September , 2012
By David Huff
American Pie Still Tasty 40 Years Later
JAM Magazine Interviews Seventy's Iconic Singer-Songwriter
"I never thought about the future. I just kept doing what I was doing, and stuff kept on happening."
That stuff Don McLean is referring to was centered on the creation of one of the greatest songs ever written, "American Pie". Forty years after the classic tune was released, this singer / songwriter is now the subject of a new, and yes authorized, documentary centered on his life, DON McLEAN: AMERICAN TROUBADOUR. Scheduled for release on Sept. 11, 2012, this documentary provides unprecedented access into the artist's life. The film goes back to singer's days as a troubadour traveling from town to town along the Hudson River plying his trade, into the modern day icon he survived to become. McLean reveals personal accounts of a career spanning five decades, and the battles both inside the industry and with himself, concerning the timeless composition he crafted that became an integral part of American pop culture.
The documentary, produced and directed by four-time Emmy award winning filmmaker Jim Brown, features over 15 live performances including "American Pie," "Vincent," "Crying" and "And I Love You So." There's also an extensive commentary by historian and Rolling Stone journalist Douglas Brinkley about the backlash McLean's historic song created against the artist. The film also contains interviews with several artists, including Madonna, on Mclean's work, and performances of his tunes performed by Elvis Presley and Fred Astaire (who inspired "Wonderful Baby"). A new double CD of McLean's biggest hits - also called Don McLean: American Troubadour - will be available to coincide with the documentary's release. It will include live performances, as well as a special duet with Nanci Griffith of "And I Love You So".
JAM: You opened up your life for the world to see. Why?
Don McLean - I let film maker Jim Brown into my life because I respect and trust him. We've known each other for some forty years, and he allowed my ideas to be fully realized while telling my story accurately and poetically. All the songs spring from my life and the film is my life story. At each step along the way of my career, from the very beginning really, my career was documented on film or by television appearances. Those clips all appear in this movie. There are some wonderful moments in my life captured in this documentary.
JAM: Don you achieved a songwriter's dream of writing the one song that would define your career. That said, you also achieved every songwriter's nightmare by writing the one song that defined your career. Did you ever feel that the long shadow cast by "American Pie" had become somewhat of an albatross around your neck, because it so overwhelmed all the music you created afterwards.
Well, it's hard to really say because to me, the song was more of an obstacle to overcome. That said, I'll tell you why I'm not sure I ever did, really, overcome it. After the American Pie album was released, the critics said, "Oh, he'll never follow that." They began a sort of movement against me pretty soon afterwards, in the '70s, which I think knocked me back. If "Vincent" and "American Pie" had never existed, I think people would have looked at my career differently. There would have been a very successful and critical reaction from those critics for songs such as "Crying" and "I Love You So," or "Castles in the Air", "Tapestry", "Magdalene Lane", "Winterwood" and "Crossroads." Instead, there was this hostile reaction they had against me over the years. Because "American Pie" was such a phenomenon, immediately there was a backlash launched against Don McLean. I had to live through that, overcome that, but I did overcome that and I outlasted those people. Douglas Brinkley is probably the premiere rock historian, rock and roll writer of our time. He is in the movie and he tells the real story.
JAM: He tells the real story of what?
Doug talks about the struggles I went through after American Pie. I had to fight every step along the way to get what I got. After that record was released, there were no producers or promoters waiting for me with open arms to work with me on projects or tours. It's like I didn't exist.
JAM: Speaking of "American Pie", what do you recall about the creation of that song?
The bulk of the song took about an hour to write. The idea for it I had in my head for three or four months. I had a little chorus before that, and the opening part before that. The thing is nobody knew how to play "American Pie" the way I wanted it done in rehearsals. They were very long sessions. I was working with a producer (Ed Freeman) who had not made many records and didn't make many afterwards. It was tough to constantly be saying the song wasn't right when we played "American Pie" in the studio. Musicians started to get ticked off and it made people wonder, "Does this guy know what he wants?" Finally the producer came up with a piano player, Paul Griffin. He heard my acoustic guitar in his ear and started pounding away at the piano. The rock and roll sound that I wanted was the one thing I couldn't get from Ed Freeman. He was very weak, I thought, in that area. Well, Paul started to jump all over that piano, everyone followed his lead. That's how I got the track I wanted for "American Pie." It was a process.
JAM: The songs on the American Pie don't seem to be connected by any type of thread that ties them together. Is that observation accurate?
During the making of the album, I was writing songs where each composition was distinct from the other. A song like "The Grave" was very different from "Till Tomorrow". The musical direction of "Vincent" was totally different from that of "American Pie". It wasn't like I was making a James Taylor record where most of the songs have a similar feel to them. That's the way to be very successful commercially, but I wasn't after commercial success. I was after what I felt was best for that particular song. All that other stuff didn't matter to me because I just wanted the chance to make a record I felt was me. Luckily, some things snuck out of me like "Castles in the Air", "Vincent" and "American Pie" that gave me some commercial credentials. I wasn't, however, a commercial artist.
JAM: You finally met Lori Lieberman last year, who credits you as an inspiration for the Roberta Flack classic, "Killing Me Softly".
Yes I did. First off, Lori did not write "Killing Me Softly." That song was written for her to record by Charles Fox and Norman Gimble. The three of them were pretty close. She had an album coming out on Capitol Records. One night, Lori was asked by a friend to go with her to the Troubadour so see me in concert. As she tells the story, it's something she didn't really want to do, but finally agreed to go. I sang a song in my set called "Empty Chair", and that apparently really resonated with her. After the show, she went back and met with Norman and Charles to tell them about the experience she just had. Lori had also written a poem that the three of them didn't quite know what to do with. So, Gimble and Fox used her feelings about my performance, and the poem that she wrote, to write their "Killing Me Softly." To this day, Lori says the song is about Don McLean. That is how I am involved with that song.
JAM: The Internet not only revolutionized the music industry the past ten years, it also became a gateway into its storied past that people can access with the click of a mouse. Is it easier for you to be Don McLean today than say 25, 30 years ago?
Well, the business model has certainly changed, you're right about that. So has the access to an artist's music. Everything I've ever done the past four decades is on the Internet, whether it's YouTube, or interviews, websites, etc. If anyone is interested in knowing anything about me, there are just pages and pages of information about Don McLean. It's almost like an ongoing television special that just came out of nowhere when you research my name. I am 66 years old, so the Internet is a nice thing to have happened to me at this stage of the game. If people want to talk to you, they can research your career online, see the way you have looked through the years, how you sounded, your character, etc. People can develop a more realistic picture of who you are as a person, especially when they discover you aren't scrambling around trying different things to grab at success.
JAM: Right now, as I speak to you, does Don McLean feel a sense of vindication?
JAM: I ask the question because of the confident tone I hear in your voice. It tells me there's been a tremendous burden lifted off your shoulders, and you're in a really good place now.
Again, I do feel vindicated and very happy about decisions I have made, and how everything worked out. I have a great family as well. My wonderful wife and children all played a part in what happened in my life, including the struggles.
JAM: Here's the one thing about your career that always amazed me. When you began your recording career, almost all artists at the time were relinquishing majority control of their work to labels just to get a deal. You, however, retained control over a great deal of your publishing. What gave you the foresight to go against the norm at the time?
I had been turned down by most of the labels at the time (34). Someone over at Mediarts Records heard the demos I was making for what would be my first record, Tapestry. They liked some songs, didn't like others, but they especially liked me. Mediarts really wanted me and were willing to do whatever I wanted to have me on their label. They allowed me to retain half of my publishing rights. Many, many years later I got the rest of my publishing back. In the '80s I had a number of lawsuits with different publishers and agents collecting money from my work. I basically 'cleaned up Dodge' as they say, and today I own 100 percent of everything.
JAM: Luck and fate has smiled on Don McLean's career?
Every step along the way, wonderful things would happen, but then there would be lulls afterwards. I started out as a Hudson River Troubadour in 1968. I sang in every single town on the Hudson. That led to a meeting with Pete Seeger and his effort to clean up the polluted Hudson River. From there I met Harry Chapin and we did some things together. Then I started to have some wonderful international success around the world performing in places like Royal Albert Hall, the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall and the prestigious Avery Fisher Hall. I also made several television specials. Then I started having hit records in England followed by a lot of success in Australia. Early in the '80s, "Crying" was an international hit. "Castles in the Air" followed suit as well. Before I knew it, Garth Brooks had me singing "American Pie" with him in Central Park followed by more television specials and now this. Don McLean: American Troubadour is the most important documentary every made for me. The producer, Jim Brown has won four Emmy's. He traced my life going back to the beginning with concert footage, interviews, you name it. It tells the complete story of Don McLean.
JAM: What inspired Jim Brown to make a movie about you?
Well, I had thought about doing something along this line in order to have a more permanent record of what I had done in one place. Jim Brown was someone I knew from the '60s when he was a kid hanging around Lee Hays of the Weavers' house in Croten, New York. He became a filmmaker, and in 1980 made a film about the Weavers that I appeared in. Two years ago, he called and asked if I would do an updated interview because they were finally putting the movie out on DVD. Well, we started talking and I said to him, "Well, maybe it is time we did something together." I had been considering a documentary project like this for some time. We have a lot of filmmakers that come to Maine, and I was thinking about using one of them to follow me around and tell them things. What Jim created was the best possible movie I could imagine, right down to the little details. He included footage from the Johnny Carson show I did once. There was the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade I did in 1982. When I first got a little famous, it was because I sang on a TV show with Pete Seeger and the other Sloop singers in Nyack, New York for PBS in 1969. I started singing a song about the Pope, then lightning struck and rain started pouring down. That started my career, and footage from that concert is in the movie. I started getting calls from nightclubs around the country to perform because they had seen that show.
JAM: Any other parts of the documentary you find especially interesting?
Well, Jim shows me singing "American Pie", in different phases, from a young performer in 1970 to an old man singing the song in 2010. There is footage of Madonna being interviewed about the rendition she did years ago, and then there is Garth Brooks. He has always been a real big booster and friend to me. It's not dull stuff. It rolls right along.
JAM: A great voice can work magic with the words in a song. Are there other elements you drew upon in the past when composing music?
It comes from a combination of your head and your heart. You can't write from just your head, or just your heart. A lot of the words that come out of me have to do with feelings. That sensation is the only way you get taste and emotions into a record. One of the key things about me, that people often overlook, is this. I'm primarily a singer. You would have never heard "American Pie" or "Vincent" on the radio if anyone else had sang them. They were unusual songs and required a certain type of vocal approach, a certain kind of control, and a theatrical aura to make them work. That's why so few people have tried to cover the songs after I recorded them. The songs I've written have come from my feelings on life, where I'm at emotionally when I compose the tune, and what I have to say about the world. My friend, Lee Hays, used to say about retirement that you don't give up your pulpit. Your stage is where you do many things. It's not just a place to entertain people or sing nostalgic songs. You can sing music that maybe annoys someone because they don't think you should say that, or they don't want to hear what you have to say. Writing songs is a way of life for me, not a career. It comes as naturally to me as breathing. I don't know anything else.
JAM: Did you reach your goals in the music business?
The main thing I want to say about that is I became the person I wanted to be without sacrificing along the way. I have certainly exceeded any of the goals I set for myself, because I didn't have any great belief that I would be much of anything to begin with. I was trying to make a living doing the things I wanted to do. I found people who believed in me. I found people that loved what I was doing and helped me. Doors opened and when they did, I walked through them. That has been the story of my life. There's a new door I'm walking through now, this documentary. I have been gifted with the time that Jim Croce didn't have, that Harry Chapin didn't have, that John Denver didn't have, John Lennon didn't have, to see this stuff happen. It's a very wonderful thing and it's a real honor this gift of life I've been given. We live hard and move fast in this business. We are going on planes all over the world and anything can happen.
JAM: Was there an objective behind the words to "American Pie" when you wrote them?
The thing I wanted to do with "American Pie," but I didn't know exactly how to go about doing it, was this. Somehow or the other, this idea occurred to me there was a connection between music and politics. The politics of the 1950s seemed to be reflected in the music of the 1950s. The politics of the 1960's seemed to capture the musical spirit of the '60s. So that was a notion I was toying with. Once I had the idea a little more defined, I had to figure out a way to say it. That's how my mind worked.
JAM: What do you think of the longevity of "American Pie" and its place in history?
When you get to be my age, you start thinking about what's going to be written about your life in the obituary. I would say I scored a few times. Half the battle with music is the struggle you go through to get what you want across. For example, I had a contract with Clive Davis for a year. He kept sending me these wimpy songs to do and I wouldn't sing them. I guarantee if I decided to sing those songs with the voice I had, and the production they would have provided me, I would have had hit records. But I didn't want to make those types of records. I can't sing songs that don't mean anything to me, period. I don't care about the money. I wasn't poor. I believed back then there was other ways to make money if you are intelligent about how you invest and study those things. But you don't have to prostitute yourself. And you regret it in the end anyway. If you sang a piece of crap that became a hit, and you didn't like it to begin with, you're stuck with it for the rest of your life. You end up not liking yourself. I wanted to be able to look in the mirror and say I did the right thing. That's just the way I was brought up.