Don McLean is one of the biggest names in folk music. He talks to Chris Bond about his musical career and his most famous song.
LAST month the original manuscript of American Pie, Don McLean’s musical masterpiece, sold for a whopping $1.2m (£806,000) at a New York auction.
The fact it was bought by a mystery buyer is perhaps fitting given that music fans have spent years poring over its enigmatic lyrics trying to second guess the various opaque cultural references.
The song became a cultural anthem in 1971 for a “generation lost in space” and over the ensuing decades has taken on a life of its own becoming part of the soundtrack to the lives of those who weren’t even born when McLean penned his career-defining hit.
American Pie, and the album of the same name which also featured another of his biggest hits, Vincent, made the singer-songwriter an overnight sensation. Within a matter of months he went from playing small clubs to performing in front of sell-out crowds in venues like the prestigious Royal Albert Hall.
He continued to be a big draw throughout the 70s – more than 85,000 people turned up to watch him perform in Hyde Park in 1975 – and since those heady days he has continued to write songs and perform at venues around the world.
In 1997 he, along with Billy Joel, joined Garth Brooks on stage at a gig in New York’s Central Park, watched by a staggering half a million people, which helped bring his music to a whole new audience.
McLean is back in the UK this month and kicks off his latest 15-date tour at York’s Barbican tonight.
His journey to music stardom, though, started back in the United States. He was raised in New Rochelle in the state of New York during the 50s and was there to witness the seismic birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
As a child he suffered with asthma and missed long periods of school which allowed his love of music to flourish. He performed shows for his family and friends, but it was the death of his father when McLean was just 15 that proved to be a pivotal moment in his life. “When he died he’d given his whole life to the company he worked for,” McLean says, speaking from his home in Maine. “He died young and had nothing to show for it except his briefcase which they gave to my mother, and I made a promise to myself that I would never have a ******* briefcase.”
By the time he was 16 he had set his heart on making a living as a musician. “It became an odyssey, that gave me the steel and determination to find a way to make a living out of playing my guitar.”
He grew up not just with rock ‘n’ roll but also the American folk tradition which by the early 60s had firmly taken root through the likes of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and, of course, a certain Mr Bob Dylan.
McLean spent six years honing his craft performing in clubs the length and breadth of America alongside the likes of Steppenwolf, Arlo Guthrie and the legendary Pete Seeger. In 1969, he recorded his first album, Tapestry, in Berkeley, in California, with students rioting outside the studio door as McLean was singing And I Love You So inside.
It garnered some appreciative reviews and was moderately successful, but gave little inkling of what was about to follow. When he started writing what became American Pie he had a vision of what he was trying to create. “I really wanted to write a big, epic song about America,” he says. “But I didn’t want to write a patriotic song or anything like that.”
The seeds of the song were actually sewn years earlier when he was still a teenager. “I’d gone to Canada and I didn’t know anybody. I’d never been away from home before and it was freezing cold. I went across the street to this dump where they were playing a couple of Buddy Holly songs on the jukebox and it reminded me of when I was at home.”
When he came to record his second album he wanted to put his songwriting skills to the test. “I wanted to do something really ambitious. I mean take Vincent, who would write a song like that? But I wanted to try different things and see what I could come up with.”
With American Pie he created a song that will continue to be listened to and enjoyed as long as homo sapiens walks the planet.
“Everything comes out full blown with me and the first part of the song I had immediately,” he says. “I recorded it on a tape and then started to think about it. I wanted to make a rock ‘n’ roll song and I had this phrase ‘American Pie’ which had a kinetic feel to it. So I had the first part, the chorus and the title.”
He wanted the song to be a snapshot of his country. “It fused politics and music together, it’s like a dream, but it’s all an illusion.”
The song and the accompanying record made him an overnight star. It could have easily become an albatross around his neck, but over time he has stopped worrying about trying to match its popularity. “As the years have past by I realised that nobody else could have followed that either.”
He still enjoys performing the song, as he does with all his hits. “I enjoy performing in front of people and it’s a big thrill to be able to knock an audience out with my music and my voice.”
McLean, who turns 70 later this year, is still performing and last year released Live In Manchester, featuring his 1991 concert at the historic Free Trade Hall.
As well as playing gigs he’s also lost none of his love for songwriting. “Not only have I survived but I’m still potent – and that feels good,” he says.
Don McLean plays the York Barbican tonight. For tickets call 0844 854 2757 or go to www.yorkbarbican.co.uk.