Don McLean Interview: "American Pie" Led to Nervous Breakdown
Image attributed to Don McLean
Don McLean is one of the most revered and respected songwriters in American history. His smash hit “American Pie” resides in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry and was named a top 5 song of the 20th Century by the Recording Industry of America. His other hit singles include “Vincent,” “Dreidel” and “Wonderful Baby,” as well as his renditions of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” and the Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You.”
As “American Pie” celebrates 50 years, Don McLean’s American Pie: A Fable is released. The picture book weaves elements and themes from the classic song with experiences from the singer-songwriter’s own early years into a stunningly visual and uplifting tale for all ages. McLean is currently embarked on the 50th Anniversary American Pie World Tour with “American Pie” having made its way into numerous films, including recent premieres of Marvel’s Black Widow and the new Apple TV+ sci-fi movie Finch. The documentary The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s American Pie will premiere exclusively on Paramount+ on July 19, 2022.
"I had a little fantasy world going because of my illness, which is not mentioned in the book, which kept me home."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Don, how did the book, Don McLean’s American Pie: A Fable, come about?
Don McLean: What happened was, a man named Spencer Proffer came into my life through my representative in Nashville. He heard about this idea for the 50th anniversary celebration, I guess you might call it, and he was so creative. Spencer said, “I want to to a Broadway show. I want to do a documentary movie. I want to do a bookazine.” He knew all these people and how to get this done. A bookazine is a thing you buy at the checkout counter in a grocery store. They’ll have like Marilyn or the Beatles. He also said he wanted to do a children’s book. So I said, “Sure.” So we contracted for all this stuff. I gave him the rights to use my trademark and parts of my song, and he did one thing after another.
His wife, Judy, is an expert in doing these children’s books. So she took interviews I had given and also interviewed me as well and used the fact that I’m a paperboy in the beginning of the song “American Pie.” She created this character who delivers papers. It’s a simple story about him as a lonely paperboy who finds a connection with one of his neighbors named Buddy, and his whole fantasy world is beautifully illustrated. That’s how the book was created. The bookazine is out, too, and the documentary comes out in July.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Very cool. How much of that paperboy’s story is yours?
Don McLean: The whole thing really. I mean, that’s kind of how I was. It was me and my fantasy world. Every kid’s bike was his horse. We all watched westerns growing up. It wasn’t too far from the story of many of the kids, only I was different (laughs). I had a little fantasy world going because of my illness, which is not mentioned in the book, which kept me home. I once read where Ringo, I think, was sick at home for like a year or something.
I had this asthma problem, which other kids did not have, and it was triggered by so many different things. It would set me back in the Spring and the Fall, especially when the grasses came up, you know. If I’d go to a different location like out on Long Island to see my cousin, I would immediately end up in bed sick. Other kids didn’t have this. It was very annoying because I was unable to keep up. So to compensate, I started falling in love with records, the radio, television and movies.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When you were 15, your father passed away. Did his death affect your songwriting?
Don McLean: Oh, definitely. I’m not KC and the Sunshine Band. I’ve written some pretty depressing stuff. Sometimes, it just comes out that way. In fact, one of the things about “American Pie” is that the first part of the song, the slow part, came out all in one go. I thought, “I cannot have another slow song on this record. If I want a rock and roll song, I’ve got to make it happen.” So I changed the whole thing around because I could’ve done another verse just like that and repeated it, done a bridge and connected them, and that would’ve been the song. I could’ve done 20 different things. I could’ve done anything I wanted. I chose that format. I created it for that particular reason.
So everything I do as a songwriter is done with an ulterior motive to make that song work. What you’re trying to do is capture and express something that’s never been done before. Every time you want to go back to that record, you want to get that old feeling. That’s the point of it. Well, in the old days, a great singer would have a great arranger, have great engineers and a great studio owned by his record company. He’d also have great publishers and songwriters who would bring him songs. That’s the way Johnny Mathis operated at Columbia Records or Doris Day or any of these people.
In my era, I had to do everything. I had to make the arrangements. I had to write the songs. I had to choose the studio. I had to choose the producer. I had to fight with people to get things the way I wanted it because they’d never heard these songs before. No one wrote a song like “Vincent.” No one wrote a song like “The Grave” ever before. So they’re trying to figure out what to do with it, but I had it in my head already. So it was a struggle on lots of different levels that would be different from the old days where there was a studio system that made records and movies.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When “American Pie” became an international success, was that something that was entirely good for you?
Don McLean: Well, it was so good for me I had a nervous breakdown in 1974 where I couldn’t function. Very few people know that. I couldn’t leave the house. I was in a bad way because I was playing 125 shows a year on stage. Take a listen to me sometime off that solo album. That was the sixth record I made for United Artists, and you’ll see what I did on stage and the kind of thing I used to do. There’s a video of me doing things, too.
So I cracked up basically. While I was cracked up, I made an album called Homeless Brother with Joel Dorn, which is one of the nicest records I ever made. Then I decided I had enough of being cracked up and started to step up, stand up and move on. I mean, I’m not a crybaby. But I did a lot of crying that year. But once I make my mind up, I just soldier on. I never relied on analysis or help or anything like that. I just figured, “I’ll get through this somehow. I got through my father’s thing. I’ll get through this.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did it take a lot of time for you to completely get through it?
Don McLean: Yeah. It took about a year. What happened is that I made some changes after that. I never allowed myself to be overworked or pushed around or get into a situation where I was doing six shows in a row with one day off or any of that. No. I was doing things at my own pace, not doing it the old way. Those people in your life, managers, agents, they’re not your friends. They’re out to make you as successful as possible and then ride you like a rented mule. That’s what they do. I haven’t had a real manager in decades because I like to do everything myself.
There’s a saying, which I really love, about show business and why I don’t like managers and the way they treat artists, “Treat him like mushrooms. Keep him in the dark and feed him horseshit.” That’s what they do. They hold back information so that they have power over you, and I hate all that. One of the things about me is that I’m a stallion. I’m a wild stallion. I still am. I’m up in the woods running. I don’t like being told what to do. I’ve never had a job. I’ve never had a boss. I don’t mind people suggesting things, but once they start pushing me around, they’re going to get pushed back. I do it at my own pace. I learned that from the breakdown. It’s easy.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Speaking more about “American Pie,” I think it’s fascinating that you won’t reveal exactly what those lyrics actually mean.
Don McLean: I’m going to reveal exactly what I was thinking in this movie that’s coming out in July, The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s American Pie. It’ll be a lot of noise about it because it’s on the Paramount+ streaming service, and it’s a Viacom and CBS project. I take the guitar and talk about every word in that song, how I remember it, what I was thinking when I was writing it, why people want specific answers to specific things and why that doesn’t work because there are multiple people in the same character.
They’re always thinking the “King” is Elvis. Well, only Jesus Christ has a thorny crown. But it could be Elvis, too, you see. That’s the problem with trying to satisfy one dimensional thinking about the song because it’s not one dimensional. That was my goal, and it was meant to be fun, too. It wasn’t like some super ironic Dylan song or Phil Ochs song or some finger-pointing protest song. It was meant to make fun of a lot of that stuff and have fun with things.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: However, the song was written with Buddy Holly in mind.
Don McLean: The whole song is not about Buddy Holly, but the opening is. I dedicated the album to Buddy Holly for that reason, that it refers to the plane crash. I did this because I’d been thinking about this particular event for 10 years.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The plane crash in 1959 that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and “The Big Bopper”?
Don McLean: Yes, and suddenly, I came up with the first part of the song all in one shot into the tape recorder. It started out with “A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.” (singing) I was writing it as I was singing it into the tape recorder. It happened all the way through to “The day the music died.” (singing) It was on the machine. I said, “What the heck is that”? It was like Buddy reaching out to me.
I was so excited about this because it was so beautiful, and it summed up everything on the day I saw he died when I cut open the papers and how cold it was that day. February was bitchin’ at minus zero. So I had this thing, and it could’ve gone a million different ways. I could’ve repeated that whole verse part a second time with a connecting piece. I could’ve sped that up and never had a slow part. There were a lot of things I could’ve done.
I was trying to write a song about America, a big song about America, and I wanted it to be a closer. I wanted it to be the last song on the album. All of the other songs would flow toward this amazing song about America. It ended up being so big and powerful that it was the opening song. I agreed to do that because we wanted to get it right out there. So that screwed up my whole plan for the album. That was worth it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In “Vincent,” were you writing about yourself?
Don McLean: Yeah. Every song I write is me in some way or another. It’s all about me. I pioneered that actually. Nobody did that before I came along. I would write songs like “The Pride Parade” or about me sometimes or using other metaphors like “The More You Pay (The More It’s Worth).” That’s about a horse and the auctioneer using that almost as a metaphor for show business. Suddenly, you’re a valuable property, the more you pay, the more it’s worth.
I actually heard a guy say that at an auction. He said, “I think if you pay more, it’s worth more.” I said, “Oh, boy. I’ve got to write that down.” So I went home and made it all about a little boy and a horse and how sad it is for the horse looking like a stripper almost, coming out and prancing, being bid on and them laughing about the fact that if they couldn’t sell it, they’d shoot it. At the end, she asks, “And where was the boy who rode on her back with his arms holding tight around her neck?”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Don, what else is going on in your life?
Don McLean: I’m very happy now. I’m in my third architectural phase. I went from the farmhouse stage in New York state to the gilded age stage about 30 years in the state of Maine with fine furniture and beautiful homes. Now, I’m out in California in my Palm Springs swinging 50s time period. All my cowboy stars are here, Hopalong Cassidy Trail, Gene Autry Avenue, and I got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Isn’t that perfect? I wore a bolo around my neck that I got from Jackie Autry. I was dressed in black and was overweight in the pandemic, but I’ve lost that now. Then around my neck was that very blingy gold bolo that was once Gene Autry’s.
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