American Pie singer-songwriter Don McLean will perform at Bellefontaine
“A long, long time ago / I still remember how this music made me smile…”
It’s been a long, long time since singer-songwriter Don McLean wrote those words, the opening lyrics to his classic song “American Pie.”
The seminal song from McLean’s 1971 second album, also titled “American Pie,” takes nearly nine minutes to weave its way through pivotal moments in popular culture and broader American history. The song is peppered with allusions to such things as the death of Buddy Holly (“The Day the Music Died”) and the counterculture (“Helter skelter in a summer swelter”).
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As part of a tour to commemorate the song’s 50th anniversary – which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in January 1972 and remained there for four weeks – McLean will perform at the Holland Theater in Bellefontaine on Thursday.
Ahead of his Ohio appearance, the 76-year-old singer – whose other notable songs include “Vincent”, “Dreidel” and “Winterwood” – spoke by phone with The Dispatch. The interview has been edited for more space and clarity.
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Question: What was the impetus that pushed you to write “American Pie”?
McLean: I wanted to write a great song about America, but bigger and more American than anyone else. It was almost like a sculpture, wanting to make some sort of massive piece that expressed an inexpressible idea about something. I’m an artist, so I’m not afraid of my own concepts. The thing is, I live by my own concepts. I don’t live by other people’s idea of who I should be, so I develop these ideas in my head about what I want to write songs about and how I want to do it, and then I move on. . . .
Even if I was a stranger, I wouldn’t sign (a) recording contract unless I had complete control over what I was doing. They were going to get a record from me, and it was up to me to give them what I wanted to give them. No one can hand me a song and say, “Sing this”; no one can stick their nose into my business and say, “Change that” or “We don’t like that.”
I did an eight-minute song and they made a #1 record out of it. (It was) a pretty interesting journey they had to take to do that.
How the song came together
Q: It seems like you had the idea early on that “American Pie” would refer to the music, but you would be writing down the story of a chapter in American history.
McLean: It is that music and politics influence each other in the future. That was the idea I had in mind. When I found this, I had the whole idea. But in the beginning, the “long, long time ago” part, until the “the day the music died” part – the slow part at the beginning – that came to me in one section, the whole thing. I sang it straight into the tape recorder, just like that. (Holly died in a plane crash in 1959 at the age of 22.)
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Q: Is it like divine inspiration?
McLean: I would say I could never let go of some type of grief I had about Buddy Holly. Since my adolescence, I have kept it with me. And, all of a sudden, I was shocked by finding a use for it. And that put me on the trail of this song. It was Buddy Holly and my love for him, and my sadness over his death, that I carried with me the whole time. In some ways, I am a person in constant mourning. I mourn the loss a lot, and it’s a big part of life. But I didn’t know people would identify with anything I did.
Q: There is an elegiac tone throughout the song. People love a lament.
McLean: The whole album is like this: (The songs) “The Grace”, “By the Waters of Babylon”, “Sister Fatima”, “Empty Chairs”, “Winterwood”. These are all lamentations of some kind.
Q: Do you remember the reaction when you first performed “American Pie” live?
McLean: The reaction was nothing special. It was a long song. …
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Q: Somehow the song got this following.
McLean: We made a really good record, and the record came off the record – it just jumped off the track. That’s what did the trick. When something has been accomplished, everyone looks back and thinks, “Well, sure. Of course, he had talent. Nobody thought I had talent – nobody. Nobody was in my corner. I’ve never been anointed. Rolling Stone never ran up to Don McLean and said, “Oh, put it on the cover. This guy is an American treasure.
Q: When we see you in Bellefontaine, how will the concert go? Do you plan what you will sing?
McLean: I am like the wind. I blow on stage, I sing what I want, I make sure to talk about the things that interest me, quickly. I don’t spend a lot of time chewing and wasting the audience’s time with my important thoughts, ha ha. I know they came to listen to the music, so I sing a lot of music, a lot of songs. And, boom, before you know it, we’re doing “Vincent”, we’re doing “American Pie”, we’re doing “Crying”, we’re doing “Castles (in the Air)”, we’re doing “And I Love You So”, we do “Dreidel” sometimes. . . .
It’s not on a set list, because I never do the same show twice. I never write the same song twice and I never do the same show twice.
In one look
Singer-songwriter Don McLean will perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Holland Theater, 127 E. Columbus Ave., Bellefontaine. Tickets cost between $60 and $90. For more information, visit www.thehollandtheatre.org.