Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ – The True Story

Share This:

don_mclean-american_pie-frontalOn 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 by its writer for a cool million 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, finally – as headlines blared on and in the Washington Post – “revealed” the “last secret” (England’s Daily Mail) behind the ongoing phenomenon of speculating about, analyzing, parsing and deconstructing its text.

I’m not saying that McLean was being disingenuous, per se, when he said 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 decades 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 young McLean in the hills above Cold Spring, NY, where he started writing "American Pie."

The young McLean in the hills above Cold Spring, NY, where he started writing “American Pie”

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 at auction for $2 million.) 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.

So when McLean said that 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 it can become a part of if not ingrained into and represent your experience, feelings and life.

McLean 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….”

Singer Don McLean is seen in this February 1972 photo. The current movie ''American Pie'' has nothing to do with McLean or his popular 1972 song, although the singer did come to ''an agreement'' with Universal Pictures about using the name, McLean's lawyer said Wednesday, July 7, 1999. (AP Photo)

This February 1972 AP photo served as McLean’s standard publicity shot for much of the decade

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 the format’s 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, 1972, 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.

[The American Pie album was released on Oct. 24, 1971. It’s available here. McLean still regularly tours. Tickets are available here and here.]

And no doubt about it: he captured a moment in time that resonated hugely at the time and still does. England’s DaIly Mail 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.

There is also the series of teen sex comedy films under the American Pie banner.

The law of unintended consequences strikes again. Universal Pictures paid McLean an unspecified sum for use of the name.

The law of unintended consequences strikes again. Universal Pictures paid McLean an unspecified sum for use of the name

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 listing, McLean explained 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 – well 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 So,” 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.

More mailbox money for McLean thanks to Madonna

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.

McLean says he sold the lyrics to benefit his wife and two children as he approached 70. [He was born Oct. 2, 1945.]

The writer of “American Pie” always stressed how much he valued the song (not just fiscally) during the time we traveled together. When the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) compiled its Songs of the [20th] Century, “American Pie” came in at #5, behind only “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.

[In 1973, McLean told Record World: “[The] fact that it fell to me to write it has always been an honor to me because there’s a lot more to that song than people have even begun to realize. I don’t say that because I wrote it, most writers who write things don’t realize half of what they’ve said until it’s done. In fact, anyone who plans to say something ends up saying less than he thought he was saying. What I wanted to capture was a decade within a particular musical form.”]

Rob Patterson

8 Comments so far

Jump into a conversation
  1. louie
    #1 louie 2 September, 2016, 02:54

    i like all bands & solo ferformer really gets me high & hippie feeling god bless you all keep on rockin & roll all over the world peace be with you all rockers always”’

    Reply this comment
  2. JohnnyCNote
    #2 JohnnyCNote 25 July, 2017, 03:24

    I can’t deny the popularity and success of “Pie”, and I appreciate the creativity behind it. That being said, I know I’m far from the only person who was alive at the time and would be happy never to hear it again. A thoroughly tedious work, the amount of pretentious discussion and analysis was little more than parasitic marketing from those who tried to exploit every possible opportunity to line their pockets. I rate it as one of the top five songs I grew to detest over the years…

    Reply this comment
  3. Leland
    #3 Leland 4 November, 2017, 22:40

    I entered a music contest at a club on the hill in Boulder, Co. in late 1970. I came in 2nd place. The winner was, “American Pie” Don McLean. I believe that is where he broke the string and promptly repaired it “while singing!” Leland Fuerstman

    Reply this comment
  4. Billy K.
    #4 Billy K. 4 October, 2018, 06:27

    Funny thing about the “jester” business….the first time I heard “American Pie”, I happened to catch it, right in the middle of the song, and not got the whole context of the lyrics.

    Around that time, Raymond Chester played for the Oakland Raiders…….and I mis-heard “jester” as “Chester”, on the sidelines in a cast”……I am thinking “why in the heck is this guy writing about one of the Raiders being injured?”

    Finally figured it out, after hearing it a few more times. But it is certainly funny looking back at how I first perceived the song!

    Reply this comment
  5. Namdoog
    #5 Namdoog 15 April, 2020, 09:29

    loved the song, but whenever our band played it, i backed out… also, you could have mentioned vincent, which i think is the best he’s done.

    Reply this comment
  6. Timber
    #6 Timber 9 April, 2021, 03:23

    The broken string incident took place at Youngstown State University’s show. (Despite what someone mentioned they thought it was perhaps somewhere else). McLean was so perfectly casual about I assumed it had happened previously as well.

    Reply this comment
  7. Winterhear
    #7 Winterhear 7 April, 2024, 14:26

    One of the more overrated songs in pop music. For years after it came out it was dissected and analyzed as if it were a Shakespearean sonnet or the book of Revelation. Come on.

    Reply this comment
  8. Dr. Bristol
    #8 Dr. Bristol 8 April, 2024, 13:38

    Interpreting “American Pie” was second only to piecing together the clues that proved “Paul is Dead”. Fond memories of both.

    Surprised you neglected to mention his best song, “Vincent”.

    Reply this comment

Your data will be safe!Your e-mail address will not be published. Also other data will not be shared with third person.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.