"American Pie" permanently etched Don McLean's name on the pop-music map at the end of 1971. It was the kind of song that got people talking, singing, thinking. The eight-and-a-half-minute folk-rock opus became a tombstone for the end of two ages of American innocence: the vision (and fiction) of simple life in the 1950s Eisenhower years, and the unredeemed hopes of the social and political revolutions of the 1960s. And, in some ways, it was McLean's epitaph as well, since he was never able to top or even match the overwhelming success of "American Pie." The song became a cultural phenomenon, later landing McLean on the cover of Life magazine as untold listeners tried to decode the song's meaning, something McLean himself declines to offer.
Almost 30 years later, "American Pie" came back in a multimedia rush, most notably when it was recorded by Madonna for the soundtrack to The Next Best Thing. It was also nabbed for the title of the recent teen gross-out sex flick, and even served as the tune to a Weird Al Yankovic parody of Star Wars titled "The Saga Begins." It's a song loved by many, yet probably hated by a considerable number as well, with a host of my music-critic brethren verging toward the latter camp.
I certainly leaned to the latter camp well before hearing it for the umpteenth time on pop radio in 1972. Eventually, I came to have an affection for it, and now I regard it with a nostalgic amusement that has little to do with its original impact. "American Pie" came back into my orbit at the end of the 1970s, when I road-managed McLean for a year and change, and had what I thought was a fairly close friendship with the man during that time and for a few years to follow. So with McLean playing the metroplex this weekend, and all these new slices of "American Pie" on the current pop-cultural menu, it seemed an ideal time to discuss the song's newfound popularity with the man who wrote it -- and catch up with a onetime friend with whom I'd lost touch.
Richardson's Wildflower Music and Arts Festival
This was not to be: His "people" in Nashville turned down my interview request with that old show-business saw of "a former obligation." Now, that just might be true. But since I once offered similar euphemisms to disappointed concert promoters and interviewers on McLean's behalf, instinct tells me he probably just couldn't be bothered.
No matter. I hardly need to talk to McLean to write about him, since I've already talked to him about his music and career probably more than any other journalist, much of that a sort of ongoing, casual discussion between friends. Since I spent a fair part of 1979 and 1980 watching and hearing McLean perform his music, I have an appreciation for his gifts that is probably rare among much of the rock-crit community.
I also happen to know the little-told story behind the writing of "American Pie." And now is about as good a time as any to tell it in print. No, I'm not going to tell you who the Jester is. I heard that question enough times during my road time with McLean, and even if I knew, I wouldn't tell -- for the sheer sake of being ornery. It's not like telling this story is spilling any state secrets; much to the contrary, I think it reinforces the notion of the song's considerable mystical power.
When "American Pie" hit, McLean was grilled endlessly about its meaning. The very act of asking a songwriter to assign specific meaning to a song is often useless. One of the best things about great music, at least in the days before music videos, was that a song's meaning could be so malleable. Often, the best definition for a song is yours -- whatever it means to you because of the way it applies to your life and way of thinking.
Of course, "American Pie" was doomed to be over-analyzed, coming as it did at a time when the entire nation felt a seismic cultural shift. A thumbnail definition might be that the Kennedy era had truly ended and we were fully under the influence of the Nixon years. The idea that we'd come upon "the day the music died" was palpable. The way the song's verses spun a pop-music and -cultural allegory -- references to the King and Queen, the Jester, Jack Flash, James Dean, and the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; snippets referencing previous songs; and a first verse that was clearly (as McLean has admitted) his reaction as a teenager to the death of Buddy Holly, an early musical hero of his -- captivated the public imagination in a manner as profound as any song did in the 20th century. It was parsed on the radio, studied in schools, debated in bull sessions among friends.
One thing I learned from my time with McLean is how an amazing amount of people could tell you when and where they first heard "American Pie." I can as well, though it probably has less to do with the song than the circumstances. It was the day after my 18th birthday, and I had just bought my first legal beer at the West End Tavern on Broadway in New York City, a venerable old jazz pub across the street from Columbia University (this being a time when, in most states, being old enough to vote and die for your country meant you were legally mature enough to imbibe). I'd heard snippets of "American Pie" on the radio and had caught its pop-culture buzz. So when I spied it on the West End's jukebox, I dropped in a quarter and played it, split in two on both sides of a 45 rpm single. It wasn't too bad.
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.
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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.