The Search for Meaning through Music
Article by Bronwyn Boyer / Photography by Josianne Masseau
Whether it’s a song, a deep question, a problem or a new skill, Douglas McLean is determined to conquer it.
McLean is a true Renaissance man. He’s a sensitive soul with a powerful singing voice and the heart of a poet. He’s a business-minded mathematical genius who turned a small start-up company into a monolith. And he’s a prolific radio personality, interviewer and writer.
McLean was an academically gifted child but his teachers weren’t sure how to guide him. He was only 12 when he entered high school, and he was different than the other kids. His relentless curiosity was seen as troublesome rather than a sign of intelligence. As a youth grappling with the weight of his own busy mind, he was often misunderstood. But no matter how many times he got lost, his ingenuity and determination always led him back to his true north.
And that true north, it seems, is music. It started with summer camp through the YMCA, singing old gospel songs around the campfire. Combined with his early love for nature, it was his summer camp experience that first sparked his soul.
“Those gospel songs got deep under my skin,” McLean says. “And then the Beatles came along, and I really started aching to play an instrument. I would drive my mother crazy using her knitting needles as drumsticks, banging on everything in the house. So, my parents got me a drum kit.”
McLean grew up in Lively, a small mining community, now a part of Sudbury. He was the oldest of three children. His father was a minister, and it caused a lot of issues between them. McLean’s burning desire to understand the meaning of life led to him to explore philosophies outside of his religious upbringing. He dove head-first into the work of Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood and TS Elliot. But his father didn’t approve of these interests.
“Around age 13, I decided that I wanted to be a poet, and my father was furious,” says McLean. “The cultural climate at that time was quite different, and poets were seen in a certain negative light.”
The conflict with his father often led to McLean being cast out of his family home. But it didn’t stop him from living life on his own terms. McLean’s home life also came under a lot of strain when his younger sister was diagnosed with cancer at age 13.
“It really shaped the dynamic of our household,” McLean says. “Everything was changing so rapidly. I left home for good at age 16, but thanks to my summer camp experience, I didn’t have any trouble taking care of myself in the woods. I was just a kid on my own, drifting around in the world.”
But drifting around in the world is what gave McLean the freedom to start singing and playing drums with his next-door neighbour, who played bass.
“We started playing gigs and eventually we got pretty professional,” McLean recalls. “But I had trouble controlling my foot and singing at the same time. Our manager decided to find another drummer and I just sang.”
When his bass player taught him basic guitar chords, McLean wrote his first song the same day. Soon after, he had enough to record his first album. Despite having a good following from playing music, his fascination with non-traditional inquiry pulled him in a different direction. Investigating esoteric knowledge and the quest for meaning became the centre of his existence.
“I think what created that drive had a lot to do with my sister’s illness,” McLean explains. “And the over-arching question plaguing our family was, how could this happen?”
In 1975, McLean tried to break into the music industry in Los Angeles. By then, he was married and had a child.
“It changed my life, just being exposed to that culture,” McLean says. “I was just a kid from a small town. I didn’t know how to write about what I was experiencing. I was overwhelmed.”
McLean returned home when his younger brother got into a serious motorcycle accident. His family was growing and he struggled to find work in Sudbury, so they moved to Toronto, where McLean got a job at a luggage company.
“My boss was a master engineer, and I begged him to teach me what he knew,” McLean recalls. “He finally agreed, and I’d go home every night and study my brains out.”
The engineering knowledge McLean was able to absorb opened the door to another job where he applied his knowledge of line balancing and production scheduling. “I was really good at math, so I just fell in love with it,” says McLean. “There’s a rhythm to it for me that’s a lot like music.”
McLean then took some university courses in logistics. “I was hungry to get moving forward,” he explains. “The goal was to have a nice home in the country to raise my kids.” By this time, McLean had three children, so his priorities had shifted.
“I wrote out a map for myself of how to achieve my goal in five years. I told my boss that if he didn’t help me achieve that goal, I was going to quit. They gave me a promotion.”
That promotion landed McLean the role of manager of Beckers Milk, where he oversaw 100 people.
“I figured out that success is achieved by empowering people,” he explains. “I talked to my staff one by one about their dreams and aspirations, so they would feel heard and valued. After that, everything took off – absenteeism went down, and production went up.”
At that time, the inventory system was written on cards. It was very difficult to organize a 20,000 sq. ft. warehouse full of convenience store items. Ever the problem solver, McLean started hanging around the computer centre for answers.
“A computer guy said I could write the codes myself,” says McLean. “I started staying after work with a book from the library trying to learn how to code. I eventually figured out how to write a program that ran an inventory system. I got promoted, but it cost me my marriage, because I was never home.”
Next, McLean worked for a start-up company making specialty meats for pizza toppings. By then, he was the single dad of three boys. When McLean met his current wife and fiddle player, Arlene, his life turned around.
“We’ve been married almost 30 years, and she’s pretty much the best thing that ever happened to me,” McLean says. “When I met her, I felt like I’d known her my whole life.” The couple bought property in Sundridge in 1990 and built their home there.
McLean got accepted into the University of Toronto masters of business program, thanks to the fact that he included songwriting on his application.
“I couldn’t believe that my music background, that seemingly foolish thing I pursued in my teens, could bear such incredible fruit,” recalls McLean. “They wanted a fresh element to the old way of thinking. It set me apart from the other applicants.”
McLean started writing songs and performing again when he was hired by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture teaching meat formulation science.
“I actually got hired because I had songwriting on my resume,” McLean says. “My boss wanted me to prove it, so he had me write him a song. It got me thinking about songwriting in a mechanical way, and I got something from that. They wanted me to write a song for every event, and that became the basis for getting back into music.”
When McLean turned 60, he wrote his second album, Cold Black Moon.
“My father was really sick then, and I had to rush to him and be by his side,” says McLean. “And as he passed away, it was like he gave me a blessing, a mystical gift that would allow me to write songs. That’s when the floodgates opened up. Love ‘Em Today and Rawley were songs that really touched people. I was writing about my love for those who passed on, and my brother who was in the wind, homeless for most of his life.”
When McLean wrote his next album, After All This Time, he felt he finally realized what songwriting is.
“I had to write songs from a different place in myself,” he explains. “Trusting something I never had to trust before – that art can find you, instead of the other way around.”
Like everything else McLean does, his fourth album, Land of My Fathers, was a challenge he gladly accepted.
“I like what happens creatively when you force yourself to be on the high wire,” he says. “That’s where the real art exists.”
McLean’s fifth album Born to Fly was a warning about the political turmoil in the United States and the dangers of nuclear war. Like Bruce Cockburn and Bob Dylan, McLean felt the need to use music to speak about the injustices in the world.
“Our society has so much blood on our hands, and it’s seeping up through the cracks,” he explains. “It was really bothering me, and I felt the need to say something.”
McLean’s next musical projects were producing two charity albums to raise money for Community Living, called Helping Hands.
“We got a few local artists involved and put on a concert at the Algonquin Theatre,” he says. “Everyone got a CD with their ticket price. I’d love to do more of that. I think it’s important to use music to help those in need.”
Since retiring in 2016, McLean has been busy producing radio shows, writing album reviews and articles, interviewing prominent musicians, playing in a local rock band, and performing with Arlene.
McLean’s foray into radio began when Hunter’s Bay Radio (HBR) in Huntsville was looking for someone to take over their Live Drive series and he answered the call. From there, he also ended up with his own blues show that aired Monday nights, called Blue Monday. But things changed with HBR when the pandemic hit.
“When COVID-19 happened, I had acts booked six months in advance for Live Drive,” McLean explains. “And I was determined to come up with a way of recording those shows remotely rather than canceling them altogether. That’s how I came up with Behind the Drive.”
Somehow, the musicians and interviews McLean featured on Behind the Drive caught the attention of B.B. King’s daughter, Shirley.
“All of a sudden I got a call from a guy in Las Vegas, asking if I wanted to interview Shirley King,” McLean recalls. “That’s when I started getting a lot of calls to do interviews.”
Before long, McLean had 200 interviews under his belt. Getting to interview his hero Bruce Cockburn was a landmark moment. Others were Blue Rodeo, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Martin Sexton, Murray McLaughlin, Ian Tamblyn and Martin Barre from Jethro Tull. He connected with Blues & Roots Radio and did interviews for their series, The Sound Café. He also launched a new show on Canoe FM in Haliburton called Night Train and began writing album reviews for Great Dark Wonder. He also got a job at Huntsville Doppler writing articles to spotlight local artists and musicians.
“I needed to keep my intellect sharp,” McLean explains. “And since I wasn’t really writing music, I wanted to write about music. My goal was to try to figure out why artists keep going in what seems to be a ridiculous pursuit. I’m fascinated by that drive, that spark, and where it comes it from.”
McLean’s quest for the meaning of life may not be complete, but he has a wealth of gratitude for the places it has taken him. By staying curious, humble and generous, he keeps that creative spark alive.
“I just want people to follow their soul’s true purpose,” he says. “To keep learning, use their gifts, and never give up. I think my old friend Ian Tamblyn said it best: ‘If it’s in you, it’ll never let you go.’”
McLean’s message, in all he does, is to stay inspired at all costs.