CSFTD #22: Don McLean – American Pie


For the benefit of our youngest readers this has nothing to do with the US comedy teen de-flowering film franchise starring Jason Biggs and Alyson Hannigan, so settle down please.

If there ever was an outright classic folk rock song this eight and a half minute, 800-word epic about ‘the day the music died’ is it, even if the lyrics are often impenetrable (or at least were). There are people in the business that consider it to be the greatest song ever written.

Don McLean is a folk rock legend from America’s New York State. Bouts of asthma during his school years led him to discover and nurture an interest in folk music during his formative period and got him into the habit of performing solo shows for family and friends. He only briefly attended university but before dropping out he met and became friends with singer/songwriter Jim Croce.

For the next five or six years he performed at ever larger venues while pursuing another course of study, this time in Business Administration, subsequently turning down a scholarship to the renowned Colombia University Graduate School in favour of his burgeoning musical career. Benefitting from a State arts grant he performed widely throughout New York, often with his mentor, Pete Seeger.

His first album, Tapestry, was rejected many times over by labels before being taken on and released by a start-up, Mediarts. It was recorded during the student riots at Berkeley in California during 1969. Good reviews followed but interest outside the folk community was limited. Then came the big breakthrough. Mediarts was taken over by United Artists, which was in a better position to promote McLean’s second album, American Pie, which spawned two huge #1 hits, the title track and Vincent, about the artist Vincent Van Gogh. American Pie the single was written in New York State and Pennsylvania and it was first performed live in the latter, at a show in which McLean opened for Laura Nyro.

American Pie was a number-one US hit for four weeks in 1972 (the longest song ever to do so) but in the UK the single only reached #2 on its original 1972 release. A reissue in 1991 reached #12. It was also #1 in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The song was listed at #5 on the Recording Industry Association of America’s project ‘The Songs of the (20th) Century.’

Usually at this stage I comment on the lyrics, often putting my own interpretation on them. But in American Pie’s case that isn’t so easy, partly because McLean himself long eschewed talking about them other than to describe them as poetry and ‘beyond analysis,’ which is what the Head of Department used to say about my English dissertations at university. Just about the only factual statement refers to the death of Buddy Holly, of which he learned while on his paper round (‘February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver, bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step’). Indeed McLean dedicated the entire album to Holly, whose death in a plane crash at 22 was a personal tragedy to the 12-year old McLean.

Just as there are endless interpretations of Hamlet (I remember my English Master once saying there is a new one every day) so there are of American Pie but McLean was always at pains to declare that none of them were his and that “long ago I realised that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.”

However McLean then suddenly announced that the meaning to the lyrics would be revealed when the original manuscript was auctioned in April 2015 (for $1.2 million and out of financial expediency), opining that the world he now lived in was like the ‘last phase of American Pie’ with little poetry or romance. It was as eagerly awaited as Carly Simon’s revelation of just who it was that she found to be ‘so vain.’ In the sale catalogue notes McLean said that the song, which covers the 1950s to the 1970s, demonstrated how ‘things were heading in the wrong direction’ and life was becoming less idyllic,’ thus making it a ‘morality song.’

The notes also confirmed some strongly suspected references, such as Elvis Presley (mentioned as ‘the king’); Bob Dylan (‘the jester’ who sang for him and later ‘stole his thorny crown’); and the murder of rock fan Meredith Hunter by a Hells Angel security guard during a performance by the Rolling Stones at the Altamont Free Concert in California in 1969, which takes up most of the fifth verse.

“Oh, and as I watched him on the stage;
My hands were clenched in fists of rage;
No angel born in Hell;
Could break that Satan’s spell.”

“And as the flames climbed high into the night;
To light the sacrificial rite;
I saw Satan laughing with delight;
The day the music died.”

Other than that, it seems much of the lyrics are still shrouded in mystery, however many interpretations there may be.

In his career McLean has made 21 albums including a 2014 release of a live concert at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1991. A planned studio album in 2015 appears to have fallen through for unknown reasons. He is still touring and will tackle Australia this year. He also wrote innumerable songs for other artists. None of the albums that followed American Pie had the same commercial success even though he amassed over 40 gold and platinum records worldwide and it would be fair to say he is probably best remembered for American Pie the song and for Vincent. American Pie was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame of 2002 and in 2004 McLean himself was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Presenting the award the Country and Western star Garth Brooks described American Pie as ‘a cultural phenomenon.’

McLean’s advice to young songwriters who are starting out is “to immerse yourself in beautiful music and beautiful lyrics and think about every word you say in a song.”

©D J Bentley 2016