Forty years after his iconic “American Pie” catapulted to No. 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart, Don McLean says he never tires of singing his signature song, though he does “get tired of talking about it.”
Even so, the singer-songwriter willingly discusses the 8½-minute opus, which to his amazement dominated the charts for four weeks in 1972, and to his pleasure remains a rock ’n’ roll anthem that intrigues new generations of fans about “the day the music died.”
“I never expected to have hit records. I wasn’t really shooting for that. I was an artist,” says McLean, 66, who lives near Camden, Maine (pop. 4,850), with wife Patrisha and children Jackie, 22, and Wyatt, 20.
“American Pie” helped define a generation of American youth and brought instant stardom to McLean, setting the soft-spoken guitarist on a lifelong international performing tour.
In 2001, the pop-folk-rock classic was voted No. 5 among 365 songs of historical significance in the 20th century in a poll conducted by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The song’s composer is the subject of a new documentary, Don McLean: American Troubadour, released in conjunction with a new double CD of his biggest hits.
Emmy Award-winning producer-director Jim Brown says he chose to explore McLean’s life on film because he epitomizes a true American artist. “To me, he is a guy who can play like Doc Watson, sing like Frank Sinatra, and I think he’s probably the best songwriter America produced in the 20th century,” says Brown, 62, of New York City.
While McLean penned hundreds of compositions including hits such as “And I Love You So” (1970) and “Vincent” (1971), he remains best known for “American Pie.”
The song celebrates the joy of music, while capturing the nation’s loss of innocence as America shifted from the simplicity of the 1950s to the social and political upheaval of the 1960s.
The lyrics sprouted from McLean’s memories of folding newspapers as a 13-year-old paperboy in February 1959 in New Rochelle, N.Y., where he read headlines about rock ’n’ roll stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper dying together in a tragic airplane crash. McLean recalls his surprise when, more than a decade later as he searched for an anthem to close his show, the memory evoked the first words of “American Pie” about “the day the music died.”
“It just came out one day. I expressed this notion and I left it for a long time and then figured out how to write the rest of the song,” he says.
McLean, who maintains publishing rights to his songs, says he was lucky to be in the right place at the right time with “American Pie,” and he believes his music catalog is a significant artistic legacy. In 2004, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, joining an elite roster that includes George and Ira Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Carole King, Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton.
“Frankly, I felt my music was different from all those other guys, whether it was James Taylor or Jim Croce or whoever it was,” he says. “And I thought and believed that my songs lasted as long or longer than any of those, and I still think that.”
As for what “American Pie” means, including cryptic lyrics that remain the subject of curiosity and debate, McLean is vague.
“It is what it is,” he muses. “I’ve watched people love it, sing it, grow old with it, pass it on to their children. Probably that’s the answer.”