There are a lot of songs in the Canon of Classic Rock, but only a handful qualify as True Epics. Think “Stairway to Heaven,” “Freebird,” “Hey Jude,” “Layla,” “Hotel California” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
A quieter entry on that hallowed list is Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Clocking in at an expansive 8 minutes and 42 seconds, it’s a broad and deep sonic treatise on innocence, tragedy, loss, nostalgia and Chevys at the levees with a shot of whiskey and rye. Its composer is particularly proud of it, still.
“You mention those other songs, but they don’t talk about what ‘American Pie’ does or have the lyrics that it does. One of the things about that song is that it’s dense and uses the English language in a way no other songwriter ever really did before,” an energetic, opinionated and confident McLean offers over the phone.
“And it could have just as easily been a track on an album that nobody heard, but it didn’t turn out that way. So much about [success] in the music business has to do with alchemy and being ‘anointed.’ There are so many awful people out there who have been anointed who don’t deserve it. Oh…you don’t have the time for me to tell you all of it! Everything about my career and life has been a struggle. An uphill bike ride, okay? But I am very tough. And I don’t take no for an answer.”
For his part, McLean has never really offered a definitive interpretation of his most famous song. But this year has embarked on a tour pegged to the 50th anniversary of it hitting No. 1 on the Billboard charts and staying there for a month in early 1972 (though it was released in 1971). The tour makes a stop in Houston on March 25 at the University of Houston’s Cullen Performance Hall.
But it’s not all peaches and cream, still. McLean then goes out to dismiss United Artists, which put out the American Pie LP. “Worst record company in the business!” McLean offers.
“All they knew how to do was put out [easygoing instrumental piano duo] Ferrante and Teicher albums and movie soundtracks! But they were trying to put themselves out as a hip label. And I was their first guy. But they had ears, and the song was a hit!”
He also still stings about a decades-old bad Rolling Stone album review, calling out writer. “The guy’s name was Stephen Holden, he was a little worm!” McLean adds that the journalist later wrote him a letter of apology, but “wasn’t man enough” to put it in the actual magazine.
It tells the story of a lonely newspaper delivery boy (a fictional stand-in for McLean) in 1959 who discovers joy, friendship and music while on his route (the actual text and illustrations are credited to “a creative media team”).
“Judy Proffer [of Meteor 17] really took these interviews I did about my idyllic growing up in New Rochelle and Larchmont [New York] and did something with them. How that kid has had to face modern realities. And I love the graphics and the way it works together,” McLean says.
He and the company also plan on a series of sequels—some featuring the “Donny Boy” newsboy of the first at various stages in his life, and taking inspiration from other McLean tunes touching on suicide, mental health, music, love and the environment.
McLean’s other recognizable songs include the Vincent Van Gogh tribute “Vincent” (which many believe is titled “Starry, Starry Night”), “Castles in the Air,” “And I Love You So,” and a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Though a more biting wit can also be heard on the manifesto “Fashion Victim.”
A scorched-earth diatribe against sartorial and attitudinal superficiality originally released in 1991, it seems even more appropriate today in an age of Kardashians, Tik Tok, and “social media influencers.” On the chorus, McLean sings bitterly “I hate fashion/I hate it with a passion.” He returned to the topic years later in a song called “Addicted to Black.”
“Everyone was wearing black! It’s a go-to color! People are so safe; they wear black and sometimes white and that’s how they decorate their homes. Or safe earth tones,” McLean gets rolling.
“They don’t know how to use color. Cars are boring! How many silver, white and black cars do you see on the road! And very few interesting buildings are being built. It’s all glass and steel. It transforms an interesting town like Nashville into Atlanta.”
On another front, McLean admits to disdain of current movies with “all the sequels, prequels, and remakes"—especially the newer versions the '70s comedies The In-Laws and The Out of Towners. Of special interest to him, though, is the still-ongoing series of raunchy teen comedies in the American Pie series that began in 1999.
McLean—who owns the copyright to the title because of his song—said the original film’s producers initially approached him with an offer of $1,500 for the rights to use the name.
“I told them to go fuck themselves!” McLean says. His lawyer cautioned though, that if he filed an injunction to stop the film’s release, and it was projected to make, say, $40 million on opening weekend, Universal Pictures’ lawyers could argue the songwriter cost them that profit. And then try to recoup the amount directly from him.
Fortunately for McLean, as the film’s planned release date came closer, the composer got a power lawyer on his behalf, and Universal seemed to cave. McLean says he made a “multi-million-dollar settlement” and now gets a nice paycheck every time a new American Pie comes out.
Don McLean made some other headlines recently here in Houston when the conservative-leaning thinker dropped out of the lineup slated to perform at last month’s National Rifle Association convention at the George R. Brown Convention Center, just days after the school massacre in Uvalde.
“In light of the recent events in Texas, I have decided it would be disrespectful and hurtful for me to perform,” McLean said in a statement. “I’m sure all the folks planning to attend this event are shocked and sickened by these events as well. After all, we are all Americans.”
Today, the 76-year-old Don McLean says he’s got 120 more planned dates on the “American Pie” anniversary tour. And he’s excited about the release of an upcoming full-length documentary The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
“I’ve never been as busy or successful as I am now, in every way. Personally, career-wise, you name it. Everything is coming up roses!” he offers.
“To be my age and do all this. I’m leaving for Texas tomorrow at 3 a.m.! I sat here for two years, but always working. The pandemic gave me that time because I wasn’t on the road. But now I’m rocking and rolling. And thanks for talking about ‘Fashion Victim!’”
Don McLean performs at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 25, at the Cullen Performance Hall on the University of Houston campus, 4300 University. For information, call 832-842-3131 or visit UH.edu.
For more on Don McLean, visit DonMcLean.com