Don Mclean’s live material should be evaluated with hearts and ears – ignoring the three decades of frenetic construction and deconstruction of popular culture since American Pie. At 45, I was young compared to this audience of Baby Boomers. They’d have hailed 58-year-old Mclean as one of their more cerebral spokespersons in the heady and rebellious times of his peak.
In those days I preferred the angrier tones of Dylan or the luxurious and decadent musicality of Van Morrison. Mclean was the voice encountered on the staircase as you wound your way to the top of the house past the suspicious gaze of your girlfriend’s parents, into the incense filled haven of her dimly lit bedroom. Once there you would seek a more fitting accompaniment to seduction, Neil Young or the Stones. Sitting at the Pavilions I felt I now understood what all those young women were hearing back then.
Mclean’s passion and engagement won me over. The audience was tired, shuffling uncomfortably in their seats, with someone inthe front stalls managing a half-hearted whoop. But Mclean’s energy was always apparent – “You applaud like that for us and we’ll keep working harder for you” he said. It’s a deal that the Boomers didn’t enter into, and I felt sympathy for the man that poured so much conviction into his work and into this performance.
Mclean cannot elude the passing of time any more than the rest of us, and his set was evidence to this. The unmistakable rhythms of Maybe Baby opened the show with a nod to Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison as his set progressed. Castles in the Air was the first of the classics, after which they came thick and fast and I spent the time wondering to myself why I could never hear the sheer romanticism of Mclean’s voice as a young man. Were all my girlfriends so much better at listening?
I was brought out of my reverie by a rather shabby dedication to Princess Diana, more embarrassed shuffling in the auditorium. “I do believe that the Press hounded that woman to death”, announced Mclean. “Yeah!” yelped a single member of the audience. She was promptly gagged by the disapproving silence from all corners. The British can only manage a limited measure of hysteria on behalf of the terminally over-privileged, and besides this audience was definitely not what it was thirty years ago, when it was so much easier to spot the bad guys. Run Diana Run goes the song and the damage was done. The spell broken with an ill-judged foray into a quintessentially British argument.
Then we had to forgive, for out came American Pie. Would it be the long version? Would the audience stand? The band played their hearts out for us. The audience did not stand and although the performance was powerful, the haunting and accusatory lyrics of American Pie passed amongst us like phantoms from another time and place. What were we all thinking? Did we really expect to feel that way again? After all, it was such a long, long time ago.