DON MCLEAN: ‘American Pie is about the soul of a country and it is eternal’

With a stage show, documentary special and tour in the works, Don McLean looks back over 50 years of his biggest hit, a sweeping epic about politics, youth and rock-and-roll across the Atlantic. By ALEX GREEN

Friday, 19th November 2021, 4:29 pm
The legendary Don McLean is heading back on tour some five decades after his storming hit American Pie defined the mood of a generation

The sweeping epic about politics, youth and rock- and-roll across the Atlantic, has, in just the last few years, soundtracked important moments in TV series Stranger Things and Hollywood blockbuster Black Widow, and become boxer Tyson Fury’s victory tune.

Despite its very specific cultural references, it remains ubiquitous.

“It’s used in a million different ways because it is non-specific – because it is eternal in that way,” the New York State-born troubadour says over the phone, of the 1971 song.

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Many have covered McLean's seminal track American Pie, including Madonna in 2000, but nobody can live up to the so-called King of the Trail

“I did not write something about a specific time.

Bob Dylan wrote The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. That’s a wonderful story. It’s a beautiful biographical piece.

“He wrote about Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, the boxer, and so on and so forth.

“And I’ve written about Van Gogh, and I’ve written about George Reeves, but this is a different thing. It’s the soul of the country, and the soul has never changed.”

McLean bought his first guitar at 16 and thereafter dedicated himself to making sweet music

McLean, known to fans as the American Troubadour or King of the Trail, is marking the song and accompanying album’s 50th anniversary with a world tour (including a clutch of UK dates), a retrospective documentary and a stage show in the works.

Since the turn of the millennium, the 76-year-old has remained largely out of the spotlight, despite playing regularly to faithful fans.

But the milestone has prompted many to look again at his legacy, leading to McLean being given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in August.

He tells me the day was especially poignant given his life-long obsession with cowboy Western movie stars such as Ken Maynard, Buck Jones and William Boyd, many of whom have their own stars on the trail.

Don drove his Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry

“That was certainly a high point in my career,” he recalls excitedly. “And I’ve had a few nice things happen to me in my life – lots of them actually - but this is something that was really particularly wonderful for me because I’m a music and film aficionado. So there were all sorts of names of obscure actors and directors, and singers too, on that Walk of Fame that I was very proud to be a part of.”

In conversation, McLean is prone to grand, sweeping statements about music and art. This talent is also present in his own music and such grand, sweeping statements form the centrepiece of American Pie.

Take for instance the much-quoted lyric: “The three men I admire most / The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost / They caught the last train for the coast.”

His predilection also extends to tales of his youth in New Rochelle, New York State: “My mother always said to me, ‘Donnie, I didn’t raise you, you raised yourself’. I had my own way of doing everything, and I was by myself most of the time.”

After a pause, he adds: “I realised the one thing that mattered to me more than singing, more than writing songs, more than being Don McLean – anything – was making records and albums, so I developed that really very young and it was really independent of everybody I knew.

“Nobody was in my world at all. Everybody else was basically white kids who were going to grow up to be working stiffs and good pillars of the community and church-goers and all that stuff.

“I wasn’t any of that. I didn’t want any of that.”

That yearning eventually led to his second studio album, American Pie, being released in October 1971. It was a huge success but the title track – inspired by the plane crash death of rock-and-roll great Buddy Holly – went stratospheric, reaching number one in the US and many other countries around the world including Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

“If you write about specific things in a universal way then you have created something that’s universal and can last forever,” he offers. “If you write about things in a topical way, in a way that is particularly pointing out a specific time then that particular thing is going to fade.”

He compares American Pie to Gone With The Wind, the enduringly popular 1939 American romance set against the backdrop of the US Civil War.

“It’s really not about the Civil War,” he tells me. “It’s about Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara. It’s about their love affair and their inability to connect, how much he loved her and she loved him, but they could never really let each other know that they really loved each other.

“There was always disconnect, ships passing in the night, this kind of thing. That’s the story.”

According to McLean, a song is simply a vehicle.

“I’m telling an epic tale of rock- and -roll and politics and people’s rights – people’s demands,” he declares, “people in the street wanting things.”

After a long 18 months without live performance, McLean is back on the road playing the occasional show.

Still, his forthcoming world tour can not come quick enough.

“It’s not the same as travelling and singing, which I have done since 1968,” he says. “It’s part of my DNA, I guess you might say, and I definitely feel it physically.”

‘I INTEND TO DIE ON STAGE’ SAYS THE KING OF THE TRAIL

Not all the music greats of the 60s and 70s continue to perform today and McLean sees himself as part of a select group with a responsibility.

“As I get older,” he begins. “I can sing well and I have a lot of songs that people remember and people know and love.

“I’m from another time period and I like to go out there and show those young people how it’s done – show them how it sounds when it’s right.

“I’m sure that is what Paul McCartney does; it is certainly what The Rolling Stones still do.

“We still hold a torch of some sort, which is valuable to people and they love it. They really do.”

After a dramatic pause, he adds: “I intend to die on stage. I have nothing else better to do.”

DON BOUGHT FIRST GUITAR AT 16 AND STAR WAS QUICKLY ON ASCENT

Donald McLean (born October 2, 1945) is indeed best known for his 1971 hit song American Pie, an eight-and-a-half-minute folk-rock “cultural touchstone” about the loss of innocence of the early rock- and-roll generation. His other hit singles include Vincent, Dreidel, a rendition of Roy Orbison’s Crying, a rendition of the Skyliners’ Since I Don’t Have You, and Wonderful Baby.

McLean’s composition And I Love You So has been recorded by Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Helen Reddy, Glen Campbell, and others, and in 2000, Madonna had a hit with a rendition of American Pie.

In 2004, McLean was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. In January 2018, BMI certified that American Pie and Vincent had reached five million and three million airplays respectively.

Don’s grandfather and father, both also named Donald McLean, were of Scottish origin.

McLean’s mother, Elizabeth Bucci, came from Abruzzo in central Italy. He has other extended family in Los Angeles and Boston.

Though some of Don’s early musical influences included Frank Sinatra and Buddy Holly, as a teenager he became interested in folk music, particularly the Weavers’ 1955 recording At Carnegie Hall. He often missed long periods of school because of childhood asthma, particularly music lessons, and although Don slipped back in his studies, his love of music was allowed to flourish.

By age 16, he had bought his first guitar and begun making contacts in the music business, becoming friends with folk singers Erik Darling and Fred Hellerman of the Weavers.

Hellerman said, “He called me one day and said, ‘I’d like to come and visit you’, and that’s what he did! We became good friends; he has the most remarkable music memory of anyone I’ve ever known.”

When McLean was 15, his father died. Fulfilling his father’s request, Don graduated from Iona Preparatory School in 1963, and briefly attended Villanova University, dropping out after four months. After leaving Villanova, he became associated with the famed folk music agent Harold Leventhal for several months, before teaming up with his personal manager, Herb Gart, for 18 years.

For the next six years, he performed at venues and events including The Bitter End and the Gaslight Cafe in New York, the Newport Folk Festival, the Cellar Door in Washington, DC, and the Troubadour in Los Angeles.

McLean turned down a scholarship to Columbia University Graduate School in 1968 in favour of pursuing a career as a singer-songwriter, performing at such venues as Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York and the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

DON ‘HIT TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN WITH ICONIC TRACK’

McLean recorded his first album Tapestry in 1969 in Berkeley, California, during the student riots. After being rejected 72 times by labels, the album was released by Mediarts. It attracted good reviews but garnered little notice outside the folk community.

His major break came when Mediarts was taken over by United Artists Records, thus securing the promotion of a major label for his second album, American Pie. It’s runaway success made McLean an international star and piqued interest in his first album.

Don’s magnum opus is inspired partly by the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP Richardson (The Big Bopper) in a plane crash in 1959, and developments in American youth culture in the subsequent decade.

The song popularised the expression The Day the Music Died in reference to the crash.

It was recorded on May 26, 1971 and reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 from January 15 to February 5, 1972.

In 2001, American Pie was voted number five in a poll of the 365 Songs of the century compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

On April 7, 2015, McLean’s original working manuscript of the song sold for $1,205,000 at Christie’s auction rooms, New York, making it the third highest auction price achieved for an American literary manuscript.

In the sale catalogue notes, McLean revealed the meaning in the song’s lyrics: “Basically in American Pie things are heading in the wrong direction. ... It [life] is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.”

The catalogue confirmed some of the better-known references in the song’s lyrics, including mentions of Elvis Presley (“the king”) and Bob Dylan (“the jester”), and confirmed that the song culminates with a description of the death of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Free Concert, ten years after the plane crash that killed Holly, Valens, and Richardson, and that the song broadly depicts how the early rock innocence of the 1950s, and a bygone simpler age, had been lost.

Mike Mills of REM reflected on the seminal track, that it “just made perfect sense to me as a song. When you’ve written songs that can be considered classic that is a very high batting average and if one of those songs happens to be something that a great many people think is one of the greatest songs ever written you’ve not only hit the top of the mountain but you’ve stayed high on the mountain for a long time.”

Tickets for Don McLean’s 50th Anniversary of American Pie 2022 UK Tour are available online. More information at donmclean.com.