In 1971, a song called “American Pie” stormed the US charts to #1 and stayed there for a full four weeks. It’s good enough for any hit, but what’s unusual is that the melody is eight minutes and 42 seconds long. Few, if any, songs of this length have managed to get airplay on commercial radio, let alone top the charts.
Songwriter and performer Don McLean had the original hook (“The Day the Music Died”) in 1959, when the great Buddy Holly was killed in an infamous plane crash that also claimed life to The Big Bopper and Richie. Valens. But it took another decade for McLain to finish it. Much has been speculated – some true, some false – about the now-iconic song “American Pie” and its many whimsical references to the 1960s.
I recently chatted with McLean about this tune, but also many other things in his life, including “Vincent”, a song written about impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh and his struggles with mental illness. Here, in Part 1 of a multi-part series with McLain, we tackle “Vincent,” then explore what it takes to be successful, his late father, why he’s still spinning at 76+. Here are edited excerpts from a longer telephone conversation. McLean was preparing to embark on a fall tour of Europe, so we’re grateful he spent an hour with us.
Jim Clash: Let’s start with “Vincent”.
Don McLean: I had a few songs to start another record after “Tapestry”, but I needed more – “You better fuckin’ get to work [laughs]” – so everything was possible. I read this book on van Gogh by his brother. I said to myself: “Since the brother had the same disease as Vincent, wouldn’t it be interesting to write this story? But how am I going to do it? I mean, one man singing to another about his art and his death could be really dumb if you couldn’t find a way to make the song nice and elegant. I like beautiful things, I myself have a touch of elegance. Then it hit me. All I had to do was watch “Starry Night”. When I did, the painting wrote the song. I don’t do the melody first, then I hook up the lyrics. I just sing into a tape recorder, and the song comes right out of me.
Shock: How long did it take to write “Vincent?” »?
McLean: I used to live in a place called The Sedgwick House [Stockbridge, Massachusetts]. It was a nice federal style place. “Vincent” may have taken a few hours to play around with. I still have the lyrics written on that green paper that I used to carry with me.
Shock: You are quite rich. You don’t need to work. Why shoot at 76? Is it the passion for your own art?
McLean: That’s what I do. I am not me unless I do. Not doing so would be much more negative and damaging than if I did. Work is vital.
Shock: You delivered papers when you were a child, you were not from a wealthy background. Can you believe you are where you are today? What’s the secret ?
McLean: The secret is to be very lucky. It’s hard to imagine how lucky I was. So many things went wrong, but they broke at the last moment. The key to my happiness is that I have always enjoyed what I do. I like the fact that I have to live up to a certain level. I have to carry my own bag, bring my guitar – I don’t have a road manager – as I always have. I have to sing for an hour and a half, and it must be good. I can’t afford to be 300 pounds, I can’t become an alcoholic. All this is a very good way to maintain discipline. After the paper boy thing, I never took a [conventional] work. I always continued in the same direction. Sometimes it would be slower, sometimes faster. But he was always advancing towards new goals on the same track. Things happen in a circular fashion.
Shock: What do you mean by circular?
McLean: In the fall of 1961, my father, who never went anywhere but White Plains and then returned to New Rochelle [New York] for his work, decided he was going to take me to Washington [DC] to see the monuments, places where Civil War battles took place, Mount Vernon where [George] Washington’s house was. My dad was dying at the time, but he drove me around in this shitty 1952 Chevy. When we got there, he tried to climb the Washington Monument, and on the second set of stairs he realized that it wouldn’t happen. He was nervous, thought he would get the big hit any moment. Then we went to see the Lincoln Memorial. I was 13 or older at the time. Much later, in the year 2000, I sang in front of the Lincoln Memorial in front of some 600,000 people, the Millennium Concert on New Year’s Eve, as the country entered the next century. I look up and see the Washington Monument behind the reflecting pool, and I think, “What would my dad think? It’s circular.