In an interview with The Telegraph Online, Don McLean talks about the noble causes of his time and the lack of substance in today’s music
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die
One of the most recognisable songs of all time, American Pie is turning 50. A rock ‘n’ roll epic that starts out as fun but turns sombre with each passing verse, it is still, amazingly, also a party standard. How so? Ask its creator Don McLean. Where exactly is the levee? If the king was looking down at the jester, was it Elvis, blessing Dylan? “Nimble Jack Flash” may have sat on a candlestick and Lennon may have been reading Marx while the “quartet practised in the park”, but it was also about the day the music died. The cruel passing of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J. P. Richardson in the February 3, 1959 air crash was the spark that ignited the timeless metaphoric lament of American culture; but what if they were still with us? What song would they be writing today?
American Pie spawns all this and a lot more. It is fifth on the Recording Industry Association of America’s songs of the twentieth century countdown. Judy Garland’s Over the Rainbow is at the top, while Jimi Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower is at No. 365. But Don McLean is one singer who has captured the imagination of his country like few have with his one song. So much so, his songs are also among the most covered in our city of Calcutta. “He writes ‘perfect’ songs, a natural union of lyrics and melody; a perfect blend of sophistication in thought and in tune,” notes music director Neel Dutt, who has been covering his songs since childhood, and rattles of many other favourites like Castles in the Air, Homeless Brother, Winterwood. “He writes and sings these emotional songs without making them saccharine sweet,” says Saugata Banerjee, frontman of the folk-rock ensemble, Jellibellies. “McLean is a master melody-maker with the gift of the gab… it’s amazing how we still sing and listen to American Pie and Vincent, thousands of miles away from their place of origin,” says Jaimin Rajani, singer-songwriter and documentary film-maker, who played a huge part in helping The Telegraph Online connect with the Mclean management.
Don Mclean is 75 years young now, firm in the belief that everything has to “come back to where it started”. Outspoken enough to declare he’s uninspired by the present-day sights and sounds, but harbouring enough of those 60s chops to launch his own YouTube channel and plan a huge celebration of American Pie next year when the song turns 50 with a world tour, a broadway show and a children’s book. He is chuffed about Bob Dylan’s dark brooding in Murder Most Foul _ “I enjoy watching it create its own history” _ brutal about today’s songwriting _ “it’s mechanical… nothing really comes close to the music of the 50s, 60s and early 70s” _ controversially unwavering about his politics _ “it isn’t about race, it’s about radicalising the population” _ thankful about the years spent with guru of compassion Pete Seeger and delightfully sporting about the many parodies his iconic song has inspired.
McLean spoke his heart out to The Telegraph Online from his home in Palm Desert, California, on Zoom, answering all that I threw at him. But he is still not saying where the levee is. Excerpts.
TTOnline: Your song, American Pie, starts off by talking about falling in love with a song. Then, it gets dire, unravelling itself verse after verse.
The song has a number of parts to it. The first part, the piano part, the introduction is a long song in itself actually. It could just be standalone almost. Then the chorus and the verses are a whole big thing; and then the way it ends, it repeats the idea of the opening. You have to have a certain circularity in music and art and everything. It always has to come back to where it started.
American Pie, released in October 1971, is seen as a metaphor of the decline in American culture. And today, 50 years since it was written, every line seems to resonate with a past that is playing out in various forms today.
Whenever I write a song, I am very careful about the language that I use. I don’t use language that is current language; you know, the kind hippies of the 1970s would use. In my songs, I always use a higher form of English and sometimes words that people don’t recognise automatically. Because I love the English language … So that’s the reason why I think it sounds that way to you.
Also, American Pie celebrates the music of the past.
I am a very nostalgic and sentimental person in a lot of ways. And I am probably deluding myself…(but) when I think back to the music that I actually like, it’s usually from the 1950s rock and roll, you know the things that were on the charts in America, and that was the golden age of my time. Once I became famous in 1970, it became work, a job and business. From 1960 to 1970 was an adventure. I was trying to find my way and I didn’t have any idea, you know, where I’d end up. But I never ever thought that I would be as famous as I am and as successful as I became. I never thought of that.
You have often been asked to explain the specific references in your song.
I have been asked these questions many, many times because I know that the song asks to be talked about that way. And everybody that hears the name Don McLean, they think, oh boy we are going to get to ask those same questions again. So, I don’t really talk about it because if it were a song that was meant to be spoken about in a fun way, I would do it. But it’s not a fun song. It’s a trip of some sort and I don’t want it to devalue the lyrics. Because I did not have (a single idea), I had multiple ideas in my head all the time about everything. So, I don’t really talk about that.
On a lighter note, when you were asked what the success and enduring quality of American Pie meant to you said, “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.”
Yes, that quote has been said a lot over the last 50 years. Sometimes I say it in concerts and people applaud and say, ‘Hurray, you’ve made it and you don’t have to work’. But I have worked steadily for 50 years, actually 52 years as I have never taken any time off since 1968. Except for now, because of this pandemic, I have been home for six to seven months. You know, I am tired of it but I have to do what is necessary because I have asthma and I certainly don’t want to catch this virus and end up in the hospital.
The day the music died is about the February 3, 1959 air crash that took away Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J. P. Richardson. Long after artistes/ musicians / writers are gone, they live among us through their ouvre. But what if some of them weren’t taken away from us? What song would they sing today?
You know everything is connected to youth, and your observations of the world as a young person before you are corrupted, and your senses are dull. That’s why, you don’t make it in pop music probably past the age of 21 or 22. I was probably 24 or 25 when American Pie hit, but most artistes would be 19 or 20, or even 18, and they would not have gone to school. So, you can’t really take an old man like me and say what would I have written as a young man now.
How do you react to today’s world?
All I can say is that what’s around now is not inspiring to me. The music I hear, the ugliness of a lot of what I hear and see is a turn-off. Back in my time, we had noble causes, like civil rights, we had this horrible Vietnam War that was going on for ten years and getting worse and worse. … and one of the reasons why we were so active politically is because we had been tricked. And I think that’s why people would set cities on fire over this war and how it converged with the civil rights movement.
Nothing happening today in America is anything like what was going on in the 1960s and early 1970s when American Pie, my album, was written. It was a different world. People were politically aware. And they were out to express their feelings. People are very corporate now. And most of them are afraid to say anything.
What are your causes?
Well, I did what my instincts told me. I tried to tell the truth. I wrote songs like Orphans of Wealth, it’s about poverty. I wrote Tapestry, which is about the environment. And I wrote American Pie and I wrote Vincent. I wrote Babylon, which is the song of the Green Party in Germany, and I wrote The Grave that is an anti-war song, and Nineteen-Sixtyseven, which is another anti-war song, and many other songs… So, I have always told the truth and I am not an entertainer. I have aspects of what I do that are entertaining, and American Pie is probably the most entertaining thing I ever did.
It’s so popular that there are parodies too.
Yes, people are always interested in it and having fun with it. I mean, there are many great parodies of American Pie. When they didn’t find any collusion in the Mueller Report (on investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election) there was a parody of the song titled, The Day Collusion Died. Those are funny and they pop up all the time.
Tell us about Vincent. How did that song come about?
That song came about when I was living in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In 1969 or ’70, I don’t remember, I read a book about Van Gogh and learnt that he had an illness, a mental illness of some sort, and that his brother had the same illness. So, I thought it would be fun to write a story about him, a story song; you know, a biographical song. You have to be very, very careful because a song like Vincent can veer over and can be maudlin, clawing and it can be a joke. Or, on the other side, it can be too cold, too factual. So, you have to find a soft way of expressing the life of a gentle person who was nonetheless a very great artist. So, I used one of his most famous paintings (The Starry Night) to simply tell me what to say about him. I used the imagery that I was looking at.
How do you decide which song to write?
Every song has a key, if you will, which makes it a good idea rather than just being something that could go anyway. You have to find the right vehicle in order to express what it is you want to say. And then you have to have something to say. And you have a lot of people, kids specially, asking me a question like, ‘What would you say to a song writer? And I say, ‘You know, you have to have something to say.’ If you just said that ‘I am going to go to my room and write a song everyday’ then you’re just going to write a dumb song nobody ever cares about. But if you have something you want to say, then you write a song about it until you’ve said it the way you want to say it.
How do you know when a song is ready?
The idea has to be the one that I really want to express. Like, say, Prime Time, which is about America as a gameshow. That to me has come true because we have almost like a gameshow President now and everything about us is all about theatrics. There is very little substance. And the same with the music. It’s mechanical, made by machines, mostly now. All the shows that people go to see are all very theatrical. Costume changes and huge screens, balloons dropping down, you know…
Back in your time, what was the music you were listening to?
I was listening to all the stuff that was on the charts, the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, The Kingston Trio, and the single guys like, At The Hop, Skyliner song. In fact, I made a really nice record of Since I Don’t Have You, which is one of the best records I ever made. Then, you know, I really loved the Beatles and the Stones; and I was very impressed with the early Bob Dylan records. I had never heard anybody use language like that. I was just a kid, and a long way from making my first record. And I never found anything to beat that stuff. Nothing really comes close to the music of the 50s, 60s and the early 70s, I guess.
We live in divisive times. As someone who has never shied away from being political, what is the song you will be writing today?
You know, there are so many popular concepts that, in my opinion, are incorrect. They are floated out there to make people feel virtuous, they make people feel righteous. But they’re wrong. The fact that people are saying America has systemic racism… that may have been true in 1964, but it’s not true anymore. And yet they keep saying it. Yet every police chief is black _ that I see on TV _ there are many black women who are judges, most of the police are black, or many of them, teachers are black. It does a dis-service to the black men and women who have risen in society and are a big part of the bureaucracy. But the thing is it’s not about black and white. It’s about how Left wing are you. Are you radical enough? They don’t even like Obama. They think Obama is just doing the White man’s work. So this isn’t about race, it’s about radicalising the population. And it’s going to fail because that stuff doesn’t work. It’s never worked in any communist country.
That brings me to Pete Seeger. You knew him well. One song he would often get his audiences to sing along was We Shall Overcome.
Yes. I knew Pete Seeger, who was a communist, very well. And I really liked him a lot. He was a very interesting man. I did not agree with his politics, but I agreed with many of the things that he said. And I was very enthusiastic about a lot of the things he was doing, especially those centred around the environment. I was with him a lot for about seven years. And during that time, I did a lot of shows with him; many, many shows. Often times there would be a scientist or someone like that who would give a little talk to the audience and tell them, you know, that in 40 years, if we keep going like we are, the polar ice caps are going to melt, the nitrogen in the ocean is not going to allow you to have enough oxygen to feed the fish, we are going to have more and more higher temperatures. And everything they said is happening. I have lived long enough to see it all happen. It could have been avoided if we’d listened.
True. Pete has been to India a number of times. I must also tell you that your songs are very popular in India, too. In Calcutta, American Pie and Vincent are covered widely.
Wow that’s amazing. I am very gratified to hear that. Thank you for telling me that. There are a lot of good pop singers that have come from India in the world. That’s for sure. There’s a lot of musical appreciation there. I would love to visit there someday.
Thank you for talking to us. And as you said, everything has to come back to where it started, we’ll end with these words. Your words.
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
And they were singing