Riding with Don McLean

(This story was first published on the website Stereo Stories in 2012)

American folk singer Don McLean is visiting Australia again later this year on a tour that takes in venues at all capital cities, including Hobart’s Wrest Point casino.

I wonder if he remembers the first time he played Wrest Point in 1982 and his media call in one of the reception rooms there? I hope not.

Now 67, McLean has been travelling the world since the early 1970s, mostly on the back of what Wikipedia calls his magnum opus, American Pie. The song and album of the same name were released in 1971, topping charts all around the world. McLean has been assured of an audience ever since.

Wrest Point Casino had opened 10 years before McLean’s 1982 visit and had been successful at attracting some high-profile stars to its showroom in sleepy Hobart. Jerry Lewis, Ronnie Corbett, Reg Varney, Barry Humphries and dozens of others had been recruited to entertain gamblers at what was then Australia’s only legal casino. The carpets were plush, the bars were shiny and dry, the lighting was moody and people dressed up for a night at “the cas”. This was before poker machines arrived: gambling was glamorous.

When each performer arrived in town, Wrest Point would host a media call for the local outlets. The cast was pretty much the same every time: a young reporter from the ABC, a young reporter from Hobart’s only commercial TV station TVT-6, a young reporter from Hobart’s commercial radio station 7HO, a young reporter from Hobart’s daily newspaper The Mercury, and a young reporter from the Launceston daily newspaper, The Examiner. (The experienced local reporters considered such occasions beneath them.) For a couple of years in the early 1980s, The Examiner’s designated young reporter was me.

The reception we gave Don McLean in 1982 still makes me blush. It was the morning of his first concert in the showroom and he had arrived in Hobart the night before. We were gathered in a ground floor room with huge windows over-looking the river.

First question (not me): “Do you ever get sick of singing American Pie?”

Don’s diplomatic answer: “Of course not. I love singing that song.” (I wondered what the follow-up question would have been had Don answered “yes, I’m sick to death of it”.)

Second question (also not me): “How do you feel about Roberta Flack’s song Killing Me Softly?” Conventional wisdom at the time was the song was written about American Pie.

Don (diplomatic again): “It’s a great song but I don’t know if it has much to do with me.”

Third question (not me either): “American Pie is a great song, but do you think you will ever write such a great song again?” Uh, oh!

Don’s patience gave in: “I’ve written plenty of great songs since then. Haven’t you heard any of them? Vincent? And I Love You So? Castles in the Air?”

My question (seeking to break the tension): “Don do you know much about Tasmania, it’s a long way from your home in America?” (It’s always safe to ask visiting stars what they think of the town they’re visiting: they always say nice things, no matter where they are.)

Don’s answer: “It’s really pretty and I’d love to see more of the country.” Then, while looking out the window across the Derwent, “I’d love to go horse-riding out there.”

“I’m sure I could arrange it,” I said, without any idea where to find a horse, let alone ride one, “would you like to go today?” I had visions of me and Don trotting through the hills, the picture picked up by wire services and transmitted around the world.

He smiled at me sympathetically then moved on to answer another probing question from the crack Tasmanian media pack. The casino public relations staff pointedly avoided my pleading gaze.

Don posed for pictures, even stepping outside the casino to ensure Mt Wellington could be his background and then disappeared into the casino, probably back to his room to sleep. It was the last time I saw him. I didn’t even go to his concert.

For 30 years I have told the tale about horse-riding and Don McLean. At times, depending on whom I’m talking to and how late it is, I think I’ve suggested the ride actually eventuated.

Probably a good thing it didn’t. I don’t think we would have had much to talk about.

* Footnote: Don McLean has long-since accepted media interest in Killing Me Softly. His own website devotes a page to the song, which was written by Norman Gimbel and Lori Lieberman, based on Lieberman’s experience at a Don McLean concert in 1973. The two didn’t meet until 2011.

 

 

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