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But after hearing it a few too many times on the radio, I started changing the station. I didn't dislike it as intensely as some did. I'd already developed a voracious maw for music: If a song didn't stick right away, too late; I was quickly on to the Next Big Thing. McLean's next hit, "Vincent," (aka "Starry Starry Night") was a pleasant enough number, interesting for its tribute to Vincent Van Gogh. But by the time "Dreidel" hit the airwaves, it took one or two listens before I'd be jabbing at the car radio buttons each time it came on.
McLean did later again grab my ear in my college years, when I brought home from the campus radio station an extra copy of his Homeless Brother album. It would later be rated in the Rolling Stone Record Guide (in which I also was a contributor) as "Worthless" -- one of the most unfair judgments my peers have ever passed, though indicative of the ire McLean seemed to raise in some critics. I still can't fully understand why, but my guess would be, in shorthand, that they found McLean's music irritatingly collegiate. Odd, too, as my college roommate started playing Homeless Brother regularly. But other than that, McLean was a faint blip on my rather crowded musical screen.
I came to work for McLean via road-managing another artist, the brilliant but little-known African singer-songwriter Tony Bird, who was managed by McLean's manager. (Side note: a Rolling Stone article from the late-1960s describes McLean's manager, Herb Gart, as "the worst manager in the music business," a dubious title for which the man was certainly a contender.) Road-managing McLean at the time had to be one of the easiest gigs in the business. Touring solo, it was just him and me. My job was simple: Handle the travel arrangements, carry one of his two instruments (guitar and banjo), drive the rental car, laugh at his jokes and quips (which were funny), make sure the sound was OK, come to the side of the stage and get the banjo from him after he played "Vincent" at the end of the show, collect the money, and roll the joints. It was a cakewalk.
But what I learned during our road time was that McLean was far more musically gifted than I had thought. It is no mean feat to go out with just one instrument and mesmerize full clubs and halls. But McLean, being groomed in the folk tradition, did it masterfully, never failing to earn his encore. He had no set list and would pull out different songs from the hundreds he knew with amazing regularity. I came to appreciate the supple depth and range of his voice and admire his ability to play a rhythmic guitar in a style that made a band seem superfluous. As we shared a number of mutual interests -- like such '50s rock-music icons as Elvis, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, and Eddy Cochran, as well as the touchstones of folk and classic country, and horseback riding and cowboy movies -- we ended up spending time together not only on the road but off.
I can't recall where or when McLean finally talked to me about writing "American Pie," but I do remember the conversation well. He told me he'd had the chorus running around in his head for a while. Then, one day, he sat down, and in about half an hour, "American Pie" more or less wrote itself (remember: it was an eight-minute-plus song). "I didn't plan anything out," he explained. "I was just grabbing these things from this catch bag of cultural symbols and throwing them in there." It wasn't some master plan he mapped out to encompass the cultural tremors of the times. It was what Townes Van Zandt used to call a "sky song," because they just drop out of the sky. At those creative moments, it's kind of like God is writing the song and you happen to be lucky enough to transcribe it.
So is it any wonder that McLean has never participated in the fervent analysis of something that just more or less blurted out? There is a fairly credible line-by-line explanation of sorts on the McLean-sanctioned www.americanpie2000.com website, with a disclaimer of any approval by the song's writer. I still wish I had the deconstruction of "American Pie" that came into the management office in which some genuinely obsessed nut did a line-by-line that claimed the song was about Europe between the First and Second World Wars. Cracked me up pretty good (especially when, after linking a few lines to the Versailles Treaty or the Weimar Republic, the analyst wrote, "I don't know what this line means"). I called McLean to share the laughs with him, and he would have none of it.
McLean knows how good "American Pie" has been to him, if even for the hassles that came with it. I'm sure he's savoring how its theme was renewed for a millennial return. These days the once-dedicated solo performer is out with a band and playing Saturday night at Richardson's Wildflower Music and Arts Festival. Amid a lineup that reads a bit like the '70s-music version of Night of the Living Dead -- Kansas, Joe Walsh, ELO (sans Jeff Lynne), Isaac Hayes, and War -- McLean might just be a dark-horse treat. I've often pondered why he seems a bit like Rodney Dangerfield compared with the likes of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell and the favor they enjoyed, even to this day, because one thing I learned road-managing McLean is that there's so much more to the artist than "American Pie." And having seen hundreds, even thousands, of other singer-songwriters, I still hold his abilities as a singer and performer in high esteem. Yet here we are, nearly 30 years after "American Pie," and it has come back around like Halley's Comet, or maybe better, Holly's Comet. There are some things you just can't escape.