On July 4th 1985, I saw the Bruce Springsteen Born In The USA tour, live at Wembley stadium in London, and it changed my life and my thinking. The stand out moment was when the band played the first few bars of Hungry Heart. But then instead of singing the first verse, he just stood there held the microphone out to the 80,000 people present, and we all sang the verse back to him. We were word perfect. Then he started singing.
I was incredibly inspired by that moment, and it triggered two inspired thoughts in my mind:
- How can something we create touch so many people so deeply? So much of Bruce’s work is “public property”
- How do you live with making that much impact on people, and stay sane, and not become grandiose?
I have heard many answers to those questions over the last three decades, and asked myself the questions a lot. I have also answered the questions by becoming a “content creator” so far writing 14 books, giving talks all over the world, creating 100’s of videos and articles and contributing to media features. I still love the mystery of the question, “Where do our ideas come from?” Mostly we get caught in our resistance and either adapt our ideas, or end never putting them out into the world.
I heard some more insights yesterday when I was blessed to get tickets to the BBC at Maida Vale for the recording of two programmes of the BBC Mastertapes series, in which John Wilson is in conversation with musicians about an album that defined their career and life.
Yesterdays turn was Don Mclean, talking about how his second album, American Pie came to be and how it changed his life when it was released in 1971, when Don was just 26 years old. I think he is now 73 and just releasing his 21st studio album.
If I could have asked him two questions, I could love to have asked him firstly, how the song American Pie came to him and secondly, how it has been for him to live knowing the song has been has been a backdrop to so many people’s lives.
I didn’t get to ask him the questions, but I think I did pick some of the answers as he spoke.
I am fascinated by “older” creative people who are still creating. They have obviously been around the block a few times, they known obscurity and fame, success and failure, and have usually got a bit of wisdom to share lots of stories, and are usually quite funny. And I am getting older too! I am looking for some tips.
Don didn’t disappoint!
In answer to the first question, it took him an hour to write the song American Pie. So much for struggling and suffering for your art! The Muse seemed to deliver the song within an hour, and whilst it arrived easily as a song, the production process was more arduous as he was still so young. Indeed, although he prolific, he reported having an aversion to hard work. “I don’t know what I am doing, and I am trying not to do it,” he said several times. “I don’t act until I can’t turn away from it. It seems to demand me to write it.” He only writes the songs that won’t go away. He said, “I often look around, and I notice that the songs don’t say what I want to say, so I write my own to say what I have to say.”
When asked whether American Pie had become a burden, I loved his response. He said, “We all carry burdens and problems in life. American Pie isn’t a bad burden to carry. It has served me well!”
My own reflections on our relationship with the Muse and creativity
Don repeatedly refused to be drawn on the meaning of American Pie. He has been refusing since he wrote it in 1971.
I wondered two things:
- Is there something about the creative process and receiving inspiration that is so intimate and sacred that you want to preserve it and not talk about it? Does it need to be contained? How could talking about it add anything? It is more likely to take away. Don expresses the source and is clear he is not the source. Believing he was the source could have easily do his head in!
- Maybe he doesn’t really know himself really – as a song, it means different things to each of us. Was his job simply to be a “portal in time,” a steward for the song, and to cause it to exist and then leave it alone to have its own life, a life that is way beyond him?
In my experience, the part of us that does receive inspiration and is creative is NOT our personality – yet when we talk about I, we can only speak via our personality. Maybe its really hard to describe meaning and the creative process, or maybe we are not supposed to describe it, just experience it.
Other wise thoughts from Don Mclean – quotes that I enjoyed
Learn to deal with rejection. We all cry too much. Suck it up and move on!
When we are in the right mood, we can all be inspiring
I like being alone
Life gets you down and makes you crazy
I write songs about love and loss
Everyone is going to be offended by something – let them be offended and move on!
I admire Madonna for taking all the abuse and she just keeps carrying on
Thank you, Don, the BBC and John Wilson for a wonderful afternoon. Thanks Luisa for accompanying me.
Thank you for laughter, insight and singalong. Singing American Pie with Don was definitely an “I was there” moment that I will treasure for the rest of my life.
The show will be broadcast on BBC radio 4 later on in 2018.