By Molly Barber
Photos Courtesy of Don McLean
There are verses of a song that I feel are just a part of my anatomy at this point in my life. Lyrics that are so engrained in my memory that I’m curtain they would show up on a cat-scan. Though the doctors would be left with a medical mystery, I have no doubt they’d be tapping their feet to the beat of the song as they read, “Bye bye miss American pie, drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry, them good ol’ boys were drinking whiskey and rye singing this’ll be the day that I die.”
No one can argue the fact that American Pie is one of the greatest pieces of musical poetry ever written. In fact American Pie was chosen by RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and the National Endowment for the Arts as the #5 song on their list of Songs of the Century. American Pie is also in the Grammy Hall of Fame and to top it off in March of 2017 the Library of Congress added it to its National Recording Registry as a “musical work that is culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
Don McLean, the creator of this iconic song, has a musical legacy that few musicians are able to claim. Since first cutting into the industry in 1971, he’s accumulated over 40 gold and platinum records world-wide. He’s been inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and he’s been honored by BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) for his “long-standing career and outstanding contributions to the music industry”; those honors included five million certified airplays for American Pie.
Artists who have covered his song “And I Love You So” include- Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Harry Connick Jr., Glen Campbell, Shirley Bassey, Emmylou Harris, Engelbert Humperdinck, Helen Reddy and Bobby Vinton. Other artists who have recorded songs by Don include: George Michael, Olivia Newton-John, Julio Iglesias, and Madonna. Drake also used Don’s 1977 album Prime Time for sampling for his song “Doing It Wrong.”
Don, who’s on the road for this latest tour promoting his new album, Botanical Gardens, set aside some time to talk with me.
Let me first start by saying, American Pie is a masterpiece. I love it. How long did it you to write something like that?
It took about three months, off and on until I had it written.
Was the plan always to tell a story about American culture?
I don’t think about anything that normal artists or songwriters would think of. I’m very open to letting the music take me wherever it wants to. I wrote the song until it ended, the story had to be told and it took eight minutes and 27 seconds to tell the story but I didn’t say ‘Oh gee, it’s eight minutes and 27 seconds, it’s too long. I should cut it down to three minutes. I don’t think that way. And to me, the poetry, the melody, and the song idea are paramount. That’s what matters- the beauty of the thing. Not whether it’s commercially acceptable.
In that song you use kind of mysterious terms- you talk about the jester, the lady who sang the blues… Did you write it subjective on purpose so it would be able to resinate with future generations?
I wanted to write something that was timeless. It was a combination of things, I was making fun of a lot of stuff. I was goofing around, I was serious. It was a lot of emotions all in one song. It’s really difficult to tell you how much is going on in that song because I’m making a lot of fun of a lot of things.
So if you could have any artists cover one of your songs, which artist would it be and what song would you choose for them to cover?
Well it wouldn’t be Justin Timberlake, not after what I saw at the Super Bowl. I don’t know, I’ve had so many great artists record my songs. I would have loved to have had Frank Sinatra sing one of my songs, that would have been marvelous. I’ve heard he did do Empty Chairs but it never made it onto an album but I can’t verify that. I’d love to hear the Rolling Stones do a song of mine like Primetime or Headroom or something like that. Even American Pie. I’d love to hear one of my favorite great rock n’ roll bands, and they’re the best, do some rock n’ roll song that I wrote.
I read that your song “And I Love You So” was covered by Elvis…?
Yeah, it’s a song that’s been recorded by many many artists. It’s probably the most recorded Don McLean song. Elvis Presley loved the song and did it almost every single show he sang. You can see him do it on youtube in the last year of his life, as part of those last two shows he did that formed the backbone of the Elvis in Concert album and TV special. He did it on that as well, it is on the album and you can see him do it on television.
That’s really awesome.
It really was (you know) because Elvis was super human. He wasn’t normal. He was a freak of nature of some sort and I don’t mean to say freak in a derogatory way, Elvis was superior in his intelligence, talents, looks. His sense of what it was he was doing and why he was doing it, all that stuff. So to be part of his story, there must be in addition to the album it was on, the concert and the studio album which was called Elvis Today, there’s probably 10 other recordings of concerts on YouTube where he sang that song.
Is there an artist out there you’d like to collaborate with?
Elton John would be fun to write a song with and make a recording with. He’s very musical and he’s very professional and I think that would be a really great experience.
If you got challenged to a lip-sync battle which song would you choose?
Oh I wouldn’t do that… Okay yeah, I might… Yeah, I could do that… The song I would lip-sync would probably be Frank Sinatra singing Please Be Kind. yeah “this is my first affair so please be kind”.
You’re a lyricist, it’s important for you to sing lyrics that matter, are there some that you created that you are exceedingly proud of?
It’s important for me to write what I believe in. I don’t think about writing important lyrics, I think people like Bruce Springsteen think about writing “important lyrics”- lyrics that sound like they’re important. I write about things that mean something to me and I don’t do it in a flamboyant way, I barley direct and it’s the idea really that either takes hold of the audience or doesn’t. For example, a song like Headroom, it’s the title of an album that I made, I do that song often. That’s an important song for me because so many people are squeezed into their lives. So much is going on and they can’t really get any breathing room, any headroom- they’re squashed. So a song like that’s a concept or a song like Prime Time which talks about America as a gameshow. That’s an important idea especially today since we have a gameshow host as president. A song like The Grave is a concept about a person who realized that he dug his own grave while he was fighting this war, he’s already buried himself. So It’s really the concept that matters, so really describe it and that’s half the battle.
Have you listened to any of the current singer/song writers (Vance Joy, James Bay, Brian Fallon)?
I haven’t listened to any of those guys. It’s no slur on them. I do listen to music but I really hardly ever hear anything I want to hear again. I’ve heard a lot of the big groups and I kind of know what’s going on. It seems to me that the audience is as much a part of the show as the artist. They go to do their part and they want to see and be seen. And they want to have a really good time of course and if you see a Coldplay show, those kids are having a blast, it’s a great time. Whether or not the music is special or the lyrics are up to my standards, it doesn’t make any difference. The point is- it’s entertainment and they are enjoying themselves enormously.
So for someone who’s never listened to your music, how would you describe it for them?
Well there’s a new term now, it’s called Americana and I would say I am at the top of the heap of that kind of artist because I do pop, bop, folk, blues, rock. I do all those things and I have always done all those things. In my latest album Botanical Gardens, it has those kinds of things on it and also the songs have elements of several different kinds of American music that’s blended together. And in addition they are my own ideas; like you take a song like Dreidel which is a completely off-the-wall idea and song. Or a song like Statue from the Prime Tme album, which is about the Statue of Liberty and is almost like a piece of classical music. So I try a lot of things, I feel I’m successful at everything I do. I just don’t always have a hit record but that’s not my goal. My goal is the idea.
Don’s craft, like wine, has aged to perfection. You can check out his latest album which drops March 23. You can visit his website don-mclean.com for information on where to get it or how to download it. And if you get a chance to see Don live take it, you know the song Killing Me Softly? Well Lori Leiberman, a folk singer from the west coast, saw Don in concert and had a surreal experience. “I saw him at the Troubadour in LA… I was moved by his performance, by the way he developed his numbers, he got right through to me. (Strumming my pain with his fingers/ Killing me softly with his song / telling my whole life with his words)” Lori told the experience to Norman Gimbel and from there he and a team wrote the song Killing Me Softly, who Lori herself sang but became more widely known with Roberta Flack and then later the Fugees.
Talking with Don is something I won’t forget, even though I didn’t get the inside scope on some of the mysterious language used in American Pie, it was an experience that I got to cross off my bucket list. We may never know who the jester is or the woman who sings the blues but that doesn’t take away from the song, I think if anything it adds to it. The mystery in those verses makes it special to each of us for different reasons.