Don McLean wants people to know that he is happy — perhaps happier than he’s ever been.
This year marks the folk troubadour’s 40th anniversary as a recording and performing artist. He’s celebrating with a tour, a 30-track double CD of previously released material and a PBS special with Time-Life, “American Troubadour,” which covers his career from his beginnings in the New York City folk scene and his residency at Caffe Lena in the late ’60s.
This isn’t the first time McLean has looked back at his long career — Alan Howard’s biography “Killing Us Softly With His Songs” covered his life story in 2007. The ongoing process has allowed him to come to terms with a few things in his life “that had been annoying” him. And in doing so, he has realized just how happy he is with his career.
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Arthur Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs
How Much: Sold out
“It also made me realize that no matter how much somebody in my life had done something wrong, a lot of people in my life have done a lot of things right,” he said recently from his home in Maine. “I realized that I am a perfectionist, basically, and I remember the things that people don’t do right too much, and don’t remember the good things people have done to help me get where I am. So this is a good experience, a positive experience.
“One of the things that really helped a lot was the interview with [Rolling Stone writer and historian] Douglas Brinkley [in ‘American Troubadour’],” he continued. “He said so many good things about me and my music, that washed away so many of the [expletive] things that had been said by Rolling Stone about me over the years.”
McLean is keeping busy on the road, as he has for his entire career. This weekend, he’ll return to his old Saratoga Springs stomping grounds as one of the featured performers at the sixth annual SaratogaArtsFest. He performs Friday evening at a sold-out show at the Arthur Zankel Music Center at Skidmore College.
Part of arts festival
The songwriter best known for hits such as “American Pie” and “Vincent,” McLean is one of the biggest artists to ever grace SaratogaArtsFest, which takes place tonight through Sunday. In addition to his sold-out performance, the festival’s music offerings include acts local and national, ranging from rock to pop to jazz to folk, in various venues throughout downtown Saratoga — including McLean’s favorite old haunt, Caffe Lena.
He still thinks fondly of his times in Saratoga, and has continued to visit the city in his later years. Back in the late ’60s, the Caffe was one of the few folk venues where he could find regular work. Lena Spencer, Caffe Lena’s founder, also got him a job as a Hudson River Troubadour, through the New York State Council on the Arts, during the summer of 1968.
“It wasn’t like other places I’d played,” McLean said. “Most of the other places I’d played were run in sort of a cold, businesslike, military type of mentality — you’re on at a certain time, off at a certain time, and if you didn’t do well you wouldn’t get invited back. It wasn’t very artistic. You know, I played clubs in [Greenwich Village], lots of things like that, but she [Spencer] was more — it was warmer, friendlier. You weren’t in the city; it was the country. If you rambled around all night after the show and ended up at a bar or a place to eat, it had a good feeling to it. But it was the country, you know, and that appealed to me enormously.”
No Lena’s debut
Contrary to popular belief, McLean did not debut his most famous song, “American Pie,” at Caffe Lena.
“I played it right after I wrote it — I wrote it in Philadelphia, and played it for the first time at Temple University, opening for the late, great Laura Nyro,” he said.
“There’s all kinds of legends that are around, urban legends. Buddy Holly’s plane was called the American Pie — no, that’s totally false. I coined the phrase ‘American pie’ — it didn’t exist before that song. It’s just a by-product of instant communication — a lot of stuff is incorrectly, but instantly, communicated. . . . It’s like jungle drums, you know?”
The singer’s love for rural country areas over big cities can be seen in his general jadedness about the current state of the world, and the current state of the music industry.
“[In the 1960s] there was a lot less people, 100 million less people, fewer cars and congestion, so people had more room,” he said. “People also read more, and would think more, and had more of an attention span. Today everything is fragmented on all these stupid screens; it’s all like confetti instead of something focused, where you read something.”
This has led to something of a “dark age” in music, at least in McLean’s opinion.
“People have lost the craft of making songs, of writing really fine music,” he said. “When I was around, you knew when a great song was — everybody was listening to everybody else, and you had a lot of competition out there. You knew what you had to do to reach an audience, and you had to figure out what a good chorus was, what a good idea for a song was, what a good melody was. That’s gone now; that’s why you hear the same things on the radio. That’s why songs like mine are so important — nothing has been written to replace them. It’s the same with the other writers from my generation, why those groups are the biggest groups still on the road — because they did it.”
McLean has released more than 30 studio, live and compilation albums in his 40 years of recording. His most recent album, “Addicted to Black,” came out in 2009. But the singer isn’t too interested in adding to that back catalog anymore, and said that “Addicted to Black” will more than likely be his final album.
“I have this Time-Life thing, which is something I will promote for these purposes, which, I think it’s a very valuable project and will bring a lot more of my songs to the larger public, reasons like that,” he said.
“But I’m just a performer now; I perform all over the place. I have projects that I put out on the Internet; I have several albums, 10 on my record label that you can get on the Internet. But I don’t want to do that anymore. That part of my career is fairly well over by now, and there’s so much out there it’s unbelievable. There’s really a law of diminishing returns — why should I annoy my family composing and recording, to come out with something that nobody is going to listen to?”
But with new generations continuing to discover his music through modern covers from artists such as Madonna and Robbie Williams, McLean is quite satisfied with just being a live act.
“I’m very happy these days, and people should know that,” he said. “I’m extremely happy with everything that has happened, with my audience and with my music, my family. I’m very lucky to be able to say that.”