Don McLean on climate change (it’s real), early music influences, more

In the first three parts of this series of exclusive interviews with singer-songwriter Don McLean, 76, we’ve covered a lot of ground, including his biggest hits “American Pie” and “Vincent,” Fear , his vision of current music, advice to aspiring musicians, The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and more. Here we focus on McLean’s audience demographics, climate change, his early influences in music and touring. Here are edited excerpts from a longer telephone conversation.

Jim Clash: Have you ever tired of playing your greatest hits on tour? I mean, you must have played “American Pie” a thousand times.

Don McLean: I have probably a dozen songs that millions and millions of people know that are called hits. It’s a big part of my repertoire that people expect to hear when they pay to see me. I don’t play for my own satisfaction, but to entertain, to give something to people. I would never sing the songs they expect of me. The idea is not to go to the theater for the express purpose of disappointing the public [laughs]. Ask Mick Jagger the same question about “Satisfaction,” which he’s been singing for 60 years. I never forget how much I looked forward to seeing something when I was a teenager, when I had no money and was nobody. I waited months after buying tickets for this particular thing. If the show had been canceled for any reason, I would have been devastated. Therefore, you are not canceling the shows. Second, if I went and they did something completely weird and not what I expected, that would also be disappointing. I still think of the people there [in the audience] who have neither money nor free time to waste.

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Shock: Do you find that you now have a mix of older and younger people at your gigs?

McLean: They are still mostly old people, but there are also young people and families.

Shock: Does being an older person give you some leeway in speaking to the public?

McLean: I’m having fun where I am right now ’cause I can pretty much say anything and nobody can do anything to me [laughs]. My son said, “Well, dad, you’re far from filtered,” but I’ve been like that all my life. I don’t think it’s alive if you have to be filtered. Today you can’t say anything. Look at Roseanne Barr. She had the best thing in the world, a TV show and all, and then she said one of her stupid things. Bingo – it was over. It’s extreme, don’t you think? Leave me alone.

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Shock: Who inspired you as a musician, besides, of course, Buddy Holly?

McLean: Oh my God. Josh White, The Weavers, Carlos Montoya, Django Reinhardt. I saw [Bob] Dylan in 1962 at Carnegie Hall with a bunch of other musicians, and he sang a song called “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” I was 17 and I was like, “Man, that’s a song, I’ve never heard anything like it.” The Everly Brothers were also one of my favorites. There are 50 people that come to mind, and I can’t name them all.

Shock: And Elvis Presley?

McLean: Elvis Presley was massive. The first time you laid eyes on him and heard his songs, you knew he was in a class of his own. In my neighborhood, the middle class, everyone had a Bo Diddley record, a Little Richard album, the Everly Brothers, but not everyone had an Elvis record. Elvis was a little more dangerous, a little fat. But I adored him.

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Shock: You spoke earlier about climate change.

McLean: I was with Pete Seeger for seven years. He was very forward-thinking, had moved away from anti-war and civil rights in the mid-1960s and had become strongly involved in the environment. He read like crazy, knew all these progressive scientists. I got involved and it was fascinating. Scientists were lecturing and saying that in 50 years it will happen, and it will happen, unless we do something now. Well, 50 years later, everything is going exactly as they said. It’s weird. You can argue all you want about whether people caused it or not, but it happens.

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Teresa H. Sadler