Don’s promise of a starry, starry night

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WHAT was the day the music died? February 3, 1959.

Which king was looking down when the jester stole his thorny crown? Elvis, looking at Dylan.

Where did the singer drive his Chevy? To the levee.

And who were the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost? Probably JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

Singer Don McLean... “I know about 10,000 songs, I can find anything I want.”
Singer Don McLean… “I know about 10,000 songs, I can find anything I want.”
By now a goodly proportion of our readership will know that I’m talking about the 1971 song “American Pie” by Don McLean, written after Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper went down in a plane crash.

But this is a song that has resonated down the generations, so when I told my 29-year-old son I’d been interviewing Don McLean on the phone, he responded with an enthusiastic “awesome”.

“American Pie” is certainly not the only string to McLean’s bow. He’s made more than 40 gold and platinum records, his song “Vincent” is played daily at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, “And I Love You So” was on Elvis’s last album and “Babylon” is the theme song for the German Green Party.

Nonetheless, “American Pie” was judged the fifth greatest song of the 20th century in a list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts and there’s no getting away from it.

It was hardly a surprise to find McLean brimming with confidence.

“I like myself fine,” he tells “CityNews”, “I’ve always known what I was supposed to do… I didn’t have any doubt about it.”

He can find a song for any occasion. “I know about 10,000 songs, I can find anything I want.”

Not just that, he tells me happily: “I’m a control freak”. One of the people he controls is himself.

“I had to invent Don McLean,” he says. “I was born in a suburb, which doesn’t have much musical credibility, so I became the American troubadour.”

McLean refuses to glamorise the ‘50s and early ‘60s, deriding the same cult of “niceness” that drove Barry Humphries from Australia.

“People didn’t discuss religion and politics… in my world conformity was the religion,” he says.

“It took a lot of adjusting, but gradually I became free.”

He got to play with rock pioneers Bo Diddley and Little Richard, he performed free for folkie Pete Seeger to raise funds for cleaning up the Hudson River and he played at Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have done that,” he says.

Known as the “Hudson River Troubador”, he nevertheless quit New York City in 1990 for Maine, “to keep my kids away from drugs”.

McLean finds a lot of vileness and anger in contemporary music. He doesn’t have anything to do with computers or emails, he hates travelling, and he still doesn’t read music, but he feels it.

“A lot of what I do is about loss,” he laments. “People don’t want to have those feelings anymore, but I like to compose beautiful love songs.”

He plans to give audiences their money’s worth – “I do things people expect; I do things people don’t expect,” McLean says, and he’ll guarantee great singing and great playing.

“I’m in control of this… we are in good shape.”

Don McLean, Canberra Theatre, August 29, with guest Catherine Britt, bookings to 6275 2700 or go to canberratheatrecentre.com.au

WIN TICKETS

“CITYNEWS” has three double tickets to Don McLean’s Canberra Theatre show to give away. Details at citynews.com.au/win

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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