Some forty years since Don McLean’s “American Pie” first hit radio airwaves, it remains one of the world’s most remarkable songs, as mysterious, expansive and anthemic as ever. It came from the same guy who wrote the beautiful “Vincent” and countless other classics. McClean reflected on his career for us while promoting his new autobiography, American Troubadour.
On writing “American Pie”
I was trying to create a dream. So there were lines in there that were dreamlike, almost, in order to connect other concepts that I had that were semi-real, but it was a dream and the idea came from the idea that politics and music flow parallel to one and other.
I wanted to write a song that summed up everything I felt about America and music, and I did it, and it turned out beyond my wildest dreams. It didn’t take a long time to write. The body of the song was written pretty quickly once I got the gist of where I was going. The first part, the opening part and the chorus, I had for a few months. I couldn’t quite figure out where to go with it. Then I decided to speed it up and change it. So I found a way to do it. The [Buddy Holly plane crash] is the start of it. But then it moves onto a whole other realm.
On producing “American Pie”
It was a well-written song, and I felt it was a really good idea. But when I first played it, people yawned. They didn’t know what I was talking about. It was way too long. It was just verse-chorus-verse-chorus but we broke that up by having a slow beginning and a slow end. Ed Freeman, who produced the record, deserves a lot of credit for making a record out of it that was very, very special. And which was commercial. I also deserve a lot of credit, because I made the band play it until it was right. I had to fight on so many things with people who were my allies. Ed Freeman and I damn near killed each other a few times over some of this stuff. I said, “This is not right.”
Finally, we got a guy named Paul Griffin, a black piano player. He came in and he just jumped all over that song. He understood exactly how to play that song, and he played the living hell out of it. And I drove that guitar right up his ass, in his ear phones, my acoustic, and that’s what made him jump all over it, and that’s how it happened. And then I said, “Now you’re talking. Now we’ve got the track.” This stuff isn’t easy. If I’d have given in, we would have had a lousy track and you’d have never heard the song.
On listening to classics
You have to have great music in your head. Cole Porter, Gershwin. You’ve got to put good stuff in to get good stuff out, if you want to write songs. You’ve got to go back to the Irving Berlins and The Beatles, and the good stuff from the 1950s.
On writing “Vincent”
I read a book about [Van Gogh] and decided to write a song. But how will I write a song about him that doesn’t sound stupid? And I figured the way to do that was to look at the “Starry Night” picture. And I came up with this idea to use him, to use all these images I see and tell the story with a verbal or poetic representation of the colors and energy [of his work]. That was the plan, and it just clicked.
“This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you” is the last line. That line came while I was writing. A lot of people feel that way about themselves. It’s one of those lines that people take to heart. They think, well, it is hard to be in the world, and maybe I’m not right for the world. A lot of us feel that way.
On his early days making records
I was completely devoted to music-making in those days. I was in love with the record business, and I was in love with making records, and I was in love with the studio. It’s all gone now. I don’t like what they replaced it with. It used to be about creating something beautiful, something that would last. Now it’s computer music, and it’s nasty, mean and negative. It’s music that doesn’t help anyone.