Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Frank Moment on the River of Love

I've been a Don McLean fan since he burst on the scene in 1971. I've always been impressed by the power of his voice and the beauty of his songwriting. His American Pie album introduced a truly original artist. Nearly four decades later songs like "Empty Chairs," "Vincent," and "Winterwood" don't seem dated at all.

The title track resonated in a cultural moment when rock music was undergoing a transition. Hendrix and Joplin were gone. Protests over the Vietnam War had quieted in the wake of Kent State and Richard Nixon's election. America did seem to have lost its direction. McLean turned his eight-and-a-half minute lament on an event that occurred some 15 years earlier—the death of Buddy Holly was the "day the music died" for him. But his many listeners pinned it on something undefinable—yes, something had died (shall we just say hope?) and they didn't mind singing about it as, chorus after chorus, the song barreled on, one pop culture—stuffed verse after another.

At this time McLean had an opportunity to endear himself to an audience who had already responded deliriously to singer/songwriters like James Taylor, Carole King, and Joni Mitchell. But he let the moment pass in what seemed to me in retrospect to be a fit of youthful petulance.

He followed his initial success with an eponymous album with a black and white cover whose attempt at a hit—"Driedel"—was an extended complaint about the demands of stardom. Following that, McLean released Playin' Favorites—a terrific sampling of folk and bluegrass tunes that established his chops as a musicologist, but further extinguished—probably intentionally—his dance with fame.

I began to attend every Don McLean concert I could. I'll never forget my mother allowing me as a 16-year-old to go alone on a bus from Pittsburgh to Oglebay Park in West Virginia to hear my hero. I arrived early in the day and, as I sat outside the main lodge at the park, McLean came out with his wife to lie in the sun. I had a quick, nervous conversation with him. Very nice man—and his wife invited me backstage after the show! Too bad I had to hop on a bus immediately to get home. At the concert itself, some girls sitting in the row in front of me told me that I looked like Don McLean!

I took to wearing cowboy boots in high school to mimic my idol. I'll also never forget the western shirt I purchased. You see, McLean has long loved cowboys, and he dressed like one, so I would too. The shirt was robin's egg blue with navy blue shoulder pads filigreed with strands of yellow and orange. It had faux pearl buttons on the sleeve. My mother and I had a horrible row over my wearing it. In fact, she barred me from leaving the house with it on. Perhaps it was my father who spoke to her, or maybe Mom came to realize what McLean and the shirt meant to me, because one day she paused while running a vacuum, turned and hugged me and said, "Hon, I love that shirt. You can wear it." I was stunned!

So I went off to college and continued listening to him and attending concerts. I have seen him probably close to twenty times. I can tell you that Don McLean has a deep appreciation of music history. His repetoire dips into the cabaret catalog (Mabel Mercer's "Not a Moment Too Soon," Ivor Novello's "On the Amazon," Al Jolson's "If I Only Had a Match," Josh White's "Where Were You Baby?") as well as the classic country and bluegrass songbook (Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues"; Roy Orbison's "Cryin' "; the Irish ballad "Mountains O'Mourne," an album dedicated to Marty Robbins).

I'm impressed that McLean is a big Sinatra fan, just as I was pleased to learn that Elvis Costello is apparently gaga over Bing Crosby. I've always been interested in my favorite singers' musical tastes. They have led me to some terrific discoveries, as well as making me feel closer to them, and more aware of what may be inspiring what they compose.

In the years before the Internet, the only way I could gain information about my hero was through the newspaper and, of course, attendance at his shows. So my conclusions are based on thin evidence, but the content of the album that I wish to celebrate, 1995"s River of Love, seems to back up my speculations.

Once disco became the fashion, singers like McLean must have felt like Sinatra and his cohorts felt after the Beatles landed. Devotion was paid to the beat, and the lyric and songcraft became the cup that only acoustic players and serious listeners drank.

McLean and others had to go it alone without the blandishments that a major record label might provide. Effective publicity was hard to find, and forget about touring with a band. So whenever I went to hear him, Don would be alone with his banjo and guitar. I loved it, of course—I have long been fascinated with how a single person with an instrument can capture a room's attention. (I guess that's one reason that I became a teacher!)

I could garner the following from his onstage remarks through the years: he was intensely proud that he had retained the publishing rights to his music (there was a tinge of arrogance in this declaration); he didn't wish to be aligned with folk music (although he'd done a stint on Pete Seeger's Clearwater Sloop in the late 1960s); and he was not married.

Well, I wasn't either! So we two bachelors continued our journey through the Punk era, across the shoals of MTV, and through the Scylla and Charybdis of smooth jazz and treacly pop/country. McLean's output slowed considerably. With his cover of Roy Orbison's "Cryin' " a hit in the late 1970s, he had another flirt with success, but the moment passed.

In early 1982 he produced Believers, dedicated to the recently departed Lee Hays of the Weavers. This album featured much of the same personnel that had brought success with "Cryin' ". Also recorded in Nashville, McLean returned to the well to try to forge a hit with remakes of another Orbison number ("Love Hurts") and a lovely standard from the 1950s ("Love Letters"). The album features three fine songs about the turmoil and glory of love too: "Left for Dead on the Road of Love," "Crazy Eyes," and "Isn't It Strange."

Released on the obscure label Millenium Records, the album didn't sell well. Perhaps as a result, McLean came to a creative standstill. Like Paul Simon, another favorite of mine, he specialized in repackaging his greatest hits into many "best of" collections. Had my heroes gone soft and cynical in the Reagan era?

Paul Simon, of course, was revitalized by Graceland, but Don McLean was still casting about. He released For the Memories, a terrific collection of covers of Tin Pan Alley and rock and roll standards. 1987 saw the hybrid Don McLean's Greatest Hits Then & Now, noteworthy only for "Superman's Ghost," an idiosyncratic bristling at the demands of celebrity. ("I don't want to be like ol' George Reeves/stuck in a Superman role/I've got a long way to go in my career/and someday my fame will make it clear/that I had to be a Superman.")

Was McLean suffering an identity crisis? Fortunately the following year his muse returned, and his label at the time (Capitol) actually seemed interested in promoting 1988's Love Tracks. It's a warm and wonderful collection with delicious background vocals by the Jordanaires. (They're featured on several releases because McLean, born in 1945, would regularly get his Elvis as well as his Buddy on.) Predominantly country-flavored, this highly appealing album featured a mix of songs penned by McLean and writers directly from the country stable.

Love Tracks unfortunately was not a commercial success. McLean shifted to Curb Records for 1991's Headroom. I was grateful to discover McLean writing again on this album, although the tone on several tracks (the title track and "Fashion Victim") was decidedly sour.

What a complete shift occurred with the following album! In the four years following Headroom. McLean married and had two children, and River of Love is a testimony to how his life had been transformed. To me, if you have only two McLean albums, I'd recommend American Pie (of course) and this one. Here's how it opens.

The river of love is risin' at my doorstep
It won't let me be
I keep dreamin' of you
And what the river will do
As it starts flowin' over me

The album is bursting with emotion. In his liner notes, McLean refers to it as "an album about my life today" and confesses that he places it "high on my list of writing and recording experiences." Implying that the album is a personal and professional capstone, McLean continues:

Hopefully, you will be able to hear many musical tributaries flowing into one main stream here. There are some of the musical influences absorbed on my life-long musical journey which began so many years ago in New Rochelle.

I find this album so distinctive because of his voice. Not the singing one, but the narrative. For the first time, Don McLean directly describes his life. I'd long enjoyed such frankness from Loudon Wainwright III and occasionally from Randy Newman, but never expected McLean's emotional cylinders to be all open as they are here.

He acknowledges his wayward past in "If I Hadn't Met You" and "Better Still." He's penitent in "Angry Words." He bursts with pride as he sings of his daughter Jackie Lee ("This Little Girl (Daddy-O)") and son Wyatt ("Little Cowboy"). There's a number that lets wife Patrisha know that he's completely captivated ("You've Got a Way About You, Baby"). The album ends with an incredibly moving request to his family ("My Love Was True"):

Please don't forget me
No matter what the future brings
Please don't forget me
Somewhere the tenor sings
And why you hear him
Think of how I sang to you
And remember, please remember
Always remember, my love was true

My personal narrative was criss-crossing McLean's. I finally married three years after this album's release, and subsequently have my own little cowboys. I am equally overjoyed at the change it's brought to my life.

Last summer I saw him again in concert up at a park in Lowell, MA, run by the Park Service. What an unforgettable night! My wife and I managed to place our blankets spot on center stage, not more than 50 feet away. Stretching my legs out, I absorbed all my favorites, delivered by a crack band of musicians. (For years now McLean has been playing with others, cementing his legacy.)

Afterward I asked McLean to sign a CD cover. I thanked him for all the years of pleasure he's provided me. "I could see that you were enjoying the music," he replied. (I chose to take this remark as sincere.) Immediately a bevy of Irish lassies swept up Don, requesting their picture be taken with him. As they huddled excitedly around him McLean said "Whoa!" to reign in their enthusiasm (and to quell his own rush too, I'm sure).

Still the devoted family man. He has a biography out, a revamped website, and a new release slated for the end of this year. There's much to catch up on if you've been away.

I'll write more about Don McLean later, but for now I'd say find River of Love and give it a good listen. Experience again the truly original and distinctive talent of this singer.