Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Don McLean's "Addicted to Black"

Don with his mother and father

I've been a Don McLean fan for well-nigh forty years now. He always represented the total package for me: a first-rate songwriter and lyricist with a beautiful voice and a forthright, confident delivery.

He won a huge audience with "American Pie" but his moment, like that of most singer-songwriters of the period, passed quickly as disco was ushered in. McLean soldiered on, scoring a hit in the early 1980s with his version of Roy Orbison's "Crying". But throughout his career he bounced from label to label, much like Loudon Wainwright III (another songwriter hero of mine).

In his mid-40s McLean married and built a home in Maine where he and his wife (a photographer) have raised two children. Now 65, he has called his latest release, Addicted to Black, his last. Say it ain't so, Don!

It's his first album of original compositions since 1995's River of Love and it's a knockout. Don opens, like he usually does, in a rollicking style. Enjoy the lyrics while you watch Don perform by clicking here.

I'm addicted to black
addicted to black
Addicted to wearin'black on my back
It was good enough for Cisco
good enough for Lash
good enough for Hoppy
good enough for Johnny Cash

Yeah, I'm addicted to black
addicted to black
addicted to wearing black on my back
You'll be as black as the bird
Where none is the word
It's easy to hide
with black as your guide

Black makes me look thin
It makes me look "in"
It makes me look down when I'm not (it's hot)
On the odd holiday
Well, I might try some gray
But I always come back
'Cause I'm addicted to black

Black makes me look bad
It makes me look mad
It hides all the dirt and the dust (it a must)
If I'm happy and a light
Well, I might try some white
But I stay right on track
Because I'm addicted to black

Black makes me look wise
It brings out my eyes
It always insures I have flair (do your hair)
If my girl is in pink
Well, that might cause me to think
But I stay right on track
'Cause I'm addicted to black

Next comes the energetic "Run, Diana, Run," about Lady Di and the paparazzi. ("The camera always shot her everyday/In fact it shot her dead/It never really touched her/Just took her soul instead") followed by fun word play about being in love in the brisk "Beside Myself."

After that there are surprises: "Mary Lost a Ring" (zydeco!) and "Lovers Love the Spring" (lyrics by Shakespeare!). McLean then gets his country on with "Promise to Remember" before launching into a song that brought tears to my eyes. It's "The Three of Us", in which Don reflects on his long-departed parents and thinks about his own mortality.

See the picture that I'm holding
a picture of us three
standing in the summertime
at Quogue down by the sea
we stood there just a minute
Quogue is an Indian name
there were no cars back then
there were no cars back then
when the Indians came

We never traveled anywhere
we never did a thing
compared to them I guess you'd say
I'm some kind of travel king
We lived near manaramay
that's an Indian name
there were no houses then
there were no houses then
when the Indians came

When the Indians came
There were no private schools
no traffic cops
no highway rules
When the Indians came
the word alone can outlast stone
The Indians lay in holy ground
The place my parents now have found

They're buried on a hill of stone
Rocks of ages stand alone
Their names are carved for all to see
but no one knows their names but me
I remember in that picture
my life had just begun
Now the three of us are fading
The three of us are fading in an Indian sun

What a gorgeous song--if for no other reason, buy the CD for this one!

McLean continues on this theme in "I Was Always Young" before moving to the unusual but stirring "This Is America (Eisenhower)". (The song put me in mind of Phil Ochs's "Power and Glory").

This is America
a land where dreams can be
a land where hopes are strong
and men are free
this is America
a land of bluer skies
a land of brotherhood
where mountains rise
from this glory
from this power
came a man called Eisenhower

McLean ends with "In a Museum"--a contemplation on the expiring and taming of the artistic spirit.

I'm in a museum
I'm already there
They copied my features
They copied my hair
They copied my music
They copied my voice
I'm in a museum
There's no other choice

In a wide-ranging recent interview in New Zealand, Don McLean gives an insightful take on our current political malaise and holds out the possibility that he might record again if anyone were interested in working with him.

Oh, please--let's rescue this American treasure from the wilderness! If you'd like to end by watching Don McLean interviewed by the BBC about a year ago, click here.


Dani GV said...

It's a pity he's one of those one-song-artists, only known by american pie. This last album looks good (it's the first time I listen to it)

Nancy Duke-Smith said...

We saw Don in NYC at Town Hall several years ago. He sang most of my favorite songs from his obscure album simply called Don McLean. When the lights went down and he sang, "Just the Three of Us", it literally brought me to tears! Having an only child, this song really touched my heart!