Friday, October 12, 2007
Don McLean established himself in the early to mid-1970s. His output was remarkable, and it’s not surprising that he couldn’t sustain it. But when he was in flight, McLean was a brilliant and completely idiosyncratic singer-songwriter. Among his peer group—Paul Simon, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, et al—he stood out because of his voice and musical versatility.
His 1974 album Homeless Brother really marked his creative peak. All of his influences are on display here. Pete Seeger provides vocal backing for the title track, a tribute to the hobo or “Whitman wanderer” –this descendant of the cowboy for McLean who is “livin’ on good fortune” not “dyin’ on his knees.”
McLean even, in classic folk music topical fashion, pens a song inspired by a news story—“The Legend of Andrew McCrew.” It’s about a hobo (again) who gets mummified and turned into a circus attraction.
There’s a doo-wop influence on “La La Love You”—a snide, lascivious appeal wrapped in sweet harmonious coating. (“Well I like the way you’re moving/and I like the way you go/I like the way you let your/locomotion show/’Cause my drivin’ wheel is driving/and my piston’s working good/so if your motor gives you trouble, baby/I’ll take a look underneath your hood.”) McLean also pulls in the a cappella group the Persuasions for Elvis Presley’s “Crying in the Chapel.”
The romantic ballad receives strong play also. “Did You Know” is one of McLean’s best: absolutely gorgeous lyrics supported by a strong melodic line. (Sample: “Ev’ry place and ev’ry face/casts a spell and leaves a trace…with you in mind/and with you near/the myth is gone/the past is clear…and here with scars of now and then/so you and I begin again.”) McLean also adds what can only be called a torch song—“Winter Has Me in Its Grip.” Simple lyrics here, with Yusef Lateef playing flute to layer the sentiment wistfully. Rounding out his romantic output in 1974 was “You Have Lived”—a ballad addressed to someone McLean loves for his/her “courage in this frightened atmosphere.”
Pessimism pervades this work—it is in some ways keenly a product of its time. Written in the throes of the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam conflict, there are constant allusions to the mistrust that had filled the body politic. What’s known today as “the man” gets addressed by McLean directly in “Great Big Man,” a rolling, heavily orchestrated assault on a figure who the writers sees as having “rust on your fingers . . . rubble at your feet.”
One of McLean’s proudest accomplishments from this release was the lullaby “Wonderful Baby.” It was recorded a couple of years later by Fred Astaire—as a songwriter, to have the same man the Gershwins favored recording your material must have been an incredible thrill. The song is sweet, but the sentiments are slightly askew, as when the singer tells the “wonderful baby” that “the world has gone crazy/I’m glad I’m not you.” Can’t shake off that Watergate ennui!
In addition to “Crying in the Chapel,” the only other number on this album not written by McLean is George Harrison’s charming “Sunshine Life for Me.” It’s delivered via banjo and its theme neatly fits the album’s overarching concept of the freewheeling, drifting life of the road.
Take it from someone who specializes in Don McLean. Homeless Brother is the second work that you must have by this terrific singer-songwriter.
After this album, McLean’s output slowed considerably, but there’s much more to say about his musical journey. I’ll be writing again soon.
As Pete Seeger would say, “Take it easy—but take it!”