LIVE: Don McLean celebrates 50 Years of “American Pie” @ The Egg, 06/02/2022
Tony Bennett once told me the secret to his longevity was in the songs he chose to sing.
Don McLean’s success has finally surpassed his enormous ego. He once told me that he was virtually alone in his ability to write a good pop song. But unlike Tony Bennett, McLean’s longevity more than half a century into his career is based on one song, “American Pie.” The old saw is about something being as American as apple pie. In 2022, the new saw could well be that apple pie is as American as “American Pie.” This, his 20th world tour, is in celebration of the 50th anniversary of that song.
McLean performed in front of a crack four-piece band that included a keyboardist who’s been with him for 37 years, longer, he pointed out, than his two marriages put together. “They play in tune,” he quipped. “But for years I’ve been trying to teach them how to play out of tune.”
One band member he said had played with Elvis. And he sang “I Love You So,” a song he wrote that Elvis made into a hit. He sang his originals “Wide and Deep” and “Castles in The Air” inspired by the old mansions that dot the Hudson River and recalled hanging out with Pete Seeger when the legendary folk singer was building the Sloop Clearwater, and New York State was paying McLean to be a Hudson River Troubadour.
He painfully warbled through the falsetto part in Roy Orbison’s “Crying’ and recalled asking Orbison’s co-writer on the song, Joe Melson, how he came up with that masterpiece – my words not his – and was told it was from personal experience of being lonely and horny at the same time.
Following a tepid audience response to his first number, McLean admonished his near-sellout audience, “I thought I should get more response than that” and followed up with “Crossroads” from his American Pie album and did. “The louder you get, the better I sing,” he advised, and he did up seem to improve the further he got into his repertoire and storytelling. He recalled playing the long-gone Lenox Music Inn on the Tanglewood property where he hung with bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, but he never mentioned his early days playing the legendary Caffe Lena in Saratoga, the club he played the week “American Pie” topped the pop charts.
He performed other originals from throughout his career including “Botanical Gardens,” “American Boys Invented Rock and Roll,” “(Vincent) Starry Starry Night,” and “Since I Don’t Have You.”
None of these songs come anywhere close to the impact of “American Pie.” This was the song everyone came to hear, and he turned it into a singalong as if to say this is my gift to you, the American pop music lover. Everyone stood and accompanied him through multiple verses.
Released in 1971 on the LP called American Pie, the single went to Number one for 4 weeks in 1972. It’s the longest song ever to top the Billboard Hot 100, at eight minutes and 36 seconds. The lyric “The day the music died” recalls the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper. McLean dedicated the album to Buddy Holly, but none of the plane crash victims is mentioned by name in the song. “February made me shiver/with every paper I’d deliver” refers to the first time he heard of Holly’s death while folding newspapers for his paper route on February 3, 1959.
The lyrics “I saw Satan laughing with delight; The day the music died” may refer to the tragic concert at Altamont Speedway in December 1969. “Jack Flash sat on a candlestick” is about Mick Jagger who was later accused of failing to halt the violence at the performance.
In verse four the Beatles have become the “sergeants” leading the march of counter-culture, leaving Dylan behind as “the jester on the sidelines in a cast” after his near-fatal motorbike crash.
“American Pie is the accessible farewell to the Fifties and Sixties,” Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis wrote. “Bob Dylan talked to the counterculture in dense, cryptic, apocalyptic terms. But Don McLean says similar ominous things in a pop language that a mainstream listener could understand. The chorus is so good that it lets you wallow in the confusion and wistfulness of that moment, and be comforted at the same time. It’s bubblegum Dylan, really.”
Listening to him perform other songs from a repertoire developed over a long history of hanging with everyone from Pete Seeger to Elvis, I came away with the feeling that this iconic song was an anomaly. In one tune, he summed up the turbulence of the late 20th-century American pop songbook from the death of Buddy Holly to the satanic outbursts of the Rolling Stones.
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died