Don McLean reflects on his masterpiece, ‘American Pie’ – Campbell River Mirror
Don McLean has for decades listened to people sing his classic song “American Pie” on Last Call or Karaoke – and applauds you for the effort.
“I heard whole bars exploding to this song when I walked across the room,” McLean told The Associated Press from a tour bus heading to Des Moines, Iowa. “And they’re so happy to sing it that I realized, ‘You don’t really have to worry about how good your singing is anymore. Even badly sung, people are really happy about it.’ »
Happy might be a bit of an understatement. “American Pie” is considered a masterpiece, voted one of the five best songs of the century compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.
McLean – and his singular tune on “The Day the Music Died” – is now the subject of a feature-length documentary, “The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’” , airing Tuesday on Paramount+.
It’s a must-watch for McLean fans or anyone who has marveled at his sonic treasure trove. It also represents an elegant film blueprint for future deep dives into a song and its wider cultural relevance.
For fans who have wondered about the lyrics they sing out loud in bars and cars, McLean shares the secrets. “It was fun writing the song,” he told the AP. “I was up at night smiling and thinking what I’m going to do with this.”
The documentary begins when a single-engine plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Jiles P. Richardson, the “Big Bopper”, plunged into a cornfield north of Clear Lake, Iowa on February 3, 1959, killing the three stars and their pilot.
McLean was 13 and living in a middle-class suburban home in New Rochelle, New York, when the accident happened. He suffered from bronchial asthma, which led to him being portrayed in “American Pie” as “a lonely, tanned teenager”. The “sacred store” he talks about was the House of Music on Main Street, where he bought records and his first guitar.
The young McLean was a newspaper deliverer – “all the newspapers I delivered” – and adored Elvis, Gene Vincent, Bo Diddley but especially Holly, whose death affected him deeply. “I was in absolute shock. I may have cried,” he says in the film. “You can’t intellectualize it. It hurts me.”
Years later, McLean would dive into that pain in “American Pie,” baking in his own grief at his father’s passing and writing a eulogy for the American dream. He created his second album in 1971 as the nation was rocked by assassinations, anti-war protests and civil rights marches. He thought he “needed a great song about America”. The first verse and the melody just seemed to fall. “A very, very long time ago…”
It culminated in the huge choir singing along: “We were singing”, “Bye-bye, Miss American pie”/Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry/Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey’ n rye / And singing “This will be the day I die.”
“I said, ‘Wow, that’s something. I don’t know what it is, but that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to figure out – this feeling about Buddy Holly – for all these years. and that plane crash,” McLean told the AP. “I still feel a twinge inside of me whenever I think of Buddy.”
The 90-minute documentary incorporates 70s newsreel footage and uses actors in recreations. Cameras capture McLean visiting the hallowed surfing ballroom in Clear Lake, the last place Holly and her fellow musicians played before their fatal escape in 1959.
There are interviews with musicians — Garth Brooks, “Weird Al” Yankovich and Brian Wilson, among them — as well as Valens’ sister Connie and actor Peter Gallagher, whose character’s death on “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist ” promoted an on-screen performance of “American Pie. British singer Jade Bird, Cuban-born producer Rudy Perez and Spanish singer Jencarlos Canela explain how the song has resonated far beyond America .
The documentary reveals that recording the album wasn’t exactly a smooth process. Producer Ed Freeman was unimpressed with McLean’s song count and did not think McLean was ready to play rhythm guitar on “American Pie”. He ended up giving in.
McLean—along with a few session musicians—rehearsed for two weeks without nailing the song, growing increasingly frustrated. The last-minute addition of pianist Paul Griffin was a stroke of “Hail Mary” genius that clinched the whole tune.
But recording the song was only the beginning of the trouble to come. At over 8 minutes, radio stations balked at playing it, and McLean’s label, Media Arts, went bankrupt just as he was releasing the “American Pie” album.
After watching the documentary, McLean was struck by a common thread in his career: “What I noticed was that I had to fight so many battles to do this thing, to do everything. I’ve fought everyone my whole life,” he says. ” I am not difficult. I just want things the way I want them.
“American Pie” is full of cultural references, from Chevrolet to nursery rhymes, while checking out the names of the Byrds, John Lennon, Charles Manson and James Dean. The lyrics – dreamlike and impressionistic – have been scrutinized for decades, dissected for their meaning.
The documentary answers some questions, but not all. McLean reveals that his oblique references to a king and a jester have nothing to do with Elvis or Bob Dylan, but he is open to other interpretations. He explains that the “band” refers to the military-industrial complex and that the “sweet scent” is tear gas.
The chorus line “It’ll be the day I die” comes from John Wayne’s film “The Searchers” and the farewell is a riff from “Bye Bye, My Roseanna”, a song his friend Pete Seeger sang. McLean was going to use “Miss American apple pie” but dropped the fruit.
The end of the song asks for “happy news” – an echo of the first verse – but there is none. The three men McLean most admires – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – “took the last train to the coast”, that is, Los Angeles. “Even God has been corrupted,” McLean says in the film.
“He was happy to open up because he and his manager felt it was the right time to do it and this was the platform to do it,” said music producer and songwriter Spencer Proffer, CEO of multimedia production company Meteor 17, which helped make the film. “I tip my hat to Don for writing something so wonderful. My job was to bring it to life.
For McLean, the song is a sketch of his spirit of the time and a tribute to his musical influences, but also a roadmap for future history students:
“If it gets young people thinking about Buddy Holly and rock ‘n’ roll and that music, and maybe it teaches them what else happened in the country, maybe watch a little bit of history, maybe ask why John Kennedy was shot and who did it, maybe ask why all our leaders were shot in the 1960s and who did it, maybe start looking at the war and its stupidity – if it can happen, then the song really serves a wonderful purpose and a positive purpose.”
—Mark Kennedy, Associated Press