Down East 2013 ©
By Michael D. Burke
Photograph by Benjamin Magro
A few years ago my wife and I were descending the stairs in an inn at the northern end of Scotland after a long train ride. We’d heard there was going to be traditional music downstairs in the pub that night and were looking forward to listening. As we descended, we could hear the instruments: fiddle, accordion, mandolin, penny whistle, and washboard. But the song was a puzzle. It was that classic American song, Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Stranger still, the entire pub knew all the words, singing robustly in unison.
We took it to be just another of those quirky experiences one stumbles into while abroad; probably one of the players had spent time in the States and picked the song up while there. But later, after we rented a car and drove farther north, we kept hearing that and other Don McLean songs on the radio, over and over.
His unexpected popularity in Scotland is one of the things on my mind as I drive to meet Don McLean at his home in the hills above Camden on an estate called Lakeview. The drive to the house from the road below is nearly three quarters of a mile long, and, once there, you look down on Lake Megunticook, can see the ocean and Mount Battie, are surrounded by 175 acres of well-tended grounds and by a horse barn and a guest house. I feel as though I am in an English country estate, some manor house with an ancient provenance, even though the house was built only in 1907. It is about as lovely and dramatic a property as I’ve seen in Maine.
He has certainly earned his Lakeview. McLean became famous, of course, for “American Pie,” one of the most popular songs in American pop history (recently placed at #5 in a list of the greatest songs of the twentieth century in a poll conducted by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts), and for “Vincent,” a remarkable song in the pop canon: Who else has written a song about the troubled interior life of a painter? He is the subject of a new feature-length film, produced by Emmy-winning filmmaker Jim Brown, called American Troubadour, which will be released on September 25 at 9:30 p.m. on PBS (a shorter version of the documentary was shown in March on PBS) along with a double CD of McLean’s songs.
He has had a lengthy and unusual career, one that the film captures. For instance, there is an image of him in the film as a young man, not singing, but playing a blistering banjo tune. Most fans wouldn’t expect that, or know that another important song, “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” sung most famously by Roberta Flack, was inspired by McLean’s performance of his “Empty Chairs” in the early seventies at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles.
The refrain of “Troubadour” keeps occurring in McLean’s story. It is not only the title of the film and CD, but there’s also the LA club, and the fact that early in his career he was something called a Hudson River Troubadour, hired by the New York State Council for the Arts in 1968, to sing in every Hudson River town.
So it is a bit of a surprise to find the troubadour settled, it appears, in Maine, for more than two decades. McLean and I are sitting on sofas in a new, glassed-in addition to the house, once a porch, a project McLean had been “wanting to do for twenty years.” McLean, 66, is very tan on this summer day, dressed in what he calls his “inner sanctum-outfit” of Hawaiian shirt and shorts, barefoot, utterly informal. He is an articulate man, attentive to the world, thoughtful and precise in his answers, firm in his convictions. One can still see the wry, somewhat sardonic expression of the young Don McLean on the modern version, but this McLean is less wry, more sincere, more direct. He wears dark glasses most of the time, even indoors, and is very quiet in his movements as we talk.
“I had a business manager who had a summer home in Maine,” says McLean. “Around 1984 I visited him; he lived in Brooksville, and he took a little boat over to a place called Castine, and I just fell in love with the place. I had lived in Garrison, New York, for close to nineteen years, but one of the things I really wanted to do was to fix up and decorate and restore a beautiful old colonial house — I didn’t want it in New York — I wanted it in a place with other old beautiful federal and colonial houses.” So McLean bought a house in Castine in 1985.
“We kept coming up, and, by 1990, the trips had gotten to the point where I really didn’t want to go back home to New York,” continues McLean. “One day my wife said, you know the only reason you’re going back is to get the mail, so we didn’t go back, we stayed. I had decided that Maine was a much better place to raise my daughter, who was one at the time, so that was that. I decided I was going to find the ultimate Gilded Age estate that nobody wanted, and we went to Camden and found this place — it had been on the market for years. It had been somewhat fixed up, but a few years before it had been almost a wreck, and I’ve spent the last twenty years putting this place in shape — it’s a tall order,” he says with something of a sigh.
McLean could have lived anywhere in the world with his wife, Patrisha (a fine art photographer with her own well-established career in the state, and author of Maine Street, published by Down East Books), and two children, Jackie Lee and Wyatt. But Maine had, and has, what he was looking for.
“It’s paradise,” he says, a word he repeats several times. I suggest that “paradise” is a word I would use to describe the state on days such as the one we’re in, but not often in April, or February, or November. “Well, some days more than others,” he acknowledges, “but it’s a paradise — it’s a paradise — powerful weather, people are really nice, we know all kinds of folks, it was a great place to raise kids. I don’t know, it always felt like when I crossed that bridge in Kittery, I was in a different country somehow, and the air was different. There was an odor in the air that was very pleasing — it’s a paradise, it really is.”
He speaks glowingly of the local schools, and how his children (now twenty-two and twenty) were educated there. “The Camden school district was excellent — incredibly dedicated teachers.” The McLeans sponsor a scholarship in honor of a particularly valued teacher, Nancy Crawford, who died recently. “She was the most wonderful teacher. I thought she was an inspiration,” he says, getting up to close some windows against the sound of gardeners at work.
He appreciates the character of the town, the diversity of residents, and bits of local color like a local lobsterman who taught Latin in the schools. “There never seems to be any distinctions made among classes — we’ve had parties up here, and all strata of society are present because we really like these people.”
It is obvious that McLean has thought about the character of his state. “Maine is still a place where books are interesting. It’s a good intelligent culture in the state. There’s a lot of kindness; the people I’ve met have been good-hearted.”
“One thing I love about Maine, always liked about it,” he says, “is that it’s about ten years behind. Know what I mean? This was a great place to raise kids, because Maine was about ten years behind everywhere else in terms of the drug thing. I wanted them to grow up in a place like that. And even in our politics — we haven’t gotten to that meanness that you see everywhere else. We may be getting there, but we’re behind the rest of the country. That’s a good thing.”
Later, he adds another virtue to the lengthy list: “The reason I came to Maine is that I liked the light, and I liked the air. I still like the light and the air.”
Like the rest of the country, I became aware of McLean through “American Pie.” Part of the power of the song is that it speaks to both innocence and experience, to the past and the present, is both personal and generational, nostalgic and clear-eyed. Plus it has a killer tune. For many of us it was the soundtrack to the end of high school or the first years of college, and captured our sense that something crucial was now gone.
So it is no surprise that most people think of McLean as a songwriter first. But to others, it is his singing that is his strength; Douglas Brinkley, the well-known historian and rock journalist, who plays a large role in the film as commentator, quotes Roy Orbison as saying that McLean’s voice was “one of the great instruments of twentieth century America.” And the singer Nanci Griffith, who duets with McLean on the song, “And I Love You So,” can be heard at the end of it swooning that “I got to sing with Don McLean!”
“I think the British Isles, Australia thing, is because of my singing,” McLean says, leaning back into the sofa. This answers my question about the Scottish pub. “In fact, really I’m a singer first — most people think of me as a songwriter. I’m a slow songwriter; I don’t write a lot of stuff, maybe I’ve written 250 songs in my life. And those songs would never have been known except for my singing of them. I think they like the Celtic sound they hear in my voice.” He pauses. “I can’t explain my Asian popularity, though,” he says, looking genuinely puzzled. “I mean I’ve played monster shows in Taiwan and Korea, ten thousand in Manila on the last tour.”
As we talk, he asks me about my own work as a professor, and what I like about it. I think we’re just making polite conversation, but then he begins to speak enthusiastically about the importance of teachers and making connections. He tells a story about the cabaret singer, Mabel Mercer, who McLean admired, even though she was of a very different musical generation. “In 1967, when I was playing at a little place called the Music Inn, a club in Lenox, Massachusetts, these two guys came over and said, ‘We have a little roadhouse called the Country Kitchen and we’d like you to sing there.’ So I was delighted, because now I had another job, and they were going to let me stay there for nothing. So they said, ‘Mabel Mercer lives about two miles down the road and she comes here and performs, and would you like to see her?’ It was the second show, on a weeknight, and there was nobody there, I was the only one,” he recounts. “She sat in this wonderful wing chair, and she had her accompanist, in a tuxedo, and she sang for me, for an hour. And I never forgot it. And as I was going along and playing nightclubs, if there were only a few people, I always gave it my absolute best . . . It was a great lesson I learned. I remember reading what Joe DiMaggio said: Someone asked him, ‘Joe, why do you play so hard?’ and he said, ‘There’s always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time, so I owe him my best.’ It has to do with professional standards. It is important that you do your best work. I do that every time I perform — I try to connect with that one person, even if it’s only one.”
Despite his affection for Maine, McLean spends a great deal of time away. Why does a man who lives in paradise, who claims to hate travel, keep on touring, at the astonishing rate of 150 to 175 days a year? “I don’t think I could stop,” he says after a pause, as though he’s considering this for the first time. “It’s in my blood now, it’s part of the rhythm of my life.” His schedule suggests that he has indeed not abandoned the troubadour life: In November alone he has twenty-five dates, from Dublin to Washington State.
A last question occurs to me, a silly one, really: What song would he most like to have written? “White Christmas,” he says, instantly. “I love Irving Berlin, and I love that song.” I smile a little, thinking he’s kidding, but he’s not: “There’s something very emblematic of my childhood and the way things felt then, the post-war kind of feel, for some reason.”
In a way, this makes sense: The same man who wrote the enormously famous farewell to an innocent America, also longs for that time, and lives in a place that might be ten years closer to it.
Michael Burke is a professor of English at Colby and is the author of The Same River Twice.