Don McLean wrote his 1971 classic song “American Pie” when he was just 24 years old – and a half-century later, he’s still serving it piping hot on stage.
“This is a fertile tree,” the singer/songwriter told Fox News Digital about the track’s lasting success. “I mean, it’s been giving and giving for 50 years. I’m just saying this as if I didn’t write it. But if I were to look at it, I would say it’s a monument of some sort.”
The 76-year-old shared that he initially wanted to write a song about America. However, rather than it being a love letter to our country, it became more of a farewell to the American dream, a lost of innocence in our nation. It refers to the “day the music died,” or the 1959 plane crash that killed Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Buddy Holly, McLean’s childhood idol.
For decades, the song has been heavily interpreted by both fans and music critics alike. Many have insisted the song explores the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Manson family murders, the sudden death of James Dean, the decline of Elvis Presley, and even the Vietnam War – just to name a few.
Some have wondered if it also refers to Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, The Beatles or even hallucinogenic drugs. Someone, everyone has their own unique take.
The man behind the lyrics has continued to keep coy over the track’s meaning, insisting it is open to interpretation. However, his initial inspiration is clear.
“What songs were about America in the old days? ‘This Land is Your Land,’ ‘America the Beautiful,’ ‘Power and the Glory,’ ‘This Is My Country’ – I didn’t want any of that stuff,” McLean explained. “I didn’t want any simplistic Valentine to the country. I wanted to have a strange trip, an American trip, which would be the music and political views together, going forward, [that] somehow insinuate the madness of America and the danger in America and the opportunity in America – all of that. [It’s] a big thing to do.”
“… When you have something like that, and you’re who I am, you carry a complex idea around,” he shared. “You think, ‘Where is the vehicle I can use to do this?’ And the idea of the Buddy Holly plane crash came to me in one go. The whole front part of the song, the slow part of the song, came to me all at once. And once that came to me, I said, ‘I think I have a way of doing this.’ And that’s how it happened.”
The iconic anthem was named one of the top five songs of the century by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America. The original recording was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or artistically significant.” The song is also the subject of an upcoming documentary.
Most recently, the song has inspired a children’s book that was released on June 7 titled “Don McLean’s American Pie: A Fable.” It tells the tale of a newspaper delivery boy in the late ‘50s who discovers the joy of music.
“It’s my hope that… [it] will be a book that they really love to read,” said McLean. “That it will be a book that will help them actualize their own ideas about what they may want to do with their own lives. Maybe… their moms will buy the ‘American Pie’ album, and they can hear the song on the record, and the song will then go along with the book.”
McLean said that there is already another book in the works that will be inspired by another track of his, “Vincent,” the 1971 homage to Vincent van Gogh. The book is expected to be released sometime next year.
“It’s going to be about a little boy who’s an artist,” said McLean. “And we’re going to be discussing some aspects of mental health in that book. There may be up to three more after that. There will be a series of these books, but the character, little Donny, will be in a number of them as he grows up.”
However, it is “American Pie” that continues to be revered by artists from various genres. The nearly nine-minute song has been covered by several performers, most notably Madonna. The singer’s version was released in 2000 to promote the soundtrack of her romantic comedy, “The Next Best Thing.” It was reported that BBC Radio 6 voted the Material Girl’s take as the worst cover version of a song.
McLean scoffed at the critics and said he was “delighted” when the now-63-year-old recorded “American Pie.”
“She gave herself a whole new audience and a whole new life, really,” McLean explained. “And the video she did, I think it’s probably one of the most famous she’s ever made. And fame, it’s her middle name. But she’s the real thing. She’s not famous for being famous. She’s really famous for a lot of really good reasons. And she takes an enormous amount of abuse from the press. Yet, she doesn’t care. She just keeps right on, going from one strength to the next. I admire that about her.”
It has been reported that the initial impact of “American Pie” was so overwhelming that at one point, McLean refused to play the song live. But these days, he’s singing a completely different tune and is proud of its legacy.
“I only write about things that I’m going through, or I feel,” he said. “And what keeps me going as a performer is singing – singing and playing and executing the song on a level that thrills me… I’m not interested in doing it for the money. I just want to do it really well. And that’s one of the things that keep me going. I love my guitars. I love playing them and I love working with them. And I love my band.”
As McLean looks back on his career, a completely different song comes to mind – 1970’s “And I Love You So.” Elvis Presley recorded the track in 1975 for his album “Today.” The singer made the song a part of his live concerts until his death in 1977 at age 42.
Presley is currently the subject of a biopic directed by Baz Lurhmann titled “Elvis,” which stars Austin Butler as “the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The film premieres on Friday.
“There’s a story out there about how Elvis wanted to do Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You,’ but his manager wanted half the publishing rights,” McLean explained. “Dolly, being the smart businesswoman that she is said no. She didn’t regret it, but she was just sad that Elvis never did it. Well, the same thing happened to me… I [also] said, ‘No, thank you.’ But the difference is Elvis went ahead and recorded the song anyway. That’s how much he loved that song.”
“He sang that song every night from then on for every show he had,” McLean shared. “He sang it in his final concerts… So Dolly did not get her song recorded and I did. There was a difference.”