A long, long time ago, a singer wrote a song that would unite the world through music.
Don McLean’s American Pie is about as American as it gets. The song, written and recorded 50 years ago (in 1971) and was pure nostalgia at the time, mixing the deep cultural changes, profound disillusionment and loss of innocence of his entire generation. Touching on youth, music and a plane crash in 1959 that killed early rock and roll stars Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. It has a power to capture the heart and soul of anyone that listens to it.
It went on to become one of the most successful songs in the history of rock and roll and helped escalate McLean to the level of music icon.
Fifty years later and the song still means the world to that man who wrote it, having had special magazines, books and recordings of it made throughout the years.
Comfortable with who his is, who he became and how far the song changed his life, McLean is happy to chat about the memories it evokes of a time long gone and of a country he grew up in that thrived in the early years of rock and roll.
Sit back with Don and I for eight minutes and 42 seconds as we go back to 1971.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary, “American Pie” is coming in the form of a children’s book. What’s that about?
Well, that is my story, as a little boy and paper boy. Some ladies did an interview with me and created this whole thing. That was something that we’re actually going to take a lot further with. It will be an animated feature of some sort, in the future, and also, they’re doing a Broadway show with a lot of my songs called the “The Day That We Died”, or “American Pie”.
Then there’s a documentary movie, the same thing focused on the making of the song, and what seems to be its universal appeal. Then there is a whole lot of other stuff going on at the same time.
I’ve signed up to do another biography. It’ll be the third book to come out about my life. And, of course, a lot of touring next year. Everybody’s touring has been put off till next year, fingers crossed that borders will open and we can get back to some form of normal. So there’s a lot of stuff going on.
The children’s book is a bit of an autobiography, as you mentioned, but it’s told to children. So is that sort of the concept?
It’s actually a fable, it’s just an invented idea of a boy delivering a newspaper and finding a friend, getting a guitar, going off into the world and making a difference with his music. It’s kind of my story, but for little kids.
The song has become more than just a document of an era. It’s an anthem of American life in general. Did you ever try and write a song with the same intention, after?
No, I felt I did it, so, I didn’t really need to do it again. I really only write one song about one thing, and that’s it. I don’t really do things over and over. I’ve only written a couple 100 songs in my life. I’m primarily a singer. But I also write songs when I have what I think are good ideas, or something that I want to say. Otherwise I don’t.
I have a new album, which is going to come out probably at the end of this year or the first part of next year, with all new songs. I’ve been very busy these last two years, with this pandemic going on. I’ve been fortunate not to get it. So I’m pretty lucky and done a lot of things that I had planned to do.
Tell me a bit about the album. Does it have a pandemic vibe, or is it just great songs that you sat down and wrote?
No, no, no, it’s a lot of different songs, called American boys and American boys invented rock and roll. That’s the song that I wrote with my guitar player, Biberman, who was also a songwriter. We teamed up and wrote a bunch of songs. Then I wrote a bunch more, and we now have an album but still ready to go.
Is America something you’re very passionate about? We started talking about “American Pie”, and then the new album?
Yeah, it is. I love my country. But I’m not one of those, America, right or wrong, I believe that we need to be constantly corrected. America’s unique among all the countries of the world because it is an ongoing experiment of sorts. It’s a place where people come to make their fortune. They can do it here more than they can anywhere else.
I’m sure there are a lot of people in America, who are racially motivated to try to make America into some sort of a socialist country. But I’m sure if you asked Oprah Winfrey, or Jay-Z, or Beyoncé, or P. Diddy, or any of those very successful black entrepreneurs, if they hate America, they would say definitely not. You have to work for something, you can’t be given something. And the key to being successful in America is hard work, study in school.
You’re not going to get any gifts, although that’s changing somewhat. But that’s going to change back pretty soon, we have a lot of serious problems in America, and one of them is the homeless problem, which is going to get much worse very soon. All those stimulus checks, they’re going to stop. And they’re going to be able to kick people out of their apartments. It’s terrible, but unfortunately, reckoning is coming and nobody in Washington in spite of their so called concerns your people. Nobody in Washington is looking at this problem and getting ahead of it a little bit, it’s gonna get very bad, and you have to really sort this all out. This is a big deal. What do you do with all these families and people that have nothing and have no future? What are you going to do with them? What are we going to do to sort this out? It’s like the 1930s, almost.
I have a foundation called with Don McLean Foundation, and all of my money and all the money that is generated by my songs will go into that foundation after I’m gone. One of the things it is going to address, especially around the country in the United States, is homelessness, poverty and hunger. There are a lot of great people in the state of Maine where I have homes. They have food banks and do things for folks who don’t have anything. I’m going to help do that.
That’s awesome. Since we’ve just briefly talked to you about income, “American Pie” has got to be probably your biggest, most successful thing in terms of income. Does it still generate a lot of income for you?
“American Pie”, “And I Love You So”, “Vincent”, “Castles In The Air”, those I guess are the four that have been played millions of times on the radio. Of course, “American Pie” is the most famous. “And I Love You So” has been recorded by the most people. There are not a lot of versions of “American Pie”. There’s very few, but there are dozens of versions of “And I Love You So” that earn money.
I’ve talked to a few artists over the years that have some iconic songs like you do. Some of them love it, and some of them hate it. They treat it like it’s a cross they have to bear. You seem to embrace your songs. Was there ever any animosity between you and “American Pie” or some of the other hits?
I don’t really feel that way. It’s the hand I was dealt, and it’s a good hand, it has aces in it. I think that anybody who has been given success in the music business and feels it’s a cross to bear is an idiot, because who do they think they are, you’re lucky to have anything at all, this is a very, very tough business.
I have had a fantastic career as a recording artist, and a stage performer that has lasted for 50 years. It hasn’t been because of one song. It’s been because of albums and many songs and the relationship that I built with audiences throughout the years. I really feel that some people are very spoiled and very stupid to think that success is somehow a burden.
So here we are, 50 years later, what are your thoughts on the song now?
Well, I think exactly what I thought about it when I wrote it. It kind of telescopes, the American story into eight minutes. It’s also kind of a collage and an impressionistic song lyrically, it’s not a board game, it’s meant to be a dream sequence of some sort, I succeeded, I did exactly what I planned to do.
But what I didn’t expect was that people would love it and understand it, and embrace it, as they have over all these years to the point where it was chosen as the fifth greatest song of the 20th century by a whole variety of different people who could just as easily have mentioned the Beach Boys track or a Beatles song or something, but “American Pie” topped them all, and that’s because people wanted it that way.
It’s almost like it was needed at that point too. A lot of times songs become successful because they’re needed right at the right time.
That’s a very good observation. I think you’re right about that. I think that what one of the many things that I’m sad about is the collapse in the United States, other than the environment, and course the animal kingdom devastation. Also, the art of songwriting and the communication of songwriters with the larger audience because there’s no way to really figure out what the audience wants, they’re almost illiterate. They don’t really listen to lyrics. It’s all kind of garbage with rhythm tracks, and stuff that’s said over and over again, like you’re in a mental institution, and if you listen to it enough, it’ll put you into a mental institution. It’s sad, it really is not music.
I hear this stuff on the radio and I have a girlfriend who is a lot younger than I am, she plays this stuff around the house, but I don’t hear any difference between one thing to the next. It’s all just noise as far as I can see, and that’s sad. That says something about people and something about what’s going on in people’s minds and in their hearts. Obviously, they don’t have a direction. They don’t have any kind of thoughts that really coalesce into something. It’s just blabber and we’ve lost that now.
I think that’s what made the 70s so magical. Musically, we all connected.
Once disco came in, we started down the mindless road of dancing and snorting coke and looking good on the dance floor and the hell with everything. I think that’s been the same ever since. All this stuff that I hear, like rap music, it’s nothing but dance music. That’s all it is.
What are some of the things that inspire you to write a song, because your songs cover so many different topics? What sparks that song?
Well, I have to say I was always interested in ambitious ideas that I would have and I never shirked ideas that would come into my crazy head, I always followed through on them. Regardless of how nutty it might be, I wrote a lot of songs I never recorded, probably 40 or 52. And there are all sorts of weird ideas that I had.
In fact, when they released the CD of the re-mastered “American Pie” album a bunch of years ago, they put two songs on there that were supposed to be on the “American Pie” album, one was called “Mother Nature” and the other was called “Aftermath”. And “Aftermath” is one of my more interesting attempts. It’s about somebody who’s in a mental institution and basically, the guy’s a murderer. But he starts, talking about his life, and I do some very interesting guitar work on that. I used to concentrate on that kind of thing. So, I would go in any direction that I felt like, and I said, that’s it, that’s fun. I want to do that. That’s interesting. I want to do it, and I did it.
I wrote “American Pie” because I wanted to write a big song about America. And I wanted to write a new song about America that had never been written before. Not “America The Beautiful”, or “This Land Is Your Land” or any kind of patriotic song, but something that would capture the emotion of America and the craziness of America.
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