Neither the writer, the words, nor the manuscript disclose ‘everything.’ But we do!
On April 7, 2015, the working manuscript of the eight-and-a-half minute 1971 song that hit #1 on January 15, 1972 (and stayed there for four weeks) was sold for a cool mil and then some, fetching “the third highest auction price for an American literary manuscript,” notes its auction house, Christie’s. And its writer, Don McLean, now finally – as headlines blared on CNN.com and in the Washington Post – “reveals” the “last secret” (England’s Daily Mail) behind what was a definitive cultural benchmark as the ’60s became the ‘7os that spawned a still ongoing phenomenon of speculating about, analyzing, parsing and deconstructing its text, now again in the forefront of the media.
I’m not saying that McLean is being disingenuous, per se, when he says that the 18 pages of handwritten and typed lyrics and revisions to one of the most iconic songs in classic rock divulge “everything there is to know” about “American Pie.” But he’s not telling the whole story. I know because he told it to me some 36 years ago. And the way he started explaining the song’s birth reveals a key point: “I didn’t plan anything out. It just came to me.”
Let me repeat that with emphasis: “I didn’t plan anything out. It just came to me.”
That is the true last and pivotal secret of “American Pie.”
All these years later, the thirst to have it explained remains hearty. But how does someone explain something that largely just came to them?
Some eight years after “America Pie” was a major pop cultural moment, I was his road manager for about a year-and-a-half: a fun and fairly easy gig as it was just the two of us, and basically involved making the travel and hotel arrangements, driving the car when we used one, carrying one of his two instruments (guitar and banjo), collecting the money after the show, laughing at his jokes (no apple-polishing the boss there; he can be a very witty guy), rolling the joints… no sound check other than me going out onstage just before he went on to tap on the vocal and instrumental mikes to make sure they were working. Sometimes we’d find places to take horseback rides in the cities he played. Other times we’d hang out at his house up above the Hudson River in Garrison, NY and ride his horses and watch old B-movie Westerns.
We had a lot of talk time as we traveled. And naturally “American Pie” couldn’t help but be a subject.
The “American Pie” inquiries and analyses still swirled about as the ’70s ended: People continued to come up after shows and ask, “Who was the jester?” and such. I could see how it might well be an irritant not just over time, but especially back when the song was a cultural phenomenon. Because, again, he “didn’t plan anything out.” And it largely came to him in a extended flash of inspiration.
When “American Pie” was atop the charts, he told me, the questions were incessant to the point of making his life a bit crazy. At the end of the ’70s, seeing how often it came up again, I felt like I got a small taste of what Bob Dylan must have experienced from people wanting answers and explanations for what it all means – not just songs but the times we were living in, life itself, God… whatever – back in the mid-’60s. (Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” lyrics sold for $2 million last year). No wonder he escaped the madness to enjoy a quiet family life in Woodstock for a while. It was the same hunger for truth and meaning that led seekers to find iconic ’60s author Ken Kesey’s remote Oregon ranch in search of answers. To engage with them was to risk having a limpet or leech attach themselves to you.
So when McLean now says everything you need to know is in those lyric pages, he is right, in a way. I suspect he’d agree with me in that it’s less important what he may say it means and more important what it means to the listener – not who was what, but how it feels and its emotional impact. One of the true beauties of a great song is how – at least before the tragedy of MTV videos adding fixed images to them – it can become a part of if not ingrained into and represent your experience, feelings and life.
McLean recently lifted (some of) the veil he kept over the creation and meaning of “American Pie,” explaining that it took him about an hour to write the song in two sessions, one in Cold Spring, NY, the other in Philadelphia, which mostly squares with what he told me: “I had the chorus rattling around in my head around for a while.”
When he sat down to finish what he’d started, “It just came in about half an hour,” McLean explained to me. Do the math: 8.5 minute song in 30 minutes? That’s a hearty rush of creativity, not some carefully plotted web of metaphors, allusions and lyrical trickery intended to sum up the journey of the Baby Boomer generation and the state of the nation they lived in at the time.
How did he actually write “American Pie?”
“I just pulled all these symbols from the cultural grab-bag and threw them in there.” Boom. That’s the cold, hard fact of the song’s creation. Yet the results did capture a pivotal moment of change and the events that led up to it.
Which is how it sometimes works when some complex, deep and meaningful songs get written; the late Townes Van Zandt called them “sky songs” for the way they just drop out of the heavens – or the zeitgeist or through some channel – to their writers. It’s how creative inspiration can sometimes work; I’ve discovered in talking to and reading about songwriters for decades how a surprising number of great and even iconic songs were written that quickly. Which may also help illuminate why McLean – a fairly private and rather reclusive sort to begin with – kept mum about its meaning after “American Pie” became the pre-Internet equivalent of a major if not huge-ass meme.
McLean basically now confirms the story he told me in what he has recently said, “Over the years I’ve dealt with all these stupid questions of ‘Who’s that?’ and ‘Who’s that?’ These are things I never had in my head for a second when I wrote the song. I was trying to capture something very ephemeral and I did….”
To which he adds, “but it took a long time.” Which is a bit disingenuous even when he says it took him an hour overall, and told me how the verses some people treat like a Rosetta Stone that explains the 1960s largely came in a half-hour or so. Yes, he polished it and left out a seventh verse included in the notes he sold. And I assume some of the “long time” he refers to gives gracious credit – as he did when we spoke about it years ago and still does – to the producer (Ed Freeman) and musicians (including bassist Rob Stoner, who later toured and recorded with Bob Dylan) that played a vital role in making the lengthy song into a hit record that Top 40 radio had to play despite its tight four-minute or so time limit.
He also says today that he immediately knew he’d created something momentous with “American Pie.” But he told me that after the last half-hour of writing it, “I knew I had something, but wasn’t quite sure what it was. Hey, it was over eight minutes long.” He then played it for his first wife, Carol. “She knew right away,” McLean said, that it was a powerful composition that would have a huge impact on listeners and change his career and life.
He’s always been upfront about how the first verse refers to the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson on Feb. 3, 1959. The widowed bride is not Jackie Kennedy, as some surmise, but rather Holly’s wife Maria Elena (who Don and I had a very nice lunch with one time in Dallas when we were on tour).
Interestingly, “American Pie” was the soundtrack for a pivotal moment in my life. On January 7, 1971, my 18th birthday, just after I ordered my first legal beer at the legendary West End Tavern on upper Broadway in Manhattan across the street from Columbia University, I went over to the jukebox, dropped in a quarter and played “American Pie,” listening to it in full for the first time after hearing intriguing snippets on AM radio since its November release… albeit with a break in the middle while the juke flipped the disc, as it took both sides of a 45 RPM seven-inch single to contain the whole song. It was quite impressive.
Like many, I tired of hearing the song after its incessant play on the radio. But while I toured with McLean, I came to appreciate it again as a profound songwriting achievement, and just as much for its continuing impact on audiences.
At one gig, he broke a guitar string about halfway though “American Pie.” The audience gasped. With the nonchalance of a veteran performer, he pulled out the pack of strings he kept in a back pocket whenever he went onstage, pulled out the one he needed, and casually spoke to the crowd as he replaced the broken string, tuned up the new one, and then… wham – right back into the song where he stopped as if nothing happened. I’m certain that within 60 seconds or so most of the people in the audience had forgotten he’d broken the string. It is that powerful a song.
And no doubt about it: he captured a moment in time that resonated hugely at the time and still does. England’s DaIly Mail recently ran an infographic about “What Those Lyrics Really Mean” with the common interpretations. The Atlantic used the lyrics sale to ruminate on Baby Boomer nostalgia. Pages upon pages of interpretations can be easily found in a quick web search.
One time we got a letter at his manager’s office that insisted what “American Pie” was really about was the period between World Wars I and II in Europe. It laid out over a couple of pages the writer’s theory line by line, sometimes with complex historical explanations, other times with “I don’t know what this line means.” I found it hilarious, and rang McLean to tell him what a hoot it was.
“Toss in in the garbage,” he ordered. “No, wait. Burn it. (I saved it for a while; if I still had it, maybe it might now fetch me a few thou at Christie’s. And it was hilarious, if also, by its nature, a bit insane.)
In the Christie’s catalog, McLean does explain how “Basically, in ‘American Pie’ things are heading in the wrong direction. It is becoming less ideal, less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right, but it is a morality song in a sense.”
But to not explain it further much less engage in what he says the song is not – “a parlor game” – is in a way to protect its magic. Plus some songwriters can be guarded about discussing the process, as if to do so might somehow jinx away the creative juju. And to also tell people how something so rich, complex and meaningful just arrives in your mind – almost as if someone else or God or the muse is writing it and you’re simply the lucky transcriptionist; as a writer I’ve had those glorious moments – is to risk some people thinking you may have a touch or three of madness. Or The Answer from Above.
McLean also cracks that the song “means that I never had to work again if I don’t want to.” At the time when I toured with him he said he had a million bucks just sitting in the bank – over $3 million in today’s dollars without even calculating interest – but confessed that his highest earner as a song was not “American Pie” but “And I Love You,” covered by Perry Como in 1973 as a #1 Easy Listening hit that was also recorded by Elvis Presley and many others, bringing in some serious mailbox money. I once got a glimpse at his quarterly Muzak statement, and it was a huge cash cow in that once near-ubiquitous realm. On the road we took in a few or more thousand at every show – and one night after a gig got our jollies tossing that much in cash around the hotel room. And he also had the mythic genetic Scottish ability to pinch every penny all but into two.
Having come up through the folk troubadour tradition, he kept working. McLean had a later chart run with his cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” that went Top 10 in the U.S. on the pop, adult contemporary and country charts. It hit #1 in the U.K., where he has long enjoyed greater popularity than at home. And did so after famed record executive Clive Davis declared it a dud in Billboard. McLean was able to negotiate his way off Davis’s Arista Records for a substantial settlement that included the as-yet-unreleased Chain Lightning album the song was on along with the masters of his one release on the label, Prime Time.
He has also tried to recapture the “American Pie” magic with the 1977 song “Prime Time” – a rather forced and awkward composition with the chorus, “This is life/this is prime time/this is living in the U.S.A.” And again in 2010 with “In America,” a leaden string of cliches from his most recent album release, Addicted To Black, much of which is almost painful to listen to for someone who came to know and appreciate McLean’s talents at their best.
Meanwhile, “American Pie” has kept coming back. Even though the Atlantic article cites how Phoenix New Times writer Michael Lopez snarkily rated it at #4 among the songs that made him hate music – and there are those who so dislike it they’d eagerly spill state secrets rather than ever hear it again – the song has an undeniably durable appeal.
In 1991 it returned as a reissue to #2 on the U.K. pop charts. Garth Brooks sang it with McLean and Billy Joel before half-a-million people in Central Park at the height of his fame in 1997. In 2000 Madonna recorded “Pie” as a dance-pop number and it returned to #1 in the U.K., Canada, Australia and much of Continental Europe; unreleased commercially here, it still edged into the Top 30 of the Billboard Hot 100 from radio play alone. And there is even the requisite “Weird Al” Yankovic parody: “The Saga Begins,” which adapts it to tell the start of the Star Wars story.
There is also the series of dumbo teen sex comedy films under the American Pie banner. And a set of Bi Bi American Pie porn movies.
McLean says he sold the lyrics to benefit his wife and two children as he approaches 70. The media attention doesn’t hurt as he also readies a new album, Botanical Gardens, though his new original song recordings for the past quarter century or so sadly show how his songwriting ability has lost its luster, to be polite about it. (The new album’s one released song as a YouTube clip, “Waving Man,” is sweet if lyrically slight and pedestrian.) And he never found his footing as a maker of records. (For those who may be interested, my favorite album of his by a long shot as well as his best and most cohesive is 1974’s Homeless Brother, a rather delightful and at times sophisticated yet deeply rooted platter of proto-Americana.)
The writer of “American Pie” always stressed how much he valued the song (not just fiscally) during the time we traveled together. When the the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) compiled its Songs of the [20th] Century, “American Pie” came in at #5, behind “Over The Rainbow,” “White Christmas,” “This Land Is Your Land” and “Respect” (as sung by Aretha Franklin though it was written by Otis Redding).
Sometimes when that songwriting lightning strikes, it etches something truly timeless into the cultural landscape. “American Pie”– love it, like it…okay, tolerate it, or find it like nails on a chalkboard – is as timeless as it gets.