Don McLean: American Pie is about what’s between the lines

Far from tiring of his classic song, Don McLean is delighted it still touches people, writes Ed Power

DRY chuckle emanates from the back of Don McLean’s throat. “When people ask what ‘American Pie’ is about they’re missing the point,” says the singer of his iconic hit. “The song isn’t about the lines themselves — it’s about what is between the lines. The song is about what isn’t there.”

I had expected McLean to be somewhat jaded. For the past 44 years he has mostly been known for just one thing: ‘American Pie’. He has had subsequent hits, most notably ‘Vincent’, a treatise on depression dressed up as a valentine to Vincent Van Gogh. ‘American Pie’, covered with varying degrees of reverence by everyone from Madonna to Weird Al Yankovich, overshadows all his other achievements. In his position — and leaving aside the matter of lucrative royalties — some artists might be rather fed up.

McLean doesn’t look at life that way. He rightly regards ‘American Pie’ as one of the most significant artifacts of the rock era — as noteworthy as anything the Rolling Stones, Beatles or Dylan wrote. And he is happy to talk about it.

“The great mystery to me is that everyone seemed to ‘get’ the song the minute they heard it, even though they didn’t know what it was,” he says. “The concept appeared to speak to them. That was something I was really surprised by.”

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He wrote ‘American Pie’ at a low ebb. In 1971, McLean had been halfway through recording his second album — eventually to be called American Pie, too — when his record label informed him it had run out of money. Rather than put out McLean’s LP — whenever he finished it — they sold up to United Artists, the musical off-shoot of the film studio of the same name. To McLean it was the worst outcome possible.

“Being on United Artists was almost as bad as not being on any label at all,” McLean recalls. “They were the crappiest in the business. All they did was movie soundtracks. Now, they were making an effort to become much hipper — signing people like Bobby Womack and what have you. In the end they succeeded — they put a big machine behind Kenny Rogers. I’m the reason they had money. I sold a lot of records in the ‘70s: that’s where their seed capital came from.”

With so much upheaval behind the scenes, he feared his career might be over before it really had begun. He was also struggling with the album itself — which he felt overly low-key in its pacing. It needed something special. He wrote ‘American Pie’ staying at Cold Spring in New York state and debuted it in Philadelphia in March 1971, opening for his friend Laura Nyro.

“I wanted something fast — a lot of my songs just lay there. They weren’t really ‘jumping’. So I went for this other thing [‘American Pie’]. And luckily it crossed over.”

McLean was a self-made artist from the start. Nobody championed him; there were no huge marketing budget at his back. He felt a loner too — was intensely aware that he was operating slightly outside the mainstream of the music industry. “My expectations for myself were never high,” he says. “I had a very unusual way of writing songs and of thinking about music. I wasn’t at all like Bob Dylan or Simon and Garfunkel. I was completely different — I didn’t have a David Geffen at my side.”

His second biggest hit, ‘Vincent’, is striking in that it deals openly with mental illness, specifically the depression suffered by Vincent Van Gogh. At a time when such subjects were taboo it was, I suggest, enormously brave.

“As an artist you have to know a lot of songs,” he says. “I was aware there weren’t many about painters. I felt it was a wonderful idea — an idea nobody else had. I don’t spew out lyrics for the sake of it. I see each song as a different kind of painting, a different style.

“I don’t like to repeat myself in that sense. If you listen to one of my albums you can tell I do a lot of different things. In the case of ‘Vincent’, I thought of his picture Starry Night. It was a beautiful road-map for a song. I used a lot of imagery from that painting.”

Don McLean: American Pie is about what’s between the lines

McLean was born in New Rochelle, a wealthy suburb of New York. He was sickly child, forced to stay away from school for periods due to asthma. This gave him an opportunity to practice guitar. By his 16th birthday he was performing around Manhattan and secured an agent after high school.

Academically gifted, he rejected a scholarship from Columbia University to focus on music. He found a mentor in protest singer Pete Seeger and, with a grant from the New York Arts Council, toured by river the small towns of the Hudson Valley, honing the material that would comprise his first album, Tapestry — which became hit after ‘American Pie’.

My interview with McLean had to be rescheduled — though with good reason. That day we were to speak the original lyrics to ‘American Pie’ were auctioned at Sotheby’s London, earning a neat $1.2m. With bids coming in from around the world, it is understandable that McClean had better things to do than natter to journalists. “I’m going to be 70 this year,” he had told Rolling Stone in the run-up to the auction. “I have two children and a wife, and none of them seem to have the mercantile instinct. I want to get the best deal that I can for them. It’s time.”

“It was surreal,” he says today. “The two biggest auction houses in the world came to my home in Maine to discuss it. They both estimated it was worth, approximately what it sold for. I was pretty surprised. Had I not sold it I would probably have put it back in the box with the other lyrics and donated it as a tax write-off at some point. Nobody would have ever seen it again. I guess I played my hand pretty good.”

Don McLean plays Vicar Street, Dublin, May 31 and June 1; Cork Opera House, June 4. His new album is Live In Manchester

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