There are certain men out there who– as soon as you meet them – they instantly make you want to get a flat tyre on the motorway because you know they would get you out of trouble immediately, successfully, without googling how to change a flat tyre and without ever remotely thinking of asking you to help them out.
They would then resurface with engine oil all over the face, proud and happy and no shrinking violet, calling you baby and worrying if you are alright.
Such types are one in a million these days, especially in the degrading showbiz industry where male has become a synonym for abuser so quickly and so undisputedly that you can’t really blame them if they won’t enter an elevator with a woman.
So, hey, it’s been a stroke of luck to have interviewed this one-in-a-million man’s man – an open, truthful, no-frills cavalier who also happens to be a living legend of American music: Don McLean is one of the most acclaimed and respected songwriters in the history of the United States, and the author of one of the most-loved songs of all time.
The year 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of American Pie, which was first released in 1971, went straight to number one in the US and the rest of the world and instantaneously became a signature piece now listed as number five on the Song of the Century in America ranking and covered by dozens of other singers including Madonna in 2000.
The 8-minute track and its iconic refrain “the day the music died” was written by the Hollywood Walk of Famer to remember the 1959 Iowa plane crash where early rock ‘n’ roll stars J. P. Richardson ‘The Big Bopper’, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens lost their lives along with the cabin pilot. The lyrics are also a contemplation of the disillusionment and loss of innocence and values of Don’s generation, with lots of references to the major social events of the 1960s.
Congratulations on your 2021 induction into the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Don! What should your fans expect from your concerts?
Thank you! They should expect a great show, with a lot of really good music. I’m singing well and everything is good. There will be new songs, there will be old songs, and there will be hits.
Why do you think American Pie is still a big success?
You know, beat me if I’d known, I don’t know the answer to that one!
How do you feel when you hear American Pie playing on the radio?
It’s so different and I hardly recognise myself. Really, my girlfriend says it’s okay and that it’s playing fine, but it doesn’t sound like me anymore.
In your opinion, what was the best cover of American Pie?
The Home Free boys in Nashville did an acapella version that was the number-one country video for her eight weeks in 2021. They are going to be on my next album, a very new album with very new songs, and Home Free, the acapella group in it, yeah.
What did you think of Madonna’s cover the first time you heard it?
I love Madonna’s version. I respect Madonna as a woman, as an artist and as a competitor: a world-class competitor. And I respect that and more men and women should learn that stuff, bellyaching about things and competing as she does.
Which one of your songs are you most attached to?
Oh, I love myself and I love all my songs. I can’t choose one. They all have different personalities, I love my records and I love the songs that I sing. I love the songs I write, I never wrote a piece of garbage for a movie and I never sang a piece of crap, you know – like Elvis Presley had to do for all those dumb movies. No, I never did that so I can at least look at myself in the mirror and be proud of that.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of surviving as long as I have and doing as well as I have in the last sixty years, it has been a very trying time for me but I’m very happy now. I’m doing extremely well and, you know, I feel like I found out what I was made of, the kind of man that I am. It was a wonderful thing to find out at this later life stage. So, that’s good.
How would you like to be remembered by future generations?
Oh, that’s something I can’t even begin to think about it. I will be remembered for the songs I wrote, the interviews I gave and the ideas contained in those songs, the performances I gave, and the good work that I did for other people. That’s how I’ll be remembered.
What do you think of the current state of music?
It’s not something that I can understand. If people are happy and people get what they want from their entertainment then I’m happy for them, and it’s not necessary for me to understand what that might be. So, that’s all I have to say about that.
What kind of music do you listen to, these days?
I listen to the things I’ve always listened to, I’m very stupid when it comes to the music I listen to, they are the same old groups, the same old singers and the same old records. ‘Cause then it’s like comfort food and what makes me feel good. A lot of times I listen to somebody that reminds me of myself and I do remember that, don’t forget it! And then when it comes to music genres, there’re way too many to mention. I mean, I will tell you that I love every kind of guitar, I like heavy metal and that kind of stuff, I like flamenco, I like classical guitar, I like blues guitar. All kinds of good singers and gospel and those particular groups that sing in harmony. Decent harmony is something that is not around as much as it used to be.
What is the biggest difference in music between yesterday and today?
Oh well, I don’t think that people have any courage today. I think people are cowards today. They’re afraid to write songs about touchy situations for fear of offending someone or getting cancelled. They’re cowards, you know?
In my days, people spoke out and did what they felt no matter what it was, but they said it, they did it. And now they’re all frightened, and that’s very anti-intellectual.
Has the relationship between music and politics changed?
Well, again, people are afraid to speak out musically about things, so nobody wrote an anti-Donald Trump song that was on the shirts, nobody wrote a pro-Joe Biden song or a song about something else that might have happened in the old days. And every time something happens, there’s no somebody like Tom Paxton who would write a song about it, and use the name of the person and either compliment that person or indict that person in the film. That doesn’t happen anymore. People are cowards.
In another interview, you said that you were always on the outside of the music industry, never on the inside. What did you mean?
Yeah, I like that. I mean that I’ve never been somebody that they were always anxious to give awards to or access to, I never made it well and it’s my own fault because I’m a loner and I don’t make the effort to go to people and promote myself. I remember how hard Bruce Springsteen worked at building his career and he had a lot of help with it; the people behind him at Columbia Records put $300 million into producing Bruce, and he came through with hit records and great shows and everything, but he was always running on stage with somebody upstaging this person and that person. And he worked very very hard and he had to fight to get up a big boulder roll down a hill, you know, like when your original effort is very great in order to overcome the inertia. And then the thing starts rolling and then you can’t stop it!
You also said that Elvis Presley inspired you – how did you get into his music?
It was interesting because it was 1957 and I went to junior high school, and because there were all kinds of kids from everywhere in Westchester and New Rochelle [in the State of New York], that was the first time I saw rock ‘n’ roll hoodlums with motorcycle boots and ducktail haircuts and, you know, loose women and all this stuff in junior high school, and then all sudden Elvis came along, and he really represented that. And he’s playing this guitar. And it was just a whole different world than I ever had anything to do with, it was on the edge of being illegal. And so, it was therefore exciting. And you know, Gene Vincent and fast cars and Rebel Without a Cause and all kinds of stuff. So, it took everybody by surprise there. And then The Kingston Trio came along in 1958 and they became incredibly popular. And so everybody from either side of the fence, whether you were conservative or you were a little wild, they were playing the guitars and they were singing simple songs.
In 1969, you campaigned against pollution in the Hudson River. What do you think of today’s environmentalists?
Well, I hate being a wet blanket, but in my opinion, the environment is not savable, it’s not able to be saved. Maybe 40 years ago if we’d made radical changes, or 50 years ago when they had the first Earth Day it could have been different, but now we would just be staving off the inevitable because air conditioners and refrigerators and cars are all coming to places like China and India that have billions of people and never had any of these things before. So, in the 1970s when people knew exactly what was happening to the environment, these people were riding bicycles, and now they’re in cars and they have air conditioning and they have refrigeration and all that, killing the atmosphere, and there’s no going back: everybody wants this stuff and they’re gonna have it.
What do you think of streaming events?
Music events you can watch on your computer.
I don’t think computers and music should be part of one another.
I will tell you this right now, that computers are going to write songs and be what you hear on the radio in the next 10 years. Not people, but computers, because they can write and sing better than most of what I hear out there now. Then they’re never going to write something like The Way You Look Tonight or White Christmas, but they’re going to write something that’s going to be better than what’s out there now. Easy.
What do you think of talent shows like The X Factor?
Oh, I think that they show that the amateurs’ thing is as well or better than the so-called professionals. I haven’t seen singers like Nat King Cole or Judy Garland yet, but they’re all very very good amateurs and I think that is pretty much what the singers are like today. Most of the records out there are from very good amateurs.
What was your relationship with The Beatles and Beatlemania back in the day?
I was in love with The Beatles, I loved all the songs in 1964 and in 1965, I was buying every record, and then, of course, when Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band was released in 1967, it was just an explosion, it was the apex. And at the same time, The Beach Boys were my favourite also, and they came out with good vibrations, they were growing like mad, and everybody was influencing everybody else. A lot of drugs around, a lot of free-thinking, breaking away from the old traditions and a lot of excitement about segwaying into records, stage, work, movie-making and so on. So, different people were independently making their own movies, it was all new in the 1960s, it was very, very good. That was the best in it. The worst in it was that people lost their discipline.
What do you mean?
You know, in general, the average person started dressing badly and not taking care of themselves and started being a slob. You know, civilisation kind of took a bad turn in the 1960s and nothing has ever recovered since then. Well, all you have to do is to walk through any airport to see that!
I never heard about that, I saw The Beatles together like in 1970 so I must have missed that.
Are there any artists you would like to collaborate with?
No. I don’t think so. If somebody wanted to collaborate with me, then I would have to probably think about that very hard, but it would depend on who it was, of course, but I don’t have a burning desire to collaborate with anybody. I mean, if it’s somebody’s really off the wall, like Jay-Z, Kanye West or Drake, then I would bring them to the studio, I’d do it!
Is there a difference between American and British music, in your opinion?
Well, there wouldn’t be any British music without American music, that’s the first thing you have to remember, there would be no Beatles without The Everly Brothers – and without Chuck Berry and without Little Richard and without Fats Domino, there wouldn’t be any English rock ‘n’ roll. You would have skiffle music, which was basically a regurgitation of a lot of The Weaver’s hits in the early 1950s like Rock Island Line by Lonnie Donegan and things like that. So, when it comes to the English music scene, there wouldn’t be any Eric Clapton if we didn’t have Lead Belly and all the great blues players that he learned from. And they’re all American. But the English used all these influences and coupled them with a very, very sophisticated technological understanding in the studio, and made fabulous new records that nobody’s ever heard before. So they used it, they used it very, very wisely and very beautifully and handed that back, you know – but the basic structure came from America.
People are still trying to figure out if the “jester” mentioned in American Pie really is Bob Dylan.
I mentioned James Dean and the song, so if I wanted to mention Bob Dylan I would have mentioned him. And I didn’t mention Elvis because I didn’t want to, so it’s a pointless exercise to try and do that, so I don’t do it.
Unless stated otherwise, pictures were provided from Don McLean’s private collection © belongs to their respective owners
••• Want to reprint or syndicate this story? Click here for licensing enquiries •••
••• Other interviews you may like •••