A long, long time ago — 50 years, in fact — “American Pie” hijacked pop radio. Immediately, amateur sleuths began dissecting Don McLean’s sweeping, impressionistic lyrics for clues about all those intriguing references. Could Bob Dylan be the jester? Does the marching band refer to Sgt. Pepper’s? Is Janis Joplin the girl who sang the blues? Asked about the song’s meaning, McLean often quips, “It means I never have to work again.” But now the singer-songwriter is a bit less tight-lipped about his pop culture musical puzzle.
McLean, 76, is celebrating the song’s 50th birthday with a world tour. A children’s book, Don McLean’s American Pie: A Fable, arrives in June. In July, the documentary The Day the Music Died, which traces the sprawling tune’s creation, premieres on the streaming service Paramount+.
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The historic impact of ‘American Pie’
McLean has sold 50 million albums and is also known for his often-covered tune “And I Love You So,” his version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” and hits “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” and “Castles in the Air.” Yet nothing had the seismic impact of “American Pie,” 1972’s best-selling single after topping the Billboard chart for four weeks. At 8 minutes 36 seconds, it also set the record for the longest song to reach No. 1, a 50-year run that ended when Taylor Swift’s 10-minute “All Too Well” recently hit No. 1.
In 2001, “American Pie” placed fifth in a list of 365 Songs of the 20th Century compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts, behind “Over the Rainbow,” “White Christmas,” “This Land Is Your Land” and “Respect.” In 2015, handwritten lyrics for the song were sold at auction for more than $1.2 million, the third-highest price ever paid for an American literary manuscript.
Don McLean talks to AARP about ‘American Pie’
McLean was a 13-year-old paperboy in New Rochelle, N.Y., on the day his hero Buddy Holly died in a 1959 plane crash, which inspired the song’s opening verses and line “the day the music died.”
His love for music hasn’t died, though McLean also devotes time to his passions for film, his three Appaloosa horses, cooking and traveling with his 28-year-old girlfriend, model Paris Dylan. From his home in Maine, he spoke about “American Pie” and other slices of his life with AARP.
What theme drives ‘American Pie’?
Politics and music influence each other flowing forward. I came up with this forward-moving mythology when I created the song. It seemed to me the same group of people, 190 million Americans in the ’60s, caused the music to happen and the Kennedys to get elected and the Martin Luther King movement to move forward. And then we took a bad turn. One of the points I made is that politics is getting dumber and music is getting dumber.
Did music provide comfort during your difficult childhood?
My mother was Catholic and had me in her 40s. I was not very good in school. There was a lot of strife at home. The fact that I was sick a lot annoyed my father. So I was in my own world, and I gravitated toward music. One of the few things that made me happy was the top 40. There were so many different kinds of music on the charts. You had rock ’n’ roll next to Frank Sinatra. I didn’t have any music in my family. There was a lot of trouble under the surface but I kept going.
What specifically in music kept you going?
I fell in love with the Weavers. When I was 14 or 15, they were blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and I decided I had to know these people and find out what made them tick. My father passed away when I was 15, and that same year I found the phone number for Weavers member Fred Hellerman. We had phone conversations every few months. They were the best people I ever knew.
After making your mark in folk music, why did you distance yourself from that scene?
There were a lot of America haters, and that’s where I drew the line. I took everything I learned from folk with me. I still adore Pete Seeger. But I wanted to go off and be in my own zone. I didn’t know if I could write songs. I didn’t know how to read music. I knew I could sing, and I was a pretty good guitar player.
How did the lyrics for ‘American Pie’ take shape?
The lyrics started to emerge because of the idea I had about marching forward and building. In Woody Guthrie’s song, “Roll On Columbia” [a celebration of Washington’s Grand Coulee Dam, whose “power is turning our darkness to dawn”], a story builds and the song progresses with each verse. That’s how I approached it. The story holds the audience’s attention.
Analysis of the lyrics was immediate and obsessive. Why did you refuse to provide explanations?
It’s not a board game. It dumbs down the song, and it’s not a dumb song. In the new movie, I go over how it was written and what I was thinking. For example, Elvis is the king, right? But I specifically say the king has a thorny crown, and only Jesus Christ had a thorny crown. But that doesn’t mean you can’t think it’s Elvis. Something can be three things at once. I do mention James Dean by name. If I had wanted to mention Elvis or Bob Dylan by name, I would have.
‘American Pie’ plainly mentions Buddy Holly’s death and your years as a paperboy.
That was the only job I ever had. Being a paperboy made me sure I never wanted to work for anyone in my life. I am unemployable. I work for no man. I work for me. I have done what I wanted to do my entire life.
Do you agree with the consensus that the song points to an end of innocence in America?
The Depression and World War II ended innocence pretty good. We always had apocalyptic events and there was always a sense of trouble. The institutions began failing in the ’60s because people didn’t believe in them anymore. My little theory is we were brought up on rock ’n’ roll and God and country and Western movies and morality plays about right and wrong. Everyone knew Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers and their code of conduct. After Kennedy was killed, I read Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment (disputing the Warren Commission findings). All of us in college realized the government was withholding information about the assassination. And still is.
Have you ever confirmed that the lines about Satan’s spell allude to the Rolling Stones at Altamont?
I never specifically said that. But yes, something was happening with music. We were moving into an area of decadence that was ugly. Violence. Smashing guitars. That woke me up. Promoters seemed happy when someone died and they had a riot.
Fans have speculated that the line about the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost refers to various celebrities. Can you clarify?
I was literally talking about the Holy Trinity. Things had become so chaotic and decadent that even God was corrupted and went to California. Most of the interpretations I’ve heard about my intentions are all wrong.
Given radio’s preference for three-minute pop songs, did you get pressure to slim down ‘American Pie’?
I would never sign a record contract where anyone had any control over me at all. That’s part of the reason I was turned down by a lot of record companies. They all wanted input, and I said no, it has to be my way. I don’t like being told what to do. “American Pie” was cut at 8½ minutes. Without asking me, United Artists cut a short version. Then all these FM stations played the long version off the album.
How did instant worldwide success change your life?
I felt like I wasn’t a person anymore. Pete Seeger was in the car one day. He was very depressed and said, “You’re going to find out what it’s like to be a valuable product.” I discovered I did not like pop culture and I did not like raging fame. It frightened me. It wasn’t normal. When “American Pie” was around, I had screaming girls, people going through my garbage, women coming to the dressing room naked. It was hysteria, and it went on all over the world for five years or so.
Are you satisfied knowing that ‘American Pie’ is what you will be remembered for?
I’m okay with everything. I’m truly delighted that the 50th anniversary is expanding the song into a whole different area with merchandise, lines of clothing, the movie, the book, a tour. I’m going nuts right now. I’m giving everything to my foundation, which aids college students, homeless shelters and food banks in Maine.
How is ‘American Pie’ relevant today?
It continues to do what it’s always done, what I hoped it would do. It helps young people think about rock ’n’ roll and Buddy Holly and American history.
How do you want your future to play out?
I’d like to keep breathing.
Edna Gundersen, a regular AARP music critic, was the longtime pop critic for USA Today.