkness from my soul.
You alone can light my way.
You alone can make me whole
Once again.”

The next song “Winterwood” is a delightful “song of nature and love” with a simple purity to the lyrics that is utterly charming.

“The birds like leaves on Winterwood,
Sing hopeful songs on dismal days.
They've learned to live life as they should.
They are at peace with natures ways.

You are as natural as the night,
And all that springs from you is good.
And the children born beneath your light,
Are like the birds on Winterwood.”

“Empty Chairs” - which we have already mentioned - is another undoubted classic, portraying again in a superb poetic manner the anguish of lost love.

“Morning comes and morning goes with no regret
And evening brings the memories I can't forget
Empty rooms that echo as I climb the stairs
And empty clothes that drape and fall on empty chairs

And I wonder if you know

That I never understood
That although you said you'd go
Until you did, I never thought you would”

I find an interesting contrast here with Glen Cambell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” where reflection is on the opposite case of the woman who did not understood that she could be left by her man!

The next track ”Everybody Loves Me Baby” is just a throwaway song - enjoyable in its own right  -  but hardly likely to figure on any greatest hits compilation. (Also it unashamedly borrows from the tune of “American Pie”)!

Then we have “Sister Fatima” which though a relatively short song (2.30) again manages to capture a special atmosphere, while superbly conveying an evocative story of spiritual healing (with meaning that is multi-layered).

I believe in one of the re-releases of “American Pie” the record company decided to exclude this track which must amount to one of the most stupid decisions ever taken!

This is followed by “The Grave” which is the most chillingly convincing anti-war song that I have ever heard. Don did later record another anti-war song “1967” which though an interesting song does not carry quite the same impact.

The final song "Babylon” is again quite short (less than 2 minutes) and the only non-original composition on the album. Though a concert favourite, I would not rate it as high as many of his own tracks on the album.

Of course great fame followed the success of “American Pie” which was a mixed blessing.  Having produced an unprecedented classic album, the pressure was on to keep up this standard and clearly he has never enjoyed conforming to conventional expectations..

Thus when his next release “Don McLean” did not reach such dizzy heights, the critics had a field day.

Indeed though by any other standard this is a very good album with memorable tracks like “Birthday Song”, “Dreidel”, “Winter Has Me in Its Grip” and “If WeTry” it inevitably falls short when compared with the previous album. It also seems obvious that McLean is subconsciously rebelling in any case against the demands of his new-found fame.

And if you listen closely he even sounds somewhat disillusioned and under the weather e.g. on “If We Try”.

Though he released many more albums in the 70’s pop success quickly faded. Ironically when he did briefly enjoy chart success again in 1980, it was with Roy Orbison’s “Crying” rather than one of his own compositions.  

He has however always been an excellent stage performer. So there is still a big demand among his faithful fans to see him and he still tours regularly.

He is still very popular here in Ireland where he is remembered also for a truly superb recording of a traditional Irish favourite “The Mountains of Mourne”.

However there is a certain problem with all this touring! As time goes on, fans in the main become ever more nostalgic for the older material which played such a big part in their lives at the time of its success. Therefore whatever his intentions, he has become more and more defined and indeed even trapped by this old material. Though the fans may indeed tolerate hearing a track or two from the “latest” album, they are really in attendance to hear their old favourites. So in the end this seems to have acted to stunt his creativity with little demand for his latest recordings.    

However, there was a brief time when Don Mc Lean’s star was the brightest in all the heavens. For this we can still be truly grateful!