Friday, October 19, 2012

Don McLean

Colston Hall, Bristol

He distinctly sings "Lenin". All the printed libretti say "Lennon".

If it's "Lennon" then everyone else's identity falls into place — "the quartet", "the park", "the king", very probably "the jester". If it's "Lenin" then the whole idea of the song being about the history of American pop music breaks down.

Not that, at this stage in the proceedings, it matters very much. Who's paying attention to the symbolism or even listening to the words? It's more like a national anthem. The whole song, all fourteen minutes of it, is now a symbol of itself, a celebration of itself. "Sing it with me! Oh yeah! Sing it again." It's about eight minutes long on the record; tonight, he makes it last double that. There's a substantial musical break between the last two verses, during which two people on the balcony start dancing. When we finally realize that the church bells are all broken the audience start to hoot and whoop...and we get two more choruses, one more slow repeat, massive applause...."Do you want some more....let's do the first verse all together." Milking a song? Absolutely.

The band comes on first, there's a big musical build up; Don comes onto the stage; the lights go up; there's thunderous applause. He goes straight into a Buddy Holly medley that starts out as Well All Right and ends up as Peggy Sue Got married, and then says he's going to do some Gene Vincent just for fun. "Thank you, thank you, I love this place!" A lot of the congregation have clearly been singing along since 1971: I'm one of the younger people present. That indefinable yokel twang has disappeared from his voice; he doesn't move about that much. He's full of old time pop-mannerisms, yelling "One more time!" and "take it away!" with no hint of self-consciousness. There's no question of reinventing or reconstructing these songs: the guitar riffs in Winter Wood are instantly recognizable from the recordings. This is a man who's had songs covered by Elvis, who's having a film made of his life story, who's had a famous song written about him, but when he cries out "Oh, this is fun!" in the middle of a number we’re inclined to believe that that's why he's doing it. "I know its not inexpensive to go out and hear someone with a guitar singing songs, I honour you and thank you and will try to give you your money's worth."

If you wanted to be critical, you would say that his less famous songs are all variations on the famous ones; that they all come to the same kind of emotional climax at the same point. He didn't sing the one about George Reeves (which I'm rather a fan of, for obvious reasons) but he did sing one about a cowboy which said identical things about the crucifying power of fame. ("I could beat those desperados/but there's no sense fighting time") About halfway through the set he sits down and does a series of slow songs without the band, including one I'd totally forgotten about about the loneliness of being by himself in a motel in Los Angeles, and the auctioning off of the original ruby slippers from Wizard of Oz (a metaphor which Salman Rushdie also found irresistible ). It's a stream of images and pop culture references, a try out, a dry run for that Other Song and a point in favour of my theory that his whole career has been a series of footnotes to Desolation Row. But it's delivered with such perfect poise and sincerity that one doesn't feel inclined to be critical, and anyway, who wants to analyse a party? Lines like "Over the rainbow a Kansas tornado / can twist up a little girl's head / Aunt Em's on relief and the tin-man's a thief and even the wizard can't wake the dead" may be sub-Dylan but there's no-one better to be sub. (Which is ironic if Dylan is the jester who stole the people's music from Elvis, but there's nothing wrong with irony, either.)

After he's done And I Love You So and Crossroads he starts chatting about rock-a-billy and end up doing a very decent version of That's All Right Mama, by which time the band has come back on, and we're into a long sequence of lessor known rocky numbers. This was the only part of the set that I felt dragged a little, but it picks up nicely with a Johnny Cash cover and a nice ranting thing, new to me, called Fashion Victim ("How did the land of Jefferson, how did the land of King / become the land of hamburgers and raisins that can sing? / Roosevelt was cripple, Lincoln was a geek. /They'd never get elected, their clothes were never chic.") He saves Vincent for the encore, and winds up with a long, dramatic perfectly pronounced cover of El Paso. He admires and identifies with Marty Robbins, who also had a very long, very famous song who people asked him to sing over and over again.

What does American Pie mean? It means wherever and whenever your were when you first heard it; and all the times and places you have heard it since. It means drinking coffee in an undergraduate bedroom (when coffee percolators were still luxury items available only to engineering students); it means driving around the countryside trying to remember where the youth hostel was; it means the sun finally coming out in Glastonbury.

What a show-man. What a show. What a lot of verses.


I am just barely old enough to remember when "The Radio" was a big black machine that sat on its own table in the corner of the room.

When I was in Miss Walker’s class, I acquired a transistor radio, still a slightly novel artefact The only thing I can recall listening to was Junior Choice a request show which played both Do You Want To Be In My Gang by Gary Glitter (what ever happened to him?) and Nelly the Elephant by Mandy Miller (I looked it up.) The DJ was Ed "Stewpot" Stewart, who Wikipedia tells me is still alive, though no longer working. In the nature of these things, Ed "Stewpot" Stewart appeared in the 1972 production of Cinderella at the Golders Green Odeon. (You will be pleased to hear that I looked that up as well. Barbara Windsor was Cinders.) Naturally, he went on and on about it on his radio show. My parents took me to see the show. I don't know whether I pestered them to take me to see my hero giving his Buttons, or whether Golders Green was simply a relatively local place to see a Christmas panto.

Furriners will presumably not be aware that Buttons is Baron Hardup's comedy servant. He spends the first half being in love with Cinders, and gets a moment of pathos when she marries Prince Charming at the end. (Come to think of it, they probably don't know that Baron Hardup is Cinderella's father. I bet they don't know the name of Aladdin's mother, either.)

The one strong memory I have of the show is that, at this dramatic juncture, Ed "Stewpot" Stewart got to do a straight performance of one of the popular romantic songs of the day. He would play it incessantly on Junior Choice, pretending to bawl "Oh, Cinders..Cinders...." during the fade-out. The song was, of course, And I Love You So by Don McLean.

Elvis who?

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