The other day I pulled out the 1972 self-titled album of singer-songwriter Don McLean and set the vinyl disc onto the spinning platform of our old turntable (if you haven’t yet seen it, you can read here about the turntable as a gift of Grace). I brushed off the dust and dropped the needle onto the record’s outer edge. The slight crackle familiar to vinyl aficionados quickly gave way to the opening strains of the first song, “Dreidel.” The music pulled me into recollections of what may be one of the best overlooked records of the 1970s.
I feel like a spinning top or a dreidel, the spinning don’t stop when you leave the cradle, you just slow down.”
I had found this record in a $1.00 sale bin at a Safeway grocery store in Orange, California, about 1976. It had been remaindered, relegated to the discard pile of popular music by its failure to yield any hit songs. But as I had discovered, popularity is not always the best measure of quality or artistry, and I had made a habit of picking up overlooked records in the $1.00 sale bin.
Don McLean’s forgotten record actually defies a line from one of its songs: “The more you pay, the more it’s worth.” I had paid almost nothing for this album, but its worth, as I was reminded listening to it again all these years later, has been inestimable to me. Actually, in context the lyric has an ironic intention as a critique of reducing things—specifically animals, but by implication people too—to their economic value.
A good part of the value I find in McLean’s songs on this album comes from their exploration of alienation, separateness, the agony of memory, the deeply painful dimension of nostalgia. In what may be its most poignant track, “Oh My What A Shame,” McLean sings,
In this moment I recall your face, and I wonder if you still think about me—occasionally I still think of you. And I watch the river flow, and I know I must let go, but it’s oh so hard, for the waves are all around my small canoe—I had always hoped this boat could carry two.”
A face remembered, a past tossed beyond recognition in the ferocious waves of life’s river, and in the end, “no one is to blame, it just happened that way, and there’s nothing you can say when two people say goodbye.”
Life, Don McLean reveals, never quite meets our expectations. In his song, “The Pride Parade,” he comments on the corrupting influence of pride, ambition, and social expectations, concluding,
For I know you for what you are not, for that’s all you really are. And your talents of a minor order seem to stretch too far. And we both know that this masquerade can’t carry on too long: you’re deep inside the pride parade, but where do you belong?”
The answer is in the song’s refrain:
And your friends are together where the people are all gathered all along the road you traveled all your days.”
As we travel the long road of decades, Don McLean makes us painfully aware of how the passing years devour hope and youthful dreams. The song “Bronco Bill’s Lament” begins, “I could have been most anything I put my mind to be, but a cowboy’s life was the only life for me.” This chosen profession, though, ultimately defeats the singing cowboy hero: “I’m an old man now with nothing more to say, but oh God how I worked my youth away.” In the final verse he reflects on the disappointments of his career:
You see, I always liked the notion of a cowboy fighting crime—this photograph was taken in my prime. I could beat those desperados, but there’s no sense fighting time.”
In the end time defeats us all. The years spin onward for me on this old turntable playing again these powerful songs spun into the deep obscurity of a forgotten album recovered from long ago. In the vinyl grooves are gathered people and memories and the strains of once-loved songs all along the roads I’ve traveled all my days.
[Daily post 015 of 260 in my year-long challenge.] ♨