The lone wolf: Don McLean

16:00, Jan 22 2011
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Don McLean is still going strong after more than 40 years in the business.

From his views on today's pop stars to American politicians, legendary performer Don McLean tells Julie Dann why he refuses to run with the pack.

MADONNA LOVED his song so much she borrowed it, he inspired the song "Killing Me Softly with His Song" and is a legend in his own lifetime.

And yet Don McLean could probably walk unnoticed in most major cities in the world.

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A man of contradictions, he is gently spoken but refreshingly down-to-earth. His deadpan verdict on Sarah Palin is a case in point.

"She reminds me of a pet rock. It has no particular purpose but people like them a lot."

Most well-known for his 1971 album American Pie and the hauntingly beautiful "Vincent", McLean is at home with who he is. When Madonna chose to record "American Pie" in 2000, he was gracious. "She is kind of like a stepchild of Cher... she is becoming almost an equivalent of Elvis Presley. If she decides that she wants to sing my song and make that part of her history, I am delighted."

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McLean, 65, who recorded his first album, Tapestry, in 1969 in California during the student riots, has seen it all before. He observes the machinations of the Gaga and Spears' generation today with a mellow but jaundiced eye.

"It's a kind of a fashion, music, sexual thing that people like a lot and it is suited very well to the internet age and that sort of mindless music with lots of visuals."

His idea of style is 1950s singer Julie London, famous for her smoky voice and casual elegance. "She just showed up and looked fantastic. Now it's all about how much stuff they have got on, the clothes have a life of their own, the clothes are an act."

Despite this, he is full of respect for the hard work today's musicians put into shows. "I actually saw the Britney Spears show when she was at her apex, before her unfortunate meltdown, and I was impressed, I couldn't believe how much work it was. Good Lord, there was so much stuff, every song was like a live video.

"I thought, 'you better be big because you're going to bankruptcy with this act if you don't have 50,000 people out there every night'.

"I was impressed, she was really up there on the high diving board."

A rich man, he is not flash with his cash and rarely travels first class from his home in Maine. "I have another house in California and when I go there I fly first class with my wife, because that's one of those fun things to do. But when I'm out on the road I look at the bottom line and see what I'm getting. And I want to make sure I'm not spending all my money on the airplane ticket.

"It's just my nature. It's the way I do things."

McLEAN'S REFUSAL to unravel the symbolism of the lyrics of "American Pie" has long been a source of frustration for fans. But he is unrepentant: "Songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence."

Next month he is back in New Zealand, part of a month-long tour of Australasia. He went to France, Holland, Denmark and Norway in April, the UK in May, before rounding off the year back home in the US.

"I have probably been to New Zealand 15 times, I love it, I really do, I think it's a wonderful country. It's also a country that sticks by its guns, very independent people. I like New Zealanders a lot and I have often thought about living there. I used to stay at the White Heron Hotel [in Parnell] and I would walk around the neighbourhood there, and they have wonderful graveyards and old homes and stuff, and I just thought, 'this is magic, this is a great place'. People have a great time but they are serious when they have to be and they are also as tough as hell. People in Maine are like that also, very nice, but don't get them too mad."

When he is not on the road he lives on a 120ha estate with his wife Patrisha and his two children.

Known for his politics – George Michael recorded "The Grave", from the American Pie album, as a protest against the Iraq war – McLean denies being a liberal.

"One of the things that I have learned, as I have gotten older, is I really never was a liberal, as such. I was always an independent. I had liberal leanings, I still do, but I really think that we must take personal responsibility for our actions and for our future and not rely on the government."

He is disarmingly frank about his assessment of the American psyche. President Bush and Dick Cheney he likens to Laurel and Hardy, and Sarah Palin he describes as the embodiment of blind ambition.

"She is a dumb person. But we have, in America, an unfortunate trait where we have an ever larger group of people that are very proud of being ignorant. They just go off in the corner and stomp their feet and say, `We ain't real smart but we know what we like. But you're one of us."'

Is he viewed as "one of them"?

"I'm a lone wolf, I am not one of anyone, I'm an observer. I understand where people are coming from too, why they are frustrated with smarty-pants people who are well-educated and get all the breaks and run their lives. But they are being manipulated by the ignoramus who is making it palatable to say, 'gee, I don't read newspapers, I have no idea what I'm talking about. I can say whatever I want.'

"I think one of the problems is we have an image of ourselves as Americans which does not square with who we really are. We are not the people we used to be, we do look for everything from everybody else and that was not the American way."

McLean is an insomniac who sometimes survives on between two to five hours sleep a night. "It doesn't matter because I'm always in another zone, I'm never really settled where I am, I like to move around."

When he was 15 his father died suddenly. McLean has said, if he had lived, he would not have been a musician as his father would not have approved.

"Yes, he would have turned his back on me, I think."

And what would his father think now? "He would probably have another heart attack. You have to imagine just how down-to-earth, regular, quiet and humble my parents were, they didn't want any trouble. They didn't want any undue attention paid to them. So the idea of me being rich, famous, splattered all over the internet and songs sung everywhere ... would not be something that my father could have even contemplated."

That upbringing has obviously rubbed off as, despite his millions, he still mucks out his four horses himself. "There's a lot of muck, let me tell you. My old one is now 21 and he is going down the tubes slowly and I don't ride him any more, but I have got three other ones."

McLean says he will continue his punishing touring schedule for "as long as I can sing the songs and as long as I don't look too bad then I'm going to see how long I can ride this pony".

However, his latest album, Addicted to Black, which was released in April last year, is the last album of his own songs he will record.

"I have decided that there is no more music business and I don't see any point in doing it. I have other things to do, I have made lots and lots of records. A lot of people, when they get down the road, they make a record because they want to pretend it's like old times, but it isn't old times, it's new times, so I'm a realist."

But he was coaxed into admitting that he still harbours ambitions that a good record producer will seek him out. "I'm singing well and I'd like to do that. But I can't really go around and knock on people's doors and say 'gee whizz, do you want to make a record with me?' I would also like to have a chance to write a song for a really good movie but that's not really necessary either because they use the songs I have already done in movies and television all the time. But that would be a nice challenge."

He has a wry laugh at his own expense, adding: "Wouldn't it be funny if I sounded terrible and looked terrible and became enormously famous, more than ever before. All of a sudden people are saying 'we love this guy!' And I'm filling stadiums and I'm 80. It could happen to me. I mean, things have happened."

Don McLean plays at the Christchurch Town Hall on February 21, The Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, on February 23, and The Aotea Centre, Auckland, on February 24.

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