Don McLean: “I’m OK … You’re So-So” 3 INTERVIEWS

Today’s Guest: Don McLean, singer, songwriter, “American Pie”

 

(NOTE: The first interview below was done in advance of Don McLean’s 1983 appearance at the old London Victory Club in downtown Tampa; the next two were written from a second, single phone interview in 1986. My enduring memory of the Tampa show was taking a date to see the show and being invited backstage before McLean’s performance to meet him. That was cool; I was often invited to do that, but rarely followed through with the artists. But this was Don “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie” McLean and my date really wanted to meet him. We said hello, chatted briefly, and he took a far greater interest in my date than me. In fact, I was ushered out; she stayed. What I can’t remember, honestly, is if I left the show alone or not. Soon thereafter I became serious and exclusive with the girl I married. So I’m not sweating her or Don much after all these years. — Bob Andelman)

By Bob Andelman
August 4, 1983

Don McLean is a strongly opinionated, self-confident man. He is literate in his passions, comprised only occasionally by what one critic called his tendency to ”innate insight into dogma.”

The last time you read or heard anything about McLean was probably when his ballad ”Crying” broke the top 20 last summer. It marked a comeback for a folk singer who had never actually gone away. The underground of support for the man who made his earliest mark with the nine-minute epic ”American Pie” has kept him ever so popular in performance and brazen in conversation.

DON McLEAN podcast excerpt: “I followed Bruce Springsteen from the beginning. I caught him at Max’s Kansas City (in New York) when he was doing what l would call a Bob Dylan impersonation. We have very short memories. What we have around now is basically a lots of second- and third-rate cloning. We don’t have real art,” he says. “What we have is a younger generation that wants a new hero so they bought Bruce Springsteen. I don’t enjoy Springsteen’s music, whatever I’ve heard of it. It doesn’t reach me.”

Def Leppard is probably not the first and only contemporary band you’d expect to near praised by a man who testified that Buddy Holly’s tragic death was ”the day the music died.” He is, nonetheless, a heavy metal fan.

“Rhythmically, they’re very interesting,” he’ll tell you, your head reeling. “The different time signatures — I like it. You wouldn’t think so, but a lot of people who make one kind of music often listen to a totally different kind.”

Another surprise: McLean has no use whatever for Bruce Springsteen, not exactly a fellow folk singer, but the balladeer of a generation that followed McLean’s. “I followed Springsteen from the beginning. I caught him at Max’s Kansas City (in New York) when he was doing what l would call a Bob Dylan impersonation.

“We have very short memories. What we have around now is basically a lots of second- and third-rate cloning. We don’t have real art,” he says. “What we have is a younger generation that wants a new hero so they bought Bruce Springsteen. I don’t enjoy Springsteen’s music, whatever I’ve heard of it. It doesn’t reach me.”

In ten years, McLean expects there will be very few Bruce Springsteen songs … (the middle of this story is missing)

(The story resumes here) … was a concept, but who had any idea all that stuff would mean so much to people? There’s so much in the goddamn thing — we’re living that song. I can only be proud because I realize that it’s a prophecy. It was what happened and it is what’s happening.”

Don McLean could have made his whole career on the basis of “American Pie.” It is certainly the first song you think of in connection with his name, and he is obviously grateful for the embellishment. Yet he takes umbrage when someone like Paul McCartney is referred to as an ex-Beatle or Dylan as ”the sixties artist.” ”Is Sinatra a forties artist? ls Presley a fifties artist? It’s outrageous. (McCartney) has had 12 years of making music, hits galore, and he’s still an ex-Beatle. Must make him want to slash his wrists.

DON McLEAN podcast excerpt: “Although 90 percent of the time, I make records that are not commercial, there are those times when I will get a good song, have the right people in the studio and make a really big record. One of the things I’m trying to do as I get older is to take more of the guesswork out of the recording process, to make more of these songs that i feel are good into really good records. That’s where I think I’ve failed, if I’ve failed at all.”

“He should be, somebody who has paid his dues and given us a tremendous amount of pleasure and satisfaction. These little creeps that write about him shouldn’t try to bring him down to their level. All these guys fantasize that they were onstage but they haven’t got the balls to do it, so they all want to bring this guy down to their size…

“The only thing Presley had to do was die before people appreciated what he’d done and how great he really was. We enjoyed laughing at him. ’There’s that silly guy again with all his silly suits singing pop music.’ Then we realized we’d lost something very important to us,” McLean notes.

Towards the end of his energetic live performances, McLean turns a somber note by swearing to the audience that white music is ,nothing but rip-offs of black artists. He is emphatic about this, using the 1983 Grammy Awards as an example.

“They’re getting back at us,” he exclaims. “On the white side, they had John Denver, Joan Baez, Ricky, Skaggs, four guys in a gospel quartet all out of tune, and Men At Work, who stunk. On the black side: Stevie Wonder, Leontyne Price, Grace Jones, Gladys Knight and The Pips, and Marvin Gaye. They were just totally superior. Ricky Skaggs, I thought was a joke. I think John Denver is horrible. I’ve never liked him. I thought that Gladys Knight was tremendous.”

Music suffers from many ills today (besides thievery), not unlike society itself, in McLean’s starry eyes. illiteracy, he believes, is a leading factor.

“There’s no interest in ideas. We have interest in orgasm and fashion and that’s about it. We’re not interested in ideas or notions, concepts, any of that stuff. God forbid it should be ambiguous or mystical. No one ever realized that the audience becoming illiterate would nullify the wordsmith.”

Somehow, enough people have kept McLean going through the years in a niche all his own. He has never had a press agent and rarely does interview anymore because, rather dangerously it seems, ”you get what I think.” Pete Seeger, on the liner notes for Tapestry, hailed him as one of the most talented singer/songwriters he had ever met: “He has a clear, in- tense gaze, a clear voice, and a clear head.” And angst, lots and lots of pent-up angst for some reason.

A lack of clarity of image will always characterize Don McLean. ”l don’t belong anywhere. What I do touches on all the bases. I’ve gotten o everything I’ve ever wanted and I’ve done it all my way. ”So that’s it, no big deal. I think we should worship and treasure the artists that we have. Life is precious. Everyone should see Sinatra once in their lifetime. When he dies, there’ll never be another one like him… I guarantee you, when I’m not around anymore, they’ll go looking for my albums and they’ll find a lot of songs — ’Oh, I missed that!’ ”

• • •

By Bob Andelman
February 21, 1986

“I’m always up to the same thing, basically,” Don McLean says. “Writing songs and traveling the world. I’m always doing a gig somewhere.”

The man who gave the nation a taste of “American Pie” 15 years ago has never stopped giving concerts and composing musical commentaries on the world, although he has dropped from the recording scene.

McLean will appear at Ruth Eckerd Hall’s Heye Great Room for two shows tonight at 8 and 10:30. Both are sold out.

As McLean isn’t shy about saying, his voice has actually become better with age. “It’s never really been recorded right,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “On the records it sounds like a choirboy. My voice has gotten deeper and stronger over the years. When I record again, there may be a whole new perception of me because of the way I sound.”

DON McLEAN excerpt: “There were times when I was making ‘American Pie’ when I thought, God! this is the worst thing I have ever heard you guys play! They were like, ‘Oh!’ They’d never heard anything like it and they couldn’t play it. The piano player, Paul Griffith, who played with Dylan, jumped all over the song. He knew exactly what I was doing. And the piano was so much a part of that track, that he made the whole thing come together. If he had not been there, you never would have heard that song. He came along and made it right. Thus, a song which might have turned out to be a good song or a bad song turned out to be a classic because we made a classic record.”

McLean says EMI/America will probably release a greatest hits collection, which might lead to videos of “American Pie,” “Crying” and “Vincent.” (Spokespersons for EMI/America in Los Angeles and New York could neither confirm nor deny this.) His last album was Believers for the Millenium label in 1982. His last hit was the cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in 1981.

A SELF-PROFESSED “back porch expert” on the throat, McLean has been singing since he was 5. He took vocal lessons from an opera teacher at 12 and has been making a living “with my guitar, voice and my ideas” since his 15th birthday. McLean is now 40.

“You don’t hear about me having nodes taken off my vocal cords (as Kenny Rogers recently did) – I don’t have any (nodes). Most singers end up going to a vocal coach when it’s too late. A lot of people who shout and scream end up spitting blood out of their mouth after a concert tour. That’s not really the way to go. It’s sad, because they realize how much it means to them when they don’t have that frantic youth going for them anymore and they have to suddenly back-pedal. ”

Don McLean recorded “American Pie” in 1971.At 8 minutes 27 seconds, it was supposedly too long to be a hit, but it had that hook: “… and good 01′ boys drinkin’ whiskey and rye, singin’ this will be the day that I die, this will be the day that I die.”

“IT WAS A different time, many years ago,” McLean recalls of the era in which he wrote the song. “We were in the midst of sorting out a lot of turmoil in the United States, it was not the kind of glossy, narcissistic time like we’re in now. I think” there was a tremendous sense of loss in America as well as a longing for security. My song, I think, expressed that loss, and harkened back to the ’50s and Buddy Holly, a time period when America was really number one on the old international hit’ parade. Somehow, that song either created the need or opened the door to a flood of nostalgia. I’ve never figured out which.

“That, I think, is the reason why people responded so powerfully to it. I was mainly interested in expressing loss in the song, less interested in all this nostalgia stuff. A lot of movies have been spawned by the song.”

McLean says American Pie is “one of the all-time greatest hit records in history,” although he is quick to point out the final record was better than the original song. “There were times when I was making it when I thought, God! this is the worst thing I have ever heard you guys play! They were like, ‘Oh!’ They’d never heard anything like it and they couldn’t play it. The piano player, Paul Griffith, who played with Dylan, jumped all over the song. He knew exactly what I was doing. And the piano was so much a part of that track, that he made the whole thing come together. If he had not been there, you never would have heard that song. He came along and made it right.

“Thus, a song which might have turned out to be a good song or a bad song turned out to be a classic because we made a classic record.”

• • •

By Bob Andelman
July 25, 1986

"Vincent" by Don McLean, Mr. Media Interviews
“Vincent” by Don McLean

Ask Don McLean about having his cake and eating it too.

His answer will be about pie. “American Pie.”

“I’m mighty proud of that song,” the 40-yearold singer/songwriter said in an interview earlier this year. “I think it’s one of the all-time greatest hit records in history. I’d rather have my name attached to it than to some silly song about chirping birds or something””

Every Don Mclean song tells a story, and behind the creation of “American Pie,” his tribute to Buddy Holly, is another good story.

“I wrote it in my ex-wife’s house in Philadelphia – Part of it,” McLean says. “Part of it I wrote in the car. I think it was a Saab. I wrote the opening Part in my room in upstate New York. Then tr wrote the chorus going down the road in the car. About two months later I wrote the body of ‘Crossroads,’ and then I wrote the body of what is now known as ‘Pie.’

“It came out like every other song,” he adds.

The older “American Pie” gets, the more popular it seems to become. And with “classic rock” and other oldies formats all the rage, a radio listener is just as likely to hear the 8-minute song today as when it was released l5 years ago.

DON McLEAN podcast excerpt: “Although 90 percent of the time, I make records that are not commercial, there are those times when I will get a good song, have the right people in the studio and make a really big record. One of the things I’m trying to do as I get older is to take more of the guesswork out of the recording process, to make more of these songs that i feel are good into really good records. That’s where I think I’ve failed, if I’ve failed at all.”

“To be remembered at all, to me, is a wonderful honor,” McLean says. “But to have ‘And I Love You So,’ ‘Vincent,’ ‘Castles,’ ‘American Pie’ and a version of ‘Crying’ that stands up to Roy Orbison’s – to have a handful of songs like that, to be remembered by any one of them, I would be very proud of that.”

In conversation, McLean can be downright ornery about promoting his own work and denigrating just about everyone who has come along since.

“I think that those songs are damned-near perfect in a lot of ways,” he says of his own output, “even in terms of the records that were made. I think that’s an important thing to remember, as a music critic. You shouldn’t get the songs confused with the records. It’s like getting a screenplay confused with the film. You might start out with a great screenplay, but you choose the wrong actors, the wrong director and you come up with a bad film (from) a good story.

“That’s something to keep in mind, I think, especially when you listen to modern music today,” he continues,” where you really have almost all recorded power. (Take Bruce Springsteen’s) ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ I mean, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ is said 45 times, I think, in that song. That’s more just a chant. I haven’t heard it all the way through, but it’s probably a good, powerful record. The wall of sound is more of what people are buying today and less the song itself.”

McLean wasn’t always so quick to push his “Pie.” There was a time when the popularity of the song was so overwhelming, the singer wouldn’t perform it in concert. His stubbornness cut into ticket sales, giving him a bad reputation, and caused him to fade from view for a time. Maintains. “I’ve always had full houses for the most part, but I never drew as well as people thought I should.

“By the early ‘80s I was doing much better than I had before. Although I had never been a superstar in terms of draw, I’ve always sold out Carnegie Hall or Philharmonic Hall or whatever night club or college concert I did.”

Like many artists who found their returns diminishing in in America in the 1970s, McLean toured heavily in Europe, Australia and Japan, developing a large following there.

“Overseas my name is probably bigger because I really cultivated those audiences when other artists couldn’t be bothered,” he says.

The main credit for McLean’s enduring success, he believes, is the quality of the songs he had written over the years.

“Although 90 percent of the time, I make records that are not commercial, there are those times when I will get a good song, have the right people in the studio and make a really big record. One of the things I’m trying to do as I get older is to take more of the guesswork out of the recording process, to make more of these songs that i feel are good into really good records. That’s where I think I’ve failed, if I’ve failed at all,” he says.

Chances are, McLean suggests, that if he records another album or two, one of them will include another big hit.

“But the problem is really putting more than one together,” he concedes. “That’s where I’ve had difficulty. I have a lot of variety in my stuff. If the audience likes Don McLean singing a rock ‘n’ roll song, they might not like a ballad. If they like a ballad, they might not like the other thing.

“You hear a song like ‘Prime Time’ and if you like it, you might not like ‘And I Love You So,’ ” Mclean says.

In recent years, McLean’s songwriting has taken on stronger political and social stances. Among his latest compositions are “America’s Made in Japan” and one about wedding vows, “To Have and To Hold.”

“My albums are loaded with. that stuff,” he says, “because I believe that America needs to hear it. I am not one who believes in being totally an entertainer. I think that an artist should bring with him his philosophy to some degree, not to the point where the audience is falling asleep, but to some degree (he) should have a point of view.”

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Kicking Through the Ashes by Ritch Shydner, Mr. Media Interviews
Kicking Through the Ashes: My Life As A Stand-up in the 1980s Comedy Boom by Ritch Shydner. Order your copy today by clicking on the book cover above!

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