Friday, May 8, 2015

Don McLean Reflects on Iconic "American Pie" Song

Don McLean's "American Pie" became a chart-topping hit in 1972. It is remembered most for its poetic--and mysterious--lyrics that expressed an aching, heartfelt yearning for a simpler, happier time. The tragic deaths of 22 year old Buddy Holly, 17 year old Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (better known as "the Big Bopper") in a plane crash in 1959 provided the direct inspiration for the song but "American Pie" also referred to a wide range of cultural and political events, including the rise of Communism, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War.

People have tried to parse the lyrics word by word to figure out exactly what each line meant and for many years McLean refused to offer any explanations. That changed, at least a bit, when McLean recently sold the original 16 page working manuscript of the lyrics for $1.2 million at auction. McLean told Rolling Stone, "I'm going to be 70 this year. I have two children and a wife, and none of them seem to have the mercantile instinct. I want to get the best deal that I can for them. It's time."

Here is what McLean wrote on February 13, 2015 in the Christie's auction catalog:

For more than 40 years I have rambled around every state of the union and many, many countries of the world. My primary interests in life have been America, singing, songwriting, and the English language. I love the English language as much as anything in life and words really do mean something. I thought it would be interesting as I reach age 70 to release this work product on the song American Pie so that anyone who might be interested will learn that this song was not a parlor game. It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music and then was fortunate enough through the help of others to make a successful recording. I would say to young songwriters who are starting out to immerse yourself in beautiful music and beautiful lyrics and think about every word you say in a song.

The catalog also includes an essay by Douglas Brinkley. Here is a poignant quote from Brinkley's piece:

McLean was a paperboy when, on February 3, 1959, he saw that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson had been tragically killed in an airplane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa. "The next day I went to school in shock and guess what?" McLean recalled. "Nobody cared. Rock n'roll in those days was sort of like hula hoops and Buddy hadn’t had a big hit on the charts since 57." By cathartically writing "American Pie" McLean has guaranteed that the memory of those great musicians lives forever.

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