The spark behind Don McLean’s music

Singer-songwriter Don McLean performs onstage at The Canyon Club on November 3, 2017 in Agoura Hills, California. Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images.

By Rush Evans

Don McLean had already written one of the most devastatingly beautiful love songs ever (“Empty Chairs”), one of the most pure, spine-tingling love songs ever (“And I Love You So”), and a perfect pop gem (“Castles in the Air”). But the world would never have heard these songs — and certainly not the Elvis and Perry Como versions of “And I Love You So” — had it not been for the imaginative inspiration of two particular other songs, songs that would resonate with people for generations to come. To follow the nearly nine-minute epic tale of rock ‘n’ roll through a storyteller’s eyes, “American Pie,” with a mournful melodic masterpiece worthy of the work of its legendary painter subject, “Vincent,” was the stuff that music history is made of.

There are reasons that these two songs have fired the imaginations of so many for so long. Including me. I fell in love with “American Pie” first, as it was first released in the year of my enlightenment to the power of music, 1971, the year I turned 10. It was a good time to discover music, as the music that came over the radio back then was an endless world of original sounds, after rock music had begun to seriously spread its wings just five years earlier.

I can still recite the words of both songs, and I am not alone, as millions of music lovers still enjoy the same powerful memory. “The Starry Night” painting conceived on canvas by Vincent Van Gogh in 1889 was certainly worth a thousand words to all who had gazed at its beauty, but for young Don McLean, it inspired a specific set of words that became the narrative accompaniment for the painting. “Vincent” is a timeless musical classic by any definition, just like its preceding, very different McLean hit (though each told the story of a historical figure).

And now, 47 years after both songs first changed my world, I’m going to talk on the telephone with their creator.

“Vincent” has been enjoying a revival of sorts lately, partially because of a stunning and beautiful version by James Blake, viewed more than half a million times on YouTube. Also, a recent film called Loving Vincent brings the vibrant imagery of the Dutch painter to full animation in the style of his distinctive brush strokes. And when the Country Music Hall of Fame approached Don McLean for some artifacts to display for its steady stream of music loving visitors, he thought of this important song. “I said, ‘Well, I just happen to have the original manuscript that’s never been seen by anybody. It’s been home with me.”

When I asked him about the origins of the song, he humbly and matter-of-factly made a declaration that’s hard to comprehend for anyone transfixed by the song and its emotional beauty. “I’m not really a professional songwriter,” he said. “I don’t really have a musical point of view. I kind of invent songs. And I know quite a few songs from many areas of music, thousands of them, so I think I’m fairly good at finding out that this idea for a song might be a good one and that it’s never been done before. In each case, it’s like a new painting for me, if I were a painter. Who would ever think that a song like that would be a commercial success? When I was starting out, there was no style or sound to pigeonhole me. I would get the funniest looks for ideas that I would come up with. I would have to fight with everybody… the producer, the sidemen, in order to get them to play the song the way I wanted them to. In the case of ‘American Pie,’ it was two weeks or more of being in the studio to try to record the thing, and every time, I would say, ‘This is not right.’ The thing just laid there. It was awful. They didn’t know how to play it, and I couldn’t talk to them, because I had it all inside my head. They thought of me as a folkie, which I’m really not. I’m a songster of some kind. I sing real rock ‘n’ roll. I sing pop music. And I sing folk music, but I’m not a folk singer.”

American Pie, the album, opened with the expansive opus for which it was named, and from there, it was across the stylistic map, much like its hard-to-place artist with the American flag painted on his thumb on the front cover. Apart from the two hits, it also had a mournful piano ballad (“Crossroads”), a heartbroken acoustic masterpiece (“Empty Chairs”), a straightforward rocker (“Everybody Loves Me, Baby”), an anti-war folk song (“The Grave”) and a haunting banjo-driven traditional piece sung as a round (“Babylon”). McLean’s first album had barely made a noise, but this second album reached No. 1 two weeks after its release, and has since landed in the book of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

On the back cover, it says, “Dedicated to Buddy Holly.” Which takes us back to that iconic opening track. McLean has steadfastly refused to explain the meaning behind the multi-layered, somewhat impressionistic lyrics, though he has certainly never denied the obvious: this song is ostensibly about the death of Buddy Holly in an airplane crash in 1959 at age 22 and that incident’s impact on music, culture and rock ‘n’ roll. It was indeed, in many ways, the day the music died, though rock ‘n’ roll (as the song obliquely explains as it unfolds) evolved in many directions in the years that followed, directions that took pathways paved by the bespectacled kid from Lubbock, Texas. I assured McLean that this interviewer had no intention of asking him to explain any deeper meanings behind the song and its nuanced lyrics, as those are best left to the imaginations of its listeners. He was relieved.

I did ask, however, about the song’s genesis, how such a strange piece could emerge from the mind of a young songwriter. “It’s the same as your question about ‘Vincent,’” he told me, “in that there’s no way in the world that anybody could possibly think that this thing was gonna be anything but a long cut on an album that probably wasn’t gonna sell. I didn’t think that way. I was having a lot of fun with this, and I was also struggling with the studio situation in order to get the kind of record that I wanted.”

In the end, as the recording came together, it became “exactly what I heard in my head. Even better.” His new record label, United Artists, was daring enough to get behind the song and the album. “They just jumped all over it, and it was immediately No. 1. And the ride began. They knew something was in it, and they wanted to get it on the radio. Even the truncated version went to No. 1.” The album did well, not just the single, because everybody wanted to experience the entire song as it appeared on the LP, as opposed to the two-sided 45. “The technology wasn’t there,” remembered McLean. “If you went and played it on a jukebox, you had to play it twice, the first side and the second side.”

Indeed, the song was virtually four times longer than Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day,” the classic to which “American Pie” alludes throughout. Buddy’s music was important to the New York kid growing up in the ‘50s, but that is not all he listened to. McLean had a lot of physical illnesses growing up, including a well-remembered “allergy to school work,” which meant he was home a lot, listening to the radio and all it had to offer. “You’d have doo-wop music, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Ferrante &Teicher, I mean, anything went! I see music that way. Diversity, but under one roof, rather than having a separate category for everything.”

By the time he was a young man, he was incorporating all these sounds and developing his own sound in clubs, frequently in the northeast. “It was a wonderful thing to be able to say I can sing anything I want, get up on this stage at this coffee house with my guitar, and I can make a nice living doing this,” he said. “That was the beginning. Nobody knew that all these wires would get crossed with pop and folk and blues and all that stuff. Nobody knew that rock ‘n’ roll would become a religion. It was just throwaway fun, kind of like hula hoops or something, a ‘50s passing fancy for teenagers. And even the word teenager was a word coined to describe all these kids who were born after World War II who decided they wanted something else besides Glenn Miller. It was a wonderful moment. You didn’t know where it was gonna go, but you knew damn well that it was fun. The categories had yet to be established.”

Don McLean went on from that important period to have a rich and fulfilling career, releasing more than 20 albums, stylistically diverse, and he’s happy to report that there is a new one for 2018. “I’m amazed at how much love I’ve received, especially as I get older. The songs are being honored, the albums, tours are selling well and I’ve got a new album out — Botanical Gardens, it’s a whole different thing, all kinds of different songs again. I’m very pleased with it. I surprise myself with a lot of this stuff. I don’t know where it came from. It’s all there.” And like the American Pie album, the new record is a gumbo of musical sounds, a fine collection on which he somehow, somehow, still sings with beautiful clarity at age 72, sounding quite a bit like that 26-year-old behind the earlier record. And he is still driven to write. “I don’t do things for commercial reasons,” he says. “I just do what’s in my heart. These notions that occur to me, these ideas that form the basis of these plans that I make to write a song. I can’t help myself. I try to do nothing and stuff happens.”

I had to tell him that three years ago, I was at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, wholly unaware that the famous painting, “The Starry Night,” that inspired the song about its artist, Vincent Van Gogh, was there. I just turned a corner, and there it was. I asked him to forgive me the pun, but I was star struck in its presence.

“It has a very visceral painful power, and it’s very childlike,” he says of the painting. “That’s tricky to be able to do that. You can’t be thinking of yourself. So much of what we have in show business is self-directed, and yet really to be a good songwriter, you have to be outside yourself. Way outside yourself.”

I thank him, as I would never have known of, seen, or been in awe of this stunningly beautiful, childlike depiction of a starry night as envisioned by Vincent over a century ago had it not been for a seven-inch piece of vinyl printed up many decades after the demise of the artist’s loving hands. “I’m really happy that that’s the way it’s turned out,” he said. “I never thought that until there was a Van Gogh exhibit somewhere and they said that the song brought a lot of people to him. I’d never thought of that.”

I tell him that it did, just as “American Pie” brought people to Buddy Holly. “The fact that I’m connected with these artists and the fact that maybe I’ve brought some people to their work is probably the best thing that I could have ever done with my life.”  

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