Contributor’s Note: This year marks the 50th anniversary release of the iconic song, American Pie. In celebration of this legendary song, Home Free and Don McLean teamed up for a special collaboration which will be released on Friday, January 29. This is also the first time Don has recorded the song since the original recording. An official music video was released on Wednesday, February 3rd, “the day the music died” — the day Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson died tragically in an Iowa plane crash — 62 years ago. I was very fortunate to be able to chat to the musical icon Don McLean himself for Madness To Creation. Fans can find Don McLean at the following locations:
Mark Dean: Okay. It’s been a bit of a surreal time, a surreal time, over the last year for the world. I just wondered how it’s affected you both professionally and personally.
Don McLean: Well to be quite honest, I’ve been enjoying being home. I’ve been on the road for 50 years, and I’ve had a whole year where I could sleep late or I could do what I wanted. And so I’ve been writing songs and getting different things done. I’ve had so much fun. I’ve wanted to remix certain songs; I’m doing it. I’ve got an album ready to go. I put another one out. I’ve got a YouTube channel up. I’ve got all sorts of business things going, a documentary movie, a children’s book, a Broadway musical. I’m rolling.
And then on top of that, this Home Free thing happens and American Pie is coming back like gangbusters. It’s all been sort of engineered from me and my manager in Nashville being here. I’ve done a lot of stuff for the YouTube channel. So, I mean, I’m ready to go back on the road. But I hope that it’s going to be a good experience. I hope that we’ll be getting back out there soon, but I don’t think so. Maybe at the end of the summer or something, we might start to see something. But I think Garth Brooks is threatening to be at a big stadium in July and he usually makes good on his promises. We’ll see.
Mark Dean: Why did you decide to re-record such an iconic song? And what was your reasoning behind it? What did you hope to achieve by redoing it?
Don McLean: Well, it’s their version of my song, but I participated. They asked me to do it, so I did it. I didn’t mind. And no one’s ever done the song all the way through. But I like the idea of an acapella version. That’s really different, very different from any other. So I really thought that was a good idea. And they were very good at what they do. So I went along with it, and it turned out better than I even thought it would, it really did.
Mark Dean: The song was actually quite a long piece of music, a long song for you to do. Isn’t the longest one you’ve done, or have you recorded something longer since?
Don McLean: I’m not sure if Chain Lightning or Believer, one of those songs was eight minutes, but I’ll say it’s probably the longest.
Mark Dean: What about the composition of the song? Did it come together seamlessly in one session? Or was it something that you had a little idea you had to come back to and maybe work at it over quite an extended period?
Don McLean: It took three months. But I could tell you a little bit, so you can have some idea. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’ll take any idea that interests me and follow it all the way until it’s finished. And it might be a little song like Wonderful Baby or a long song like American Pie. But it’s a conceptual thing that I do. So I really am not a professional songwriter. I’m an inventor, I invent, I take these concepts, these ideas that I have that I think will make a good song, and then I go with it wherever it takes me. And it’s in my head, so I don’t really have to play the piano or anything. All I have to do is sing the song into the tape machine. And if I can’t play it, somebody else will.
For example, I wrote a song called The Statue, which is heavily orchestrated, and I can’t play that song, but I sang it into a tape recorder. And it’s about the Statue of Liberty. And a very, very wonderful arranger, Kenny Ascher, who had a hit with a song called Evergreen, which I think won an Oscar or something, I’ve known the guy since the 1960s, he orchestrated that. You should hear it some time. It’s a huge sounding string section that does this. It’s all in my head. So I’ve actually thought about doing a symphony of some sort, or connecting songs with some sort of connections that are with the big string sections and it would move into something else, that kind of thing, because it’s in my head.
Mark Dean: What about that moment when you finally said, “I’ve finished. I’m happy with that song”? Well, obviously you couldn’t get an idea of how big it was going to be, but did you get a sense of maybe a feeling that, that’s pretty good, that’s pretty special?
Don McLean: It sure was for me. I mean, it was really the album that I was so proud of, because American Pie was the centerpiece and it came last. I had written all these other songs, and I said to myself, “I really don’t have what I want yet.” And I’ll tell you another thing that happens with me, maybe it happens with other songwriters, but I’m an album guy. I don’t really think about singles. And I had about eight, nine, 10 songs, whatever. And they were all looking at me and thinking, they talked back to me and they said, “We don’t have what we need yet. We belong to something bigger than this. You’ve got to keep working.” And you see, I knew that. And I had to have something big, they were saying, and I did it.
And when I did it, they all made better sense. Everything influences the other stuff around it. So boy, when I put that together, I achieved my goal, and it worked when I listened to the record, it was always enjoyable, it felt good, it was round, it wasn’t nasty, it pushed out, it moved like the wind, it’s got to move and got to lift up and move, and it did, and it did by the force of the music and the lyrics. And I always thought of American Pie as my sort of half-ass version of Sergeant Pepper. I was drawing, that was my masterpiece. And it’s always been, I guess.
Mark Dean: Obviously, the success of the song, it’s something to be obviously pretty proud of. But do you feel for all that you’ve done before and all that you’ve subsequently done, all that you’re doing now, that it’s overshadowed, maybe had a detrimental effect on anything else that you’ve done? Or that people just want to talk about that song, rather than anything else, or mostly?
Don McLean: I’m just glad they want to talk about something that’s connected to me; I’m happy. I can’t change things that I can’t change. And I certainly can’t waste any of my life complaining about the fact that I’m fabulously wealthy and known all over the world, and that people buy my albums by the millions, because people want to talk about American Pie. I just couldn’t possibly do that. You know?
Mark Dean: What other songs would you personally pick out from your musical career that have been, for you, a highlight, outside of American Pie?
Don McLean: Oh, I’ve made a lot of tracks that I really love. And some of them, I didn’t write. I love, and you can hear it on a YouTube, there’s a version that I did on Chain Lightning of Lotta Lovin’, you know, the Gene Vincent song? That’s probably one of my favourite tracks that I ever did, with The Jordanaires. It’s a cool track, man. It really is neat. And it’s just a whole sound, like I can’t even describe it, you have to hear it. I love the songs on Headroom, the album I made, I like Prime Time, which I think is America as a game show. And it’s funny because that album, two songs from that record, Doing It Wrong and The Wrong Thing To Do, and that record did not sell. And yet, I am very proud of Prime Time though, but those two songs were taken by the rapper, Drake, and he made a song called Doing It Wrong, which I own 60% of.
Mark Dean: That’s nice for you that new artists are embracing your work ,and using it as a basis to create new songs/new sounds?
Don McLean: He sold 4 million copies of that, and that’s more than I’ve sold of American Pie, I’ll tell you that, at the time, right off the bat. So I own that, part of that, with him. So there’s people using my music for other things. So it’s worth doing, always, to get ideas out there, even if I’m not the one who particularly gets the credit for it. What I do know is that I’m known for having unusual ideas and writing songs that are… And those kids are going over my stuff. They’re listening to every record I ever made, believe me, because they need ideas.
Mark Dean: And of course, Madonna did American Pie as well, which can’t have harmed your bank balance.
Don McLean: Well, I love Madonna for doing that. She’s my girl, I mean, she’s terrific. And that she made that hot video with those low rider blue jeans and everything. So that video was one of her most famous videos. It’s all been good, man. It really has. It’s all been great.
Mark Dean: Obviously, you’ve done many interviews about the song and the concept of the song, what it means to you. Are there any stories about the song that you’ve never told anybody?
Don McLean: Geez, I hope not. I think there may be, I don’t know. Sure, there’s stories, but I pretty much exhausted… I’m going to be putting a lot of this into this documentary movie. So probably, even if I had something, I might not say it here. But I’ll tell you, taking the song around, the first thing that happened to me was I went on this massive tour of the world and it brought me everywhere. I was somebody that hadn’t been to a lot of places. And all of a sudden I was going to hundreds of cities all over the world. So going along with the phenomenon of the record came this instant plane ticket that took me everywhere. So I got to meet folks in Ireland and Scotland and London, and Holland, and Israel, and Manila. Oh my God. I mean, I was just going everywhere.
It was a big deal for me, because I was tired all the time. Yeah. But I really like people, I like them, I empathise with their lives, and I’m just glad that if they like what I did, if it means something to them, the stories I get back, “And I Love You So was at my wedding. Vincent was my father’s favourite song and I think of him whenever I hear it. We used to listen together to American Pie when the kids were little, and now we listen at Thanksgiving, we’ll play it.” It’s great. You know what I mean? It makes me glad I did what I did with my life.
Mark Dean: It must be a great feeling to have created a song that’s iconic and such a part of so many lives of people all over the world.
Don McLean: It certainly is. And you know, American Pie is equivalent to probably a dozen normal number one records. It’s a gigantic thing. It’s not just a hit record. You know what I mean?
Mark Dean: And here we are still talking about it. How many years later?
Don McLean: 50 years later.
Mark Dean: Just the final one. You’ve done many interviews. If the roles were reversed, who would you like to interview? Maybe not even a musician, somebody that’s inspired you, a hero maybe?
Don McLean: There’s a lot of people around that I’d like to interview. I’d like to interview, just off the top of my head, Johnny Mathis, and ask him a lot of questions about his music and stuff. I wouldn’t interview Paul McCartney or any of those big guys because they’ve been interviewed so much, there’s so much information about them. There’s a guy named Thomas Soul who is a conservative black sociologist and I’d like to talk to him. He’s extremely intelligent. And he takes a very insane view of things, it’s based upon facts rather than emotion. I’d like to talk to him. I’d like to talk to Don Everly actually, and ask him a whole lot of questions about what it was like being in that family, and being on the radio when he was nine or whatever, and always with his brother and everything, and their odyssey, it’s an odyssey.
I had an odyssey, to get where I got, to where I am. It’s 50 years later. I look back on this, I did thousands and thousands and thousands of one nighters all over the world, probably 22 or 23 world tours, I’ve put out maybe 40 albums, I’ve got gold and platinum all over this room here from people that have done my music. And all of a sudden, now this is a very interesting thing, this website has triggered a recounting of a lot of my music, and suddenly I’m getting a triple platinum for the American Pie single, I’ve got a quadruple platinum for the American Pie album. They’re going to be looking at the first albums I put out, Tapestry, Homeless Brother, Don McLean, those are going to be gold or platinum albums on the wall. My recording career has suddenly come to life, and now you put on top of that, this thing.
Mark Dean: Do you still have hopes and dreams and goals? You’ve achieved so much, but what remains for you? What drives you still on?
Don McLean: Well, I’m always interested in what tomorrow is going to bring. I wake up in the morning, and I’ll be very frank, I ask God to help me be a good person and to help me be kind to people and think of things that I can do that will be helpful, and not be a jerk, which I can be. I do that. And then I go through the day and see what kind of influence or some kind of something will come along that will inspire me, or I’ll put something in the back of my head. I learn things all the time and that’s how I go through life. And then I’ll reach a point where I want to create something. And I start working on that. And lo and behold, there’s going to be another album this year with new songs. I don’t know where it came from. I wasn’t going to write any more songs. And all of a sudden I wrote a tune with my bass player and my guitar player, and we wrote a couple more, and then I wrote like eight more songs. And so we got an album.
Mark Dean: You’re still obviously very focused on music, but outside of music, do you have any sort of interests or hobbies? Do you have any spare time? Or is music just everything to you?
Don McLean: No, I have lots of spare time. I’m interested in many things. I have four homes and I love architecture and design and I decorate rooms. And I’m an antique collector and I’m interested in everything, you know, Oriental rugs. And that’s why I love England and Ireland, because I love the furniture and the rooms, and the country homes, and so on. So I get excited about all this stuff. And I have just many, many interests. And I’m always going from one to the next.
My interest in the West, I even did a Western album. And if you look at it, you see it on the internet, the cover of that is half of a collage that I made myself. I got into using all these pictures of old Western stars, and I had this big, long piece of wood. And I cut them all out and I put them together in a certain way to create almost a little movie or something. And then I ended up using it. I had it for 20 years, and then I made the record, and I said, “I’m going to use that for the cover.” So I do stuff like that.
Mark Dean: Don, it’s been great. I got to go. Thank you very much.
Don McLean: Okay. Well, I got to go too. It was nice talking to you.
And there you have it! Fans can check out Mark Dean at AntiHero Magazine, The Spill Magazine and Madness To Creation. Fans can find him at the following locations:
Fans can find this podcast featuring DON MCLEAN via Soundcloud below: