Michael McLean: He Gives Me What I Need
by Maurine Jensen Proctor
Editors’ Note: Michael McLean will be performing at the World Congress of Families, Washington D.C., October 26 and 27. For information on the conference go to www.worldcongress-dc.org Michael is the writer/composer of many albums including Forgotten Carols and Safe Harbors. He has also created the much-loved Mr. Krueger’s Christmas.
“I used to wonder why God couldn’t have made me skinny and cute and brilliantly talented. That was before I came to understand that he gives me what I need. Miracles do happen, and God is extraordinary, and I’m always amazed when He speaks to me.”-Mike McLean
Word spread quickly that Michael McLean was going to be performing at the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center. Too quickly. That night the parking lots at the visitors center and the temple and the nearby stake center were jammed, and he had to give a second unplanned performance for the many who waited patiently for two hours when they couldn’t get into his first performance.
Not bad for a composer/performer who can’t sing. Really. He can’t sing-at least not like someone who ought to take center stage and hold a crowd-and not just hold a crowd but mesmerize them.
In fact, last year at a Broadway musical workshop-a high-powered place where writers and composers were presenting songs from their plays for scrutiny from musical theater’s top talent, Mike was performing numbers from The Ark, a play that he and Kevin Kelly have sweated over for some time. After, one of Broadway’s most elite came up to Mike and said, “You can’t sing can you.”
Mike had to agree, especially in light of the virtuoso performances from the polished, professional singers that day. “Then why,” continued the man, “do I feel something special when you sing?”
This article is about that “something special” and how it is available to be found in all of our lives, and I write it as a friend about a friend. I first met Mike when we were both young professionals. He was the new, wet-behind-the-ears, somewhat brash producer for Music and the Spoken Word, whose main experience at that time was writing jingles for advertising spots. I was a new writer for the Spoken Word, terrified, hoping to please with my writing which I felt fairly uncertain about. He rejected my first script because it was about self-worth. As I recall, he said nobody struggled with that. I said I did, (and more so than ever after he rejected my script), but I wrote a new Spoken Word anyway. Despite the rejection, we became good friends, and ironically, I’ve watched him through a stellar career, explore every way possible to help his listeners learn something about their worth in the eyes of God.
Everybody Has Music in Them
Early on Mike learned that everybody has music in them. “I had a really great piano teacher when I was nine who was a great influence in my life,” Mike said. He was a guy, guy with a beautiful wife, who was strong and handsome and muscular. He jumped out of airplanes and he was a great classical pianist. He wanted me to learn how to play classical piano, and we would take 7 months to a year on one piece.
“He told me that everybody has music in them ‘ The only difference,’Mike’s teacher said, ‘between the musicians and everybody else is that the musicians have learned to let it out. I give you all of these scales and difficult exercises to strengthen your fingers. What we are preparing you for is that when you feel great frustration with the world, you can do this,’ then he would play this brilliant, angry piece from Liszt. ‘When you feel romance or when you feel tender feelings, you can express it this way,’ and he would play these extraordinary moving lines from Rachmaninoff.
“‘Right now,’ Mike’s teacher said, ‘when you have these feelings you have to send them from your heart to your brain first before they go to your music, because your fingers are not strong or prepared enough to respond. If you can get to the place where you let it go from your heart straight to your fingers then you can be a great communicator'”
As a youngster, Michael composed ditties about Sunday dinner, and earned acclaim-at least with his scout troop-for composing a parody of “King of the Road” about Troop 243. By the time he enrolled in BYU, he was majoring in business and psychology, having determined he could probably not cut it as a musician.
“Just in case I was wrong,” he said, “I took a class in music theory to see if anybody noticed my grand, brilliant potential. The teacher told me that I wasn’t really very good at music and that I should probably restrict myself to the ward choir and road show. It broke my heart, because I was hoping for some validation from a musician. Instead, it was essentially, ‘Brother, the Lord can use you in many ways, you don’t have to worry about making a living doing this.'”
Six weeks after Michael arrived on his mission in South Africa, he was called to be in a band. “Our job,” he said, “was to soften hearts and open doors and get people to listen to us. For seven months that’s what we did. Finally, we were on our way to Rhodesia to perform eight times a day for a trade fair. We’d come up with a show that had popular songs of the era, but the one thing we did not have in this program was a good song that talked about the relationships between sons and fathers.
“I was sitting in the Johannesburg chapel before we went to this trade fair,” he said, “and I had a prayer. “I said Heavenly Father, I only have 30 minutes to write this song, and I don’t mean to rush you, but can you help me? Twenty minutes later, I had written a little song called ‘The Father Song.’ I sang it for the boys in the band, and an amazing thing happened. They didn’t say, ‘Oh your song is so fabulous or you are so talented. Instead, they felt something about fathers and sons, and I had this little epiphany. It was really a variation on what my piano teacher had taught me. I found out that you could go from your heart to somebody else’s heart without trying to sort out your message, or process it, or agonize over it. You just share what’s true without editing yourself to death. What you understand can go directly from your heart to theirs.”
It was an echo of the conversations that Micheal used to have when his Dad cut his hair. “The better our conversations, the shorter my hair cut,” Michael laughs. “I used to wonder why God couldn’t make me skinny and cute and brilliantly talented, why I wasn’t good looking with a wonderful voice. Then, I told my Dad, I would have been great.
My dad pointed out , “If you were really gorgeous and really a great singer, you might not have the heart to understand other people. You would write things that would showcase your voice so that everyone would love you, but the huge gift from Heavenly Father is that that is not part of the deal for you. It’s not going to be, “Let me write a song that shows off this high note I can sing.’ Instead, you write songs about life that can be sung by other people and owned by other folks.”
It was a deep lesson for Michael, and since he was fairly certain that everybody wanted to be taller or have better teeth or better hair or better something, he tried to capture that feeling in a song on his album Safe Harbors.
All I ever wanted,
All I ever dreamed of
Everything I hoped and all the things I prayed for
Couldn’t hold a candle to what I’ve been given
I’ve been given what I need.
A mansion on a hill or love like in the movies
Perfect little lives where no one has a problem
Instead of all those things I thought I really wanted
I’ve been given what I need.
Even when I didn’t understand
When I thought you had no heart
Thank you for rejecting my demands
And always giving me the better part.
Without the singing voice that Michael might have dreamed of, he was forced to learn that being on stage for him would be about something deeper. He had to find a way to connect with the audience with an eye to help lift them. “The reason that you practice and you try to get your craft down, the reason you want the show to be better or cooler is for one reason-so that your heart connects with their heart. That is the reason I disciplined myself to write a song every day for a year, the reason I go to workshops to be around really great and talented people so that I can learn from them, so that I get better at sharing with the audience the truth that changes them.
“I think our lives were designed so perfectly,” Michael said, “that the things we need to learn to better prepare us for what is to come are given to us. When you say that, people answer, ‘Oh great. You mean to tell me this tragedy I just went through was for my good?’ The truth is there are some things that happen to us that we bring on ourselves. But there are amazing things that happen to us that seem hard at the time that we don’t recognize as miracles. You don’t even notice how amazing it is. This plan is so amazingly perfect because it allows for the exact experience, that if we embrace it, is more perfect than we would have designed for ourselves.
“I’m convinced that when we whine and moan about things, they may be the very things we will drop to our knees and thank God for, because those may come to mean the most to us. If any of my songs help communicate that, then I didn’t waste my time here.
Michael McLean and Kevin Kelly are showcasing their musical play on Noah’s Ark at a little theater off Broadway. “The ark is God,” Michael said, “and he won’t force us to be saved. He won’t force us on the boat. Once we’re on the boat, he won’t let us off until we’re new creatures. People think they are getting on to be saved from the rain, but what they are really going to be saved from is themselves. God says, ‘I want to give you the opportunity to face things you’ve been running away from your whole life. Most of our lives we are on the ark, and we think, when are we going to find dry land? Instead we get the opportunity to look at our problems and surrender ourselves to the forces that will help us.
“It is amazing to me how difficult it is to surrender to the Lord,” Michael said. “We spend so much time in our culture learning to work hard, setting goals, and accepting responsibility, but the devil’s a pretty clever guy. He devises this plan so that we think we can do it all by ourselves which takes the atonement out of the equation. On the one hand, we can think we are so sinful that Christ cannot help us, or on the other hand be so independent that we don’t think we need him. As long as Satan pushes us away from the Savior, he wins. I want my songs to be something people can return to to be reminded how important the Savior is.
You Will Know That It is By Me That Ye Are Led
When Michael returned from his mission, he and the other guys in the band tried to make it professionally. “We gave it 18 hours a day,” Michael said. “I was playing in stinky bars, and my wife Lynne said, ‘We’re poor. I really hate this. But I saw this guy on television who’s making all this money writing commercials.’
“Who’s going to hire me to write commercials?” Michael responded.
“I saw a commercial on TV today that was so bad you couldn’t do worse,”
So Michael went to a Salt Lake City advertising firm and saw the executive who was handling U&I Sugar with this little song about sugar cubes dancing around a cake mix, then the cubes dove into the mix. Michael said, “The executive looked at me and said, ‘Who let you in?’
Michael’s next stop was Bonneville Communications. He took the song he had written while a missionary about his Dad. He was hired as free lancer and helped create a series of Homefront spots that won a Clio. The doors were beginning to crack open.
Suddenly he became the all-time advertising jingle writer. “One night as we watched the news, my wife and I realized that I had written the music for every local commercial.”
With some experience and a track record under his belt, Bonneville hired him to be the producer of Music and the Spoken Word. He felt that his job was to give the Mormon Tabernacle Choir more exposure, and that’s where the seeds of Mr. Krueger’s Christmas were planted. He could see the entire thing. “We’d tell the story of this janitor on Christmas Eve,” he said. “I thought I had a vision about it. It seemed like my destiny. I thought this is why they brought me in to do this job.
“We developed this story and it got killed, and I was crushed. I repackaged it, and it got killed again. I got so mad I said, I’m going back to New York. You can sell stuff and get stuff done there. I’m going to learn to be an ad executive.
“Then Lynne said, “Let’s just get some confirmation. I wondered why we had to pray about it when the answer was so obvious, but she was really sweet about it. She just knelt down and waited for me. We got this impression from the Lord: I don’t want you to go until you make the movie about the old man. The Spirit taught me the most powerful lesson that day in learning to listen.
“How was I supposed to make a movie that had been killed twice? So I started to carry on continuous prayers asking, “What do I have to learn about how to get this approved? What do I have to learn about developing the concept? What do I have to learn about making it a better script?
“In a two to three year period, I made over 40 or 50 presentations on the film concept, and finally in January of 1980 I was given 35 minutes with the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve to pitch Mr. Krueger’s Christmas. I had prerecorded some of it and I performed it, and frankly looking back on it, I was too young to know I couldn’t do it.
Michael spent 17 years at Bonneville writing and producing Homefront commercials and other church films. He wrote many of the songs for the films that he would become known for like “We Can Be Together Forever” and “Heavenly Father’s Plan.” But then, he said, after he produced a film called Nora’s Gift, “I had this voice inside of me say, ‘Thanks Mike, that was great. Time for you to move on.’ I answered, ‘But I have a secure job here.’ and then I felt more. ‘Some of my children will not listen to a message that comes from an organized religion. You’ve been learning how to speak to people’s hearts of the things of eternity. I want you to speak to my other children who can’t hear those things.
“That was the year I wrote The Forgotten Carols. I was writing it around my job in the morning and when I came home at night. Deseret Book wasn’t exactly sure whether they wanted to do it, but I got to write this story that was in my heart and bear my testimony in a way that didn’t have to have all of the concerns you do when you represent the kingdom of God in the Church. It was just from my heart to yours.
“The Forgotten Carols is not brilliant,. The only way I could get people to be aware of it was to go on the road and perform it. It was something written for local choirs. It was a Christmas pageant you could do in your own house like a new Christmas tradition. I went on the road having no idea that coming to see me play all the parts in this story would become a Christmas tradition in itself. Last year 50,000 people bought tickets and came. It’s extraordinary to me. It’s just been amazing. People have been so sweet to forgive my lack of skill and hear my heart.
But heart is what it’s all about for Mike. Heart-and the one he for whom he performs.
“Years ago,” he said, “I had an experience at a fireside where I was singing my songs and entertaining teenagers. I’m in the middle of a song and this spiritual voice said, ‘What are you doing? Whose kingdom are you building?’
“What do you mean, I’m in your church and it’s a Sunday night,” Mike thought Another impression, “How long have you been singing? You’re kind of building your kingdom then. You want people to love you.”
Mike answered the voice in his head again, “I’m laying the groundwork. The last ten minutes are all about you.” Again an impression, “Mike, why don’t you change that?. Why don’t you spend more time talking about me?. If you are not going to spend more time talking about me, why don’t you not do it?”
Mike went home and canceled all of his firesides for the next year, and spent his time instead preparing 16 hours worth of stuff. Then the next time he went to give a fireside, he promised that even though he was prepared, he’d wait and do what he was asked to do by the Spriit. Most importantly, he prayed that he would be in tune enough to really hear.
“When I go to firesides or performances, I an not nervous about playing OK, or remembering all the words. What I worry about is am I going to be in tune enough. What will I choose to reveal? What will I share? What if I’m so busy trying to share the story as a performer that I don’t tell the story that somebody has to hear that night. My point for being there has to be to point people to the Savior, not to sell records. As a result,” Mike says, “I have seen miracles.
So the night he performed at the Washington D.C. Visitors Center, he did two completely different programs. During the second show, he told a story that had not crossed his mind in program number one. It hadn’t occurred to him at all. He told about his emotional challenges as a missionary, the nervous breakdown that wracked and tormented him. He told how he had learned that he wasn’t going through this experience as an isolated, lonely soul. He told how God and his Almighty Son had gotten him through it, and as he talked, he felt to share things about his experience that you normally wouldn’t share.
In the audience that night sat a missionary who had determined to leave his mission and go home. But somehow feeling the confidence and trust this well-known songwriter Mike McLean had in God gave the missionary new vision and finally new determination. He told Mike that having heard him, he had decided to stay and complete his mission. Packed bags could be undone. The missionary had learned he wasn’t alone.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.