They’re Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter’s career. Here, he speaks with Don McLean about his classic “American Pie.”
To most casual listeners and purists alike, “American Pie” was a massive hit record. At 8:33, it was a second coming of “Like A Rolling Stone,” a long and winding anthem for its generation. A metaphorical tapestry of familiar characters and events held aloft by a killer chorus and an unstoppable arrangement. The ultimate FM album cut that unexpectedly went to #1 on the singles chart in six weeks, along with the album that contained it. The song was added to the National Registry in the Library of Congress, alongside “Over The Rainbow,” “Hound Dog,” and “In the Midnight Hour.” The original lyrics were auctioned off in 2015 for a cool million.
For Don McLean, however, it was a crucible of fire. An unnecessary rite of passage. The sword of Damocles hanging over his head at every performance. A cruel joke from the gods who grant you wishes you never wished for.
“Life always holds strange and quirky twists of fate that you can never predict or think will happen,” Don McLean told me back in 1973. “There can always be something sliding up behind you that makes you blind. ‘American Pie’ completely disrupted my entire value system.”
When it happened to the itinerant banjo player, the late Peter Tork, who was plucked out of Greenwich Village’s pleasant obscurity to become part of The Monkees, he turned philosophical (before turning to drink and wild orgies at his Hollywood mansion). “There I was, you know, racked with self-doubt,” he told me. “Do I really deserve to be here? And then, being a member of a synthetic group, I suffered from the criticisms. Those no-talent schmucks from the street. While in the meantime I wasn’t able to make the music I thought needed to be made. But one of the things that’s a blessing to me is that I’ve been able to accept things that weren’t quickly describable,” he said with a beamish grin. “The phenomena are the phenomena.”
It took Bob Dylan several years (and a spill on his motorcycle) to come to terms with his success, the purists in the audience shouting “Judas” when he strapped on an electric guitar, because that’s where his vision led him. He couldn’t have said it better than he did in “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” in 1981.
Got the message this morning
The one that was sent to me
About the madness of becoming
What one was never meant to be
A middle-class Catholic boy from the suburbs, Don McLean took the same cries of “Judas” (probably from the same purists) for daring to have a hit record, more to heart than most. “In effect my next album, Don McLean, is an effort to try and show the same audience that made that song, what it felt like from my end,” he said in that 1973 interview. “Rolling Stone magazine just tore me to shreds in the last issue and the very same things they said about me, I’m saying about myself in the new album.”
Listening to “The Pride Parade” from that album is a virtual therapy session.
And all at once you confront the emptiness of you
and there’s no one near enough to tell you what to do
Even today, nearly 50 years later, having been the words and the voice behind 20 albums and six Top 40 songs (10 on the Adult Contemporary chart), with a new one called Still Playin’ Favorites due out (containing ancient and creaky country, blues, rock and folk odes like “Tell Old Bill,” “Backwater Blues,” and “Six White Horses,” ie. the furthest thing from Top 40 fodder) McLean wanted to make sure his audience knew one thing about him above all else. “I’m not a one-hit wonder.”
I set very high standards for myself, maybe too high. I always wanted every song I wrote for an album to be different. I think I was heavily influenced by that because of The Beatles and before that, The Weavers. In my own unschooled kind of way, that’s what I was after. So I spent 10 years collecting songs for my first album, which came out in 1970. I kept adding songs to it because I was in the midst of this period when I was on the Hudson River sloop, where a lot of singers were around and a lot of information was coming into my head. [McLean was an original crew member of the sloop Clearwater, which Pete Seeger had built in 1969 after a lengthy fundraising effort. Seeger was trying to clean up the Hudson River, and used the Clearwater to that end, drawing attention by sailing the craft to Washington, DC, performing songs along the way with his musical allies.]
That album was turned down by lots of record companies, as many as there were out there. Finally, I met a great guy named Alan Livingston who ran Capitol Records and who signed the Beatles, the Kingston Trio, the Beach Boys. He loved me and he was my savior. He was my white knight.
It ruined my career because I was immediately branded as a sellout.I spent six or eight months promoting Tapestry. [McLean’s first album, released in 1970 on Livingston’s label, Mediarts. Carole King released her landmark album of the same name a year later.] I was on the road all the time, doing one-nighters and meeting with independent promo men. All the while, my record company was going under. I already had another album almost done. In fact, if you take “American Pie” away and you add “Aftermath” and “Mother Nature,” which were two songs that were supposed to be on the album but had to be dropped because “American Pie” was so long, you could have put out the album that way. Actually, that might’ve been a good idea to put that album out, and save “American Pie” for the third album, which would’ve come at a time when I had established myself. Of course, I didn’t know that then.
The record company going out of business was very daunting, but I still had to finish the new album. I wanted something long about America and different and really rock and roll, old fashioned rock and roll. That was my goal. I said, “To hell with it. I’m going to keep working on songs.”
I came up with the whole first part of that song out of nowhere. All the way up to “the day the music died.” It came out of my mouth in one go and onto the tape recorder. I was living in Cold Spring, New York. I looked at the lyric and I said, “Wow, what is that?”
I had always been so interested in Buddy Holly. I loved his music. When that whole crash happened, it was a real ache in my heart. So, I ended up bringing back all those memories of 1959 and the things that happened later.
The chorus didn’t come to me until about three months later. My memory of this may not be accurate anymore because it’s so long ago, but it seems like it all occurred in a three-month period. After I had that first thing I was thinking, “I’ve got to come up with the chorus.” I remember thinking that one day in front of the Butterfield Pharmacy in Cold Spring, which is on the Hudson River, across from West Point. I used to go to Butterfield’s a lot. There was a wine store next to it as well. So, I came up with the chorus walking into the damn store. I said, “I’ve got to write this down.” I ran home. It was several miles away.
Now that I had the chorus I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to speed up the verses and tell the story, but what was the story going to be? Well, I couldn’t figure that out, and then it just came to me. Because I figured out that politics and music influence each other, I decided I was going to make a song that went forward and toward it. I wasn’t sure what type of an ending it would be, whether it’d be a happy ending, or an apocalyptic thing.
You know, a lot of pretty happy people tried to be like Bob Dylan and be always miserable, but I couldn’t do that because I’m not that kind of a person. But, nonetheless, the song led to the ending, which was almost quiet, you know, the Gods from the Bible even jumped on the train and went to California, which of course is a garden of sin.
As I was writing it, I didn’t show the song to anyone. That’s now how I work. At that time, I had begun an association with Pete Seeger through my love of The Weavers going back to 1961. The ’60s were very exciting for me. Meeting people you only dreamed about. It was the most fun of any time in my life. Nothing has been even close to that since 1970. I was signed with William Morris. I was on the road with Ten Wheel Drive, the James Gang, Steppenwolf. Blood, Sweat & Tears took me everywhere and treated me really nicely. One day when I was home, Pete asked me if I wanted to sing at a festival in Nyack, and I said, “Sure.” I think it was at one of festivals that I sang “American Pie” for the first time, and it did not get a great response because it went on and on.
Meanwhile, United Artists had bought Mediarts, and they were putting a lot of money into turning UA into a better label. So, I went from thinking I’m out of the business to all of a sudden this thing went bang and it all changed. Somebody there heard the song and immediately cut all the slow parts out and made it chorus and two verses and chorus over and over at the end and put it on the radio, and I went to #1, just like a rocket.
I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t listen to the radio and I didn’t care. But suddenly William Morris was telling me, “You’re getting bookings in major theaters now, and college concerts in big halls.” It ruined my career because I was immediately branded as a sellout.
In the next five years, I played all over the world four or five times as well as doing 100 one-nighters in the United States. I played Carnegie Hall, but I didn’t do too well there at first.
Everything was on my shoulders. I am a strong person, but a lot came down at once. You had this #1 record. Now you’ve got to start working and proving yourself. It’s a hard job. Most people don’t realize how hard it is. It’s a grueling schedule and you have to be nice all the time. You have to succeed on stage all the time and you have to make recordings that are very good all the time, otherwise you’re done.
I got advice at the time from all of The Weavers. They were very helpful. Fred Hellerman was a good friend of mine. Erik Darling became a good friend of mine. I was right there with Erik in 1962, even though I was still in high school, when he had the hit “Walk Right In.” I would hear what it was like to have a #1 record. He’d be busy every weekend, playing these big shows, but he was very humble. He wasn’t a braggart or anything. He stayed in the same rent-controlled apartment around Columbus Circle.
I wasn’t so humble. I always loved cars. The first thing I bought with my royalties was a Mercedes-Benz 450SEL. The biggest one they made, electric blue with palomino leather seats. And that was the best damn car I ever owned, except for the BMW that I have now. Well, that threw The Weavers into a tailspin, because that was a message that I am not on your team. I am not the next folk-singing embodiment of an ideal. I’m an American boy and I want that Mercedes-Benz.
I never bought a Chevy. I don’t know why. I guess they should have given me one.