Don McLean has seen his share of challenges and heartbreak. He’s experienced times of chaos and upheaval. There have been moments of such deep despair in his life that he doubted he would ever find a way out.

But each and every time, love had a way of seeing him through.

“Love is the most important thing you can have,” McLean, 75, explains in a revealing new interview with PEOPLE. “You have to love somebody. Hate is such a burden. It’s a complete waste of time. I love my children and I love my girlfriend. I’m crazy for her.”

Indeed, for the past five years, McLean has found an abundance of love alongside 27-year-old model girlfriend Paris Dylan. (McLean was married to his first wife, Carol, from 1969-72. Following the end of that relationship, he married Patrisha Shnier in 1987 but they divorced in 2016 amid domestic violence accusations.)

“She is the most wonderful person that I have ever known,” McLean says of Dylan, who initially gained notoriety on the MTV reality show Catfish. “I think of her when I sing a lot of my songs. But I especially think of her when I sing that song.”

The song McLean speaks of is his self-penned masterpiece “And I Loved You So.” Released in 1970 as part of his Tapestry album, the song was a romantic sentiment that harkened back to the classics McLean would listen to as a kid.

“I was 5 years old and I would sit at the bottom of the stairs and listen to all of these old radio programs and scratchy 78s on this polished mahogany console,” remembers McLean, who recently joined country group Home Free for a special rendition of “American Pie” as the timeless anthem celebrates its 50th anniversary.

And while McLean’s version of “And I Loved You So” didn’t go as far on the charts as he would have liked, it instantly became a favorite of many artists, with everyone from Perry Como to Glen Campbell to Harry Connick Jr. making the choice to cover it. But it wasn’t until Elvis Presley decided to take the song for a spin that it became an absolute blockbuster.

In fact, in a PEOPLE exclusive, McLean reveals that he was recently awarded a triple-platinum plaque to commemorate the sale of three million copies of Elvis Presley‘s Elvis In Concert in which “And I Love You So” famously appeared. 

“I still remember the day Elvis’ people called me to tell me that he wanted to do the song,” remembers McLean, whose career also included hits such as “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” and “Castles in the Air.” “He did the song just beautifully, even when he was going through his share of difficulties. For a time, it was like watching a guy on a ledge 10 stories up. He was certainly struggling, but he delivered. No matter what, he would deliver that song to his audience.”

And as lockdown continues to wear on despite vaccines on their way to millions, McLean says the continued timeliness of songs such as “And I Love You So” can’t be understated.

Because if the world ever needed a good shot of love, it’s now.

“We need good music now more than ever, if only to ground us in some sort of reality,” remarks McLean, who released his latest album Still Playin’ Favorites back in October and plans to embark on a World Tour later in 2021, pending the pandemic. “There is no place to put your feet, you know? It still feels like we are in quicksand in a way. We need things to keep our mental health in good shape and one of the things that can do that is music.”

Indeed, despite a career that ranks McLean as one of the finest songwriters in history, he is the first to admit that his life has held its share of difficult times.

“Watching my dad die right in front of me at the age of 15 definitely shook my world up,” McLean recounts quietly. “It was that moment that I realized we are all very momentary. No matter how you want to cling onto tomorrow, we are all just standing on a trap door. It’s a miracle, I didn’t go crazy.”

But it was also in those moments where he clung to love.

“You have to be in love with something,” he explains. “When I have had bad times in my life, I always loved my guitar. And now, I have Paris.”

And he plans to keep her, for a long time.

“I’m honored to have her as a girlfriend and a partner and we have no plans to ever break up,” he raves. “We are going to stay together and ride this pony as long as we can.”

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