Don McLean has the honor of the longest song ever to reach number one with a playing time of eight minutes, thirty-six seconds. That song was "American Pie". That working manuscript for that song was sold at a Christies' auction for $1,205,000! That's the third highest auction price paid for an American literary manuscript and demonstrates just how popular that song was. Other hits followed, including "Vincent", "Crying" (which Roy Orbison wrote", and "Castles In The Air". In February of 2002 "American Pie" was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame and in 2004 Don McLean was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. It's a great honor to present an interview with one of America's finest singer / songwriters, Mr. Don McLean.
Q - I just have to tell you that it was back in early 1972 that the local Syracuse radio station, WOLF, was running a contest where listeners were invited to write an essay on the meaning of "American Pie". And so I did. The station received over one thousand entries and I won third prize, which was a copy of your album, and they even read part of my essay over the radio.
A - That's nice.
Q - I always wanted to tell you that story.
A - Thank you for telling me that.
Q - I suppose radio stations across the country had similar contests.
A - Yes. There was a lot of stuff going on about that, and there still is.
Q - And I'm smart enough not to get into "What did you mean about this lyric or that lyric in "American Pie"?
A - Yeah. That would be smart.
Q - I see you broke your European touring record in 2015. What kind of places were you performing in?
A - Oh, the usual theatres. One thousand seaters, two thousand seaters. I've always been a solid theatre act. I've never been a stadium deal. I do play large shows, outdoor things. I've been in special events where there have been like a million people with Garth Brooks in Central Park. I played in Washington, D.C. at the Turn Of The Century for six hundred thousand people at the Lincolm Memorial, just at the time it turned to the year 2000. So, I had a number of events like that. I drew about a hundred thousand to Hyde Park in 1975.
Q - I see you're very popular in Australia as well.
A - Yes.
Q - You're probably playing the same type of venues there.
A - I play one thousand to two thousand seaters. Those are solid and sometimes larger, but that's about right.
Q - How hard is it for you to introduce new material when maybe people in the audience are looking to hear your hits?
A - Well, I will say one thing about a draw, it goes in phases. Sometimes when I'm hot I'll play bigger places for a year or two and then it cools off and goes back up. It oscillates is one thing to point out, but it never disappears. It always stays at the solid theatre level, which is a wonderful gift to have. a lot of times when someone has a hit record and it's over with, they go back to playing libraries and things. This has never been the case with me. But in my case, this is the way it is for anybody who has hit material. If you went to see Elvis Presley and he sang a bunch of these songs like Olivia Newton-John songs or some of the other stuff he used to do, you'd be waiting for "Blue Suede Shoes" or "Treat Me Nice".
Q - I know what you mean. I saw Elvis in concert in 1976 and that guy could sing anything.
A - The thing that's sad about Elvis is he had so many hits and he sang really so few of them and the few of them that he did in the show he would throw away. He didn't do justice to "Don't Be Cruel" or "All Shook Up". I would rather that he didn't do them rather than the way he did them. They were just badly done. He did a good job on "Big Hunk Of Love". He was very erratic, but he was the greatest. He was Elvis. He could do what he wanted to do, but he sang my song, which was great, "And I Love Her So". He sang that every night the last two years of his life. Just about every performance he would include it. I'm so honored. That's one of the high points of my entire life. One of the guys that I felt was just the greatest ever found a song of mine that he liked.
Q - Did you ever meet Elvis?
A - I would go into towns where sometimes I would just cross paths with him. I would be playing a theatre and he'd be playing a big place. I would play after him and someone would come along and say "Elvis was here and he mentioned your name and sang your song." That would come back to me. I recall there was an opportunity to meet him, but I was aware of the fact that he was disintegrating in some fashion and I didn't really want to see that. To me, Elvis in '56, the early Elvis, when I was eleven, that made a huge impact on me. Him and his hair and his Martin guitar that he played. That turned into the idea that I wanted to be Don McLean. I wanted to do that. Even though I got my feet wet in the Folk thing, because it suited me more, it was Elvis that really got me wanting to play guitar. Those first record covers were very powerful. It's the one thing I'm really sorry about today, and I'm glad that vinyl is coming back because there's nothing like listening to a record and looking at that album cover. Holding it in your hand.
Q - But not just the cover, but the inside of the jacket. Finding out who did what on that record.
A - I know. It's wonderful. It's real. Now they put everything online and you can do this and you can do that, but it disappears. The records don't disappear. I've got my whole collections upstairs.
Q - You obviously must still have a record player.
A - Oh, sure. You can get those.
Q - I saw 'em for sale at Wal-Mart.
A - Yeah, sure. It's really nice, and I've got every record that ever had really. I've never, ever gotten rid of one. I used to bring 'em home. I've got thousands of 'em.
Q - Are they still in good condition?
A - Why sure. If you put 'em back in the sleeves and put 'em away and keep 'em away from the heat, they'll last forever.
Q - They're not scratched?
A - Not really. Some of the ones I had when I was fourteen I played a million times, but I would always find second copies of those. I love that stuff. I've got a lot of pristine copies of albums that I particularly like.
Q - Sounds like your record collection could be worth some money.
A - I wouldn't sell 'em.
Q - There's really nobody singing songs anymore that tell a story. Does that bother you?
A - Well, it doesn't bother me, but it tells me something. See, I look at the world around me and it's telling me things. In other words, entertainment today, music and politics run together. That was the theme of "American Pie". Today you have kind of an empty spectacle form of entertainment that has a kind of music attached to it. It's not really a kind of music you would call songs. This is why Trump is the perfect President for right now, because he is the same thing, spectacle and rather empty and reflective of the soul of the country as reflected in this kind of entertainment. So, it all goes together. This is my theory. It seems to be right at the moment too. I didn't vote, so I don't want to say I was for anybody. He's the sort of Liberace type candidate.
Q - You didn't vote? You don't like to get involved in politics?
A - No. I like politics. I didn't care for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. I think the Clintons and the Bushs need to go away. We've had enough of these people. They have a very imperious attitude about the notion that somehow you take the country for awhile and then I'll take the country for awhile. C'mon, give me a break. That's what I liked about Obama. Here we have a very intelligent, gentle, Black man who came in for eight years and we've had good years with him. Now we've got this brash guy, but he's not a Bush and he's not a Clinton, so I'm happy about that.
Q - Can you sit down and write a song any time of the day or night, or does inspiration have to strike you?
A - I think you hit something because there are a lot of people who can write a song any day they want and they're really not inspired, but they can write something that sounds like a song. There are artists out there, and I won't mention their names, who are very successful who I think just come out with this stuff and it's not really inspired. Maybe every now and then they will come up with something that is inspired, but meanwhile they keep things going with a lot of stuff that's pretty good. So, I can do that, but I don't. I only do something when it really interests me. That's why I haven't made fifty albums. Maybe I've made twenty.
Q - Do awards mean anything to you?
A - I would love to win all the awards I could, but I'm not that successful that I win a lot of awards. I've not won many awards, but that is largely a function of public relations and record company expenditure. When you're with Columbia Records and they want you to win awards, you're going to win awards. You're going to win a Grammy because they have the power to get that to happen.
Q - You were good friends with Jim Croce. Did you two guys ever discuss putting a duo together or a band?
A - Nope. I was a Freshman at Villanova University and I only lasted for a few months. I didn't want to be in school. He was a Senior or something like that. In those days, we're talking about 1963, you still had the collegiate regime if you will. They dressed a certain way and they acted a certain way. Freshmen were low life and Sophomores were coming up and Juniors were cool and Seniors were already out. All that stuff. Sort of a pecking order. So, I was this little Freshman and he was very well established on this campus, which was huge. There were thousands and thousands of students. You just couldn't imagine how big this place was. But he discovered me somehow 'cause I'd play my guitar all the time. He had good radar. People would come back in and say, "He plays really good guitar. You should check him out." So he introduced himself. At the time he wore a blazer and had his hair parted on the side. he looked like a real geek, you know? But a sweet guy. Very smart. Only thing I remember is that one time he came by in his car and picked me up and we went over to a guy who lived in a trailer and he played mandolin and sang and we sat around and played songs. I was so miserable at school. I didn't get the enjoyment from that that I should have, but I certainly do remember it. but he was always very nice to me.
Q - Was the guy who played mandolin Maury Muehleisen, who was also killed in the plane crash with Jim Croce?
A - I don't really know.
Q - You say Jim Croce was established on the campus of Villanova. Is that because people knew who he was? They would go and see him at coffee houses, that type of thing?
A - Yeah. There were different things going on in that big campus. I think they had a lot of those Kingston Trio, Brothers Four kind of groups that would pop up on every campus. Kids would play guitars and sing "Tom Dooley" or something. It was very Folky. And then The Beatles came along the first part of '64 and they really hit and then everything really started to change.
Q - There is something else about your story that caught my attention. Your father died when you were fifteen. I've noticed that when that happens it seems to give a person an edge or a drive to prove themselves that maybe someone else doesn't have. Case in point: John Lennon lost his mother when he was fourteen, Paul McCartney lost his mother when he was fifteen, James Dean lost his mother when he was a child. David Bowie lost his mother at an early age. Is there something to this theory?
A - I think that is probably somewhat accurate.
Q - You have to prove yourself more than someone else, for whatever reason.
A - I didn't have the comfort of my parents being around. There's a comfort there that they're always there and all of a sudden he was gone and then my mother was not all that stable. So basically I couldn't say, "Hey Mom, look at this." It was always I had to get. I wanted to do the best I could just because I was hungry. I didn't know where I was headed 'cause I didn't have any home to go back to. I didn't have any safety net. I didn't have any money. So I basically had nothing except my guitar and my brains and my wits and my instincts. They've served me very well in my life.
Q - Why couldn't you have returned home? Your mother was still alive, wasn't she?
A - She was still alive, but there really was no home. We weren't living in our house anymore. She was spending a lot more time with her sister who had a big house out on Long Island. She was sort of looking after her kids. So, I was on my own pretty much.
Q - After leaving Villanova, you hit the road, playing and singing.
A - Yeah, I did. What happened was throughout that year I began to run across a few other guys, one or two in particular, who weren't in school and weren't working and were just kind of doing nothing. I was working at what I was trying to do. That meant that I had a manager and I had an agent and I was going to New York. I would get a chance to perform in nightclubs in New York City and maybe I would get some jobs out of town. It was very sparse, but I still had some connections. I'd do some things in the Summer. Where I grew up, which was in New Rochelle, New York, conformity was the name of the game. It wasn't like being on a farm or something where one of thy boys might say, "I want to go into the city and maybe work in a factory," or "I want to go into the city and go to school." There weren't a lot of other farm boys saying, "You don't want to do that." (laughs) They didn't care. But in New Rochelle, if you didn't go to college and then get a straight job, get married, settle down and belong to the country club and do all that, people shunned you. So, here I was a drop out, no job, father dead, mother not home much, gigging once in awhile but nobody knows what I'm doing, hanging out with a couple of other guys who weren't working. It paints a picture. After awhile I felt that my father always wanted me to go to college. He did not go to college. I thought I can do this amount of work and go to school and continued to do all the other things I was doing. I just liked to be busy. In 1968 I got a degree in Economics, Finance, and Philosophy. By that time I hooked up with Pete Seeger. After I graduated and got the degree, I went up to the country on the Hudson and started to sing with him. Then things started to happen.
Q - When you wrote your hit songs, did they take a long time to write or did they come easy to you?
A - Well, when you're going you can do a brand new thing because you've never done it before. When you're older and you've written hundreds of songs and you've been through so many experiences, some of them good and some of them bad, and you've got a lot of scars and you've got a lot of history and a lot of mental imagery that you didn't have when you were young and your life is ahead of you, it's just a different thing. It can be easy but a lot of times I think you want to keep what you have to stay on a level to what the average person can relate to because you start getting very specific, but you get older and people don't want to hear about that stuff. You want to keep what you say in your songs to be poetic and timeless and beautiful. Beautiful is important. It must be beautiful. That's one of the things we don't have now, beauty. Beauty is not around now. Beauty is basically my hallmark of what I do. Beautiful songs. and I sing in a way that sometimes is beautiful, and I like it.
Q - Beauty is missing from songs today. In fact, most of what passes for music is really a Broadway style production. Michael Jackson probably started it, but he was one talented guy.
A - Oh, yeah. You see it's a mindless spectacle of entertainment. The music, if you want to call it that, is backdrop to the dancing and the costumes and light show. Somebody with talent like Michael Jackson comes along and lesser talented people try to do the same thing and they can't.
Q - What happened with Mariah Carey on New Year's Eve? I feel sorry for the lady. Lip synching? And when things go wrong she just walks around the stage. Can you imagine Elvis doing that or even you?! You could just go on with the show.
A - Yeah. I never lip synched. Can you imagine Sinatra lip synching??! C'mon. a person in show business used to take pride in his skill. You had certain standards. They crucified Milli Vanilli, and now everybody does it.
Q - Seems like the days of singer / songwriters are rapidly coming to an end.
A - They are because the songwriters aren't very good and they certainly can't sing. And the singers aren't very good and they can't write songs. One of the things I'm proud of is I think I can write songs and I know I can sing. So, at least I take the title singer / songwriter seriously.
Q - I hate to see what the future of music is going to be.
A - Well, it's gonna be computer repetitive stuff that will make you want to hang yourself, which is why you have to hold onto your vinyl records. (laughs)
Q - To the ten year old kids, today's music is just great I guess.
A - You gotta give the kids credit though, because the beautiful thing is they're searching around for stuff. They want things. They want to find out stuff and they have the Internet. That is a really good thing because they can go on YouTube. If you decide you want to see Don McLean on YouTube you can spend a week seeing television specials of me going back to 1969 all over the world. You can really get a sense of what I do and how I do it and how I am on a good day, how I am on a great day. What my standards are. You can judge an artist's character a lot of the times by whether or not he's thinking about what he's doing each time he does it or whether he phones it in. There are a lot of great mechanical artists out there that wouldn't have shown up except for YouTube.
Q - I know you hit the big time when you were featured on The C.B.S. Evening News.
A - Well, there's so many outlets for everything, you don't even know what's going on. There's like five hundred stations. You can't focus on anything.
Q - Something good might be lost in the shuffle.
A - I don't think so. If something's good it's gonna come out. You're gonna hear it if it has a record company behind it.
Q - As long as we're talking about records, do you have any new recording projects in the works?
A - Yeah. I am going to release an album this year (2017) called "Botanical Garden". It's got all new songs on it.
Q - And you're going to Europe and Australia to promote it?
A - I don't know what I'm going to do yet. I don't like to announce plans when I'm not sure what I'm going to do, but we are talking about going to China and possibly going to Europe in July and the rest of the time I'll be around the country, the United States.
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