Published March 2018
Every writer dreams of writing the great American novel and songwriters dream of writing that one song that everyone knows. Forty-seven years ago, Singer/Songwriter, Don McLean, accomplished both with his masterpiece song, American Pie.
While McLean has written other huge hits such as “And I Love You So” and “Vincent”, “American Pie” is THE song. The hit. The indelible mark on humanity and culture around the world. It doesn’t get much headier than that.
I met with Don McLean and his publicist in his hotel suite in downtown Nashville. He was there for a brief exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame as well as to receive BMI’s Million-Air Award.
As we made small talk, he asked about Boomerocity and the other publications I write for as well as my background. When I mentioned that my first concert was Elvis and my first “interview” was a chance conversation with Colonel Parker before the show, it started an impromptu chat about all things Elvis. It was such a rare privilege to hear one icon to speak in-depth about another icon. McLean had a lot to say about Presley.
“It’s hard to believe that he was bankrupt when he died. Isn’t that unbelievable? And, then, his wife ends up being this business genius; turns it all around and makes it (Graceland) the most visited place in the United States; makes hundreds of millions of dollars. Only if they had stayed together, imagine what a great combination they would’ve been! He basically couldn’t exist. He didn’t like being without her.”
“He had those boys he was always with! Imagine waking up in the morning, ‘Hey, Priscilla! You’re lookin’ purty good!’ I mean, c’mon! All in the pool together. Those guys not only killed his marriage, but then they went and wrote that book (Elvis: What Happened by Red West, Sonny West, and Dave Hebler), which really killed him.”
The discussion then slightly veered over to Elvis’ musicians. McLean started off by telling a story about a quote by Jerry Scheff, Elvis’ bassist for many years.
“I read an interview by the bass player and he said the sound was Vegas Punk. That’s what he thought of the sound of Elvis’ group was. Hard edged. Very basic. A punk rock, Vegas thing, is what they were, basically. Isn’t that a funny perception of their sound? As I listen to it with that in my mind, sometimes, I hear what he’s saying. Ronnie Tutt (Elvis’ drummer), that guys is like an octopus! Nobody plays like he does! He (Elvis) had the right people.
“I’ve read a number of books about Elvis Presley. It’s funny because I remember Gordon Stoker (of the Jordanaires, Elvis’s former backup group), whose son, Alan, is the reason why they’re doing this little tribute to me and my music. He would talk about Elvis because Gordon just couldn’t stop talking about him. Nobody could. Nobody has! Those guys were close to him, you know? We would talk, and we would always go around to Elvis and he says, ‘Oh, this story and that story.’
“He said one thing – it’s a very simple thing that he said. He said two things, actually. He said, ‘You couldn’t tell the Presley’s nothing.’ That’s interesting. They’re their own little clan; keeping their own counsel; you couldn’t tell them nothing – no matter how wrong or right it was, whatever. They knew it. He died but they did know. They were going to stay with the Colonel no matter what. The Colonel took his half but made him what he was.
“And the other thing he said – and this is a cute phrase that he used – when Elvis realized that he wasn’t going to be in A Star Is Born or one of those things where he was going to be a real actor, he said, ‘He took down his sign.’ That’s what Gordon said. ‘He just took down his sign.’ Out of business. He was just sleepwalking from that point on. I don’t think he realized, ‘What am I going to do after the jumpsuit and the show gets old and I’m getting tired.’ Can’t retire! He was saying that he couldn’t retire. Too many people to feed. Too many expenses. He’d been swamped by all these expenses.
“I sat with Tom Jones once. We were talking about him (Elvis), of course, and talking about Vegas. I said, ‘Do you realize that in a month, Elvis Presley got paid $150,000 for the week; 15 shows a week; 60 for the month. He got only half of that which is only $75,000 for 15 shows and he bore the expenses. So, you’re talking two grand a night to do these shows for two hours. He was killing himself!
“At the same time, I was making $7,000, $8,000 a night myself and The King was making two grand a night, what it comes down to. And that’s what killed him was those shows; working like a rented mule!”
I used our conversation about The King to lead into a question I had slotted for later in the interview and that was what Don’s favorite cover of was one of his songs. I’d told him that mine was Elvis’ treatment of “And I Love You So”.
“Well, Elvis’ cover of that song was one of my favorites and the other one was the Fred Astaire version of Wonderful Baby. Those are two that I’m very proud of. Elvis recorded the song twice. He recorded it live. It’s on his last album – the concert album and he recorded it on that Today album. But he also did it just about every night in that last year of his life. So, there are now quite a few, I guess, board mixes floating around of those shows. The song is on every one of them.
“It thrilled me because when I was a little boy – 1956, I guess – I was, like, eleven, and Elvis had just come out. I had two 78 rpm records of Elvis Presley. That’s the first ones I had were 78’s. My grandmother and I used to sit and listen to those. My parents didn’t understand any of that, but she loved music and she loved the Jordanaires.
“So, it was a big thrill for me many, many years later – in 1978 – to be in Nashville and record Since I Don’t Have You, Crying, and do two albums, Castles In The Air, the re-recording, all with the Jordanaires; two whole albums with them. I got to know them, and I took them on the road. Played Carnegie Hall three times, I think. And we also went overseas and did a BBC television special with a lot of guys from Nashville and the Jordanaires in 1978, around there. So, there was a lot of that.
“I worked with them off and on through the eighties. On all the records I later made, I always try to have them on there; on my Christmas stuff and all that. So, I got to know them and their families as well as the sidemen in town. That’s the only personal connection I had with other artists is in Nashville. My legal people are here. Everything has sort of grown out of Nashville. I don’t know why. It’s just like this natural affinity for me.
“Chet Atkins used to do Vincent every knight. He’s the one who brought And I Love You So to Perry Como. He called me to his house when he was dying. He wanted to say goodbye to me. Tony Migliore, his piano player for twenty years, who has been mine for twenty years now, or more, went with me and we said goodbye to Chet who was very sick. He said, ‘I’m just glad I got to know you.’ Isn’t that a nice thing?
“I remember when I was on the Grammys. The Grammys were here in Nashville. Vincent – the whole “Pie” thing was up for Grammys; four different categories they were in. I didn’t win in any of them. I sang Vincent on the show. Johnny Cash invited me to his house and I stayed there for a couple of days and met his family. So, you can imagine that I was swimming in legendary oxygen. Very heady.
“So, as I was leaving, I was going down this escalator to go to the gate at the airport and George Jones is going up the escalator. It was in the crew cut days. He had a Nudie suit on and he turned to me and said, ‘Nice singin’, boy. That was good singin’, son.’
“So, they immediately took to me. I’ve always been kind of a loaner and it was a beautiful thing to be appreciated. I’ve had my supporters in the world of rock and roll and in the world of straight pop music and so on, but I never really had the across the board – I got to know Brenda Lee; I got to know many other folks who would send me Christmas cards. Ralph Emery and people like that. It’s a nice thing for me.”
Since we were talking about Nashville, I asked Don to tell me about the exhibit of his at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“Yeah! It’s a real nice thing because of that. Again, I’m not one of those powerhouse guys with all these platinum records. I do have gold and platinum records all around the world in many countries; amounting to forty, I guess. But I’m not a major store or a major commercial entity but I am a piece of Americana, I think. For that, I think Americans like me. They like my music and it belongs, I think, in the exhibit. I think it will be entertaining. Interesting.”
I also asked about the BMI Million-Air award McLean was receiving.
“Well, it’s so often, I guess, when they notice that I’m with BMI, they decide to look and see how many plays off of so many songs. So, that’s what’s gonna happen.”
As I stated at the beginning of this article, writers dream of writing the great American novel and Don McLean pretty much did that with American Pie. He’s obviously had a lot of years to reflect on it and endured a lot of idiotic questions about it, so I wondered with him being at this stage of his life, what was his assessment about why it still stands so well and why the intrigue about its mystique?
“Well, it was always a phenomenon, you know, from the very beginning. It always dominated my image – to the detriment, really, of people listening to my sound, my style, my singing style, my guitar playing, my performing skills. It’s always been about the fascination with that song. And as I’ve gotten older, now, I’m really thankful that I have something somebody wants to hear because I’m seventy-two years old. I’ve been on the road for fifty years. Played all over the planet and all over these United States; in every little place and big place.
“It’s a wonderful thing, now, because I can be interviewed and get my ideas across. The albums sell well. The ‘Best Of’s’ sell well. People know the material and it’s because of that song – always being fresh. Always pushing on to new generations; not dying off with the generation that it started with. So, it started off as a bit of a drag and then it turned out to be a very good thing as time went by.”
It was at that point that I interjected that, for the record (no pun intended), that, in addition to American Pie and Vincent, the most moving song off that album is The Grave; that it’s still applicable today with war still going on. Don replied:
“They always will be going on. As long as we have the Military Industrial Complex, you’re going to have venues to try out this stuff. That’s usually what it comes down to. So, that’s it and Eisenhower warned us about this and here we are, you know?
“It’s the same thing with this global warming stuff. When I was with Pete Seeger forty years ago, there were lots of scientists who would give little lectures. We had this thing called the Hudson River Sloop and it was an environment project. They said, ‘In forty years, if we don’t do something, the following things are going to happen.’ And they’re happening! The prognostication was absolutely correct. Therefore, there’s some aspect of this that has to do with what we’re doing.
“Now, having said that, the planet’s changing all the time. Things are happening all the time. It’s almost like trying to figure out what complex thing is happening. You can’t really blame one thing. But, it’s not helping people with asthma, I’ll tell ya that so who needs it, right?”
Since he brought up his Pete Seeger days, I asked him a question that I’ve asked others who had performed in the sixties and seventies. I had listened to other interviews with McLean where he talked about how it was in the sixties and seventies and how that was the fodder for what he wrote in American Pie and other songs. I asked him to think back to what was going on in his mind back in those early days, what was he imagining fifty years from then being like and what was going to happen between then and now; how close to that was he and how far off was he?
“I can give you a very simple answer. I never looked ahead that far, at all. All I can say is that I feel the same as I always did. People seem to be somewhat the same. But, I would think that – the big change that I’ve seen – there’s many things I could say. Too many. But one of the things is that I think people have become more superstitious. They’ve become less empirical in their knowledge and in wanting to know things. They’re more likely to say, ‘Well, you know, if I’m blessed, this will happen to me.’ Doing something that’s sort of outside the norm of, ‘Well, why dontcha just get a goal for yourself and make that happen?’ You know what I mean? I think that has to do with the decaying of a lot of institutions. The church. The schools. Family life. Morality. Civility.
“Gradually, over a period of time of many, many, many years – starting out, everybody thinks that the sixties was such a great thing. I never thought it was. I thought the music was interesting but I didn’t like the idea of everything sort of disintegrating. ‘Tear it down! Steal this book!’ What are you gonna replace it with?
“The human being has a ferocious subconscious which is capable of doing anything and law is the only reason that we don’t. Without law and some sort of belief in morality and right and wrong. I think part of it – if I want to go one step further – I think that it’s part of – I hate to say this – but I think, really, we are always in a struggle totalitarianism; with communism; and they love to see our resolve fractured and our beliefs challenged. And they love to see us not know quite where we’re at because it helps them. And I hate to say this but I really think that this is an ongoing struggle we sort of don’t realize is always happening. You can see it more, now, this whole Russian thing that’s going on; the Chinese thing and the fact that we allow them to manufacture everything. EVERYTHING. And it ain’t good!
“We look back as if you could sort of sit here like your question was just like that. You’re sitting here, now, ‘What did you think it would be like then?’ Well, to start with, back when Kennedy was around, there were a hundred million people in the United States. There’s three hundred and fifty million (now). Sixty percent of them were on the farm. Farms are shrinking like mad. You’re gonna have this genetically altered food. All this weird crap that we’re gonna eat.
“The only thing we have before us now is clear skies. I would imagine if we manage to survive for another two or three hundred years, then you’re gonna have a lot of junk flying around in the sky. Little people with their own little things. Little drones carrying things because everybody has to have everything yesterday. ‘Oh! It will be landing here on a little pad!’ I can’t see office space being of any value because everybody’s going to be doing this (taps my laptop) or out of their phone or out of their new devices that we haven’t even started to see, yet. I can nanotechnology with this stuff plugged into us; everybody all locked into everything. No privacy! Everywhere you go, every second. There ain’t no privacy now!
“And the other thing – I’m really talking too much now – but the thing I say is this whole bringing people down with accusations, which is happening right here in Nashville. There’s a PR guy, Kirt Webster, destroyed in a week by accusations. Nobody was convicted of anything. There’s no proof of anything. There ain’t nothin’ except a bunch of people saying some things and it’s happened over and over and over. That’s not American, I don’t think, and I think a lot of people are starting to realize this and it’s making people afraid to interact.
“I never worked for anybody. I never had a job. I never had a boss. I’m just an observer and that’s where the songs come in. I’ll write things and put stuff in a song, from my observations. Why? I’m unemployable. I could never work for anyone. I’d say the wrong thing the first week I was there!
“That’s one of the things that I’ve learned. THAT’s the way things of have changed! I’m almost like Rip Van Winkle. I have awoken or awakened – whatever the word is – and realized between the social networking – it’s always about power. It’s always about power. Certain groups wanted to get power and finding ways to get power. Always about power . . . and about money. Always about those two things. Power, first, and then you get the money. I don’t know if this particular strategy is going to last.
“We have a lot of technology and a lot of stuff that keeps coming every second and making everything go faster. I think we’re pretty much going as fast as we can go. I think that’s why people go postal. I don’t think it’s too hard to figure out. They just throw up their hands. That’s the wonderful thing about my life is that I have places that I can go and properties I have which are – I’m into my horses, the land, solitude to some degree. I say that I’ve never had a boss or human resources counselor or anything like that so I’m still free to think and say what I wanna.”
As we got close to wrapping up our time, I asked Don McLean what did he hope, at this stage of his life, his legacy will be and how did he want to be remembered.
“Well, if you had asked me that ten years ago, we didn’t have YouTube. Now, I know that anybody that’s interested in singing and songwriting and guitar playing can follow me back to 1969 see me progress along with hundreds of these performances of many, many, many different songs and, also, lots of different situations. TV shows; in the studio; in front of thousands of people; outside; inside; small venue; whatever. And interviews to go with it so that anybody can find out – and then there are books telling my story and hundreds and hundreds of articles written about me.”
I interjected and asked if he was going to write a book, to which he replied:
“Maybe before I die I might start to write something which would be very personal but I’m not sure I wanna say any more about me than has been said. I don’t really know. There are a lot of personal, interesting things that I’ve experienced and seen that I might want to write about. I don’t know what I’m going to do.
“I know the story is out there. It’s an accurate story. The two books that have been written about me are accurate. And, as I say, all of this footage; all these appearances. People can make a decision about me. I never was trying to become the new Don McLean. I was always the same one. They say, ‘He reinvented himself.’ I say, ‘I was alright to begin with! I just need to keep on going!’”
When I, again, interjected - this time about how his guitar work was tastefully intricate from the get-go and only improved from there, Don said:
“You have to have taste. You have to know what your limits are. You have to keep things tasteful. Less is more! I hate these common phrases that everybody uses but that’s a true one. As you become more economical, as you go through the years, it’s easier to do the things that you wanted to do because you’ve done it so much.
“One of the things that I’ve noticed with a lot of the kids – very good singers and players and performers that are amateurs on television, on these shows, is that they over sing everything. They put ten notes in where two will do.
“Go listen to a Sinatra record. Listen to a ballad off that album, No One Cares. Listen to him sing. It’s not the number of notes, it’s the tone. It’s the control. It’s the vibrato. And the notes, exactly when they’re supposed to happen. Timing. Real timing. Not singing all kinds of stuff all over the place but moments. Judy Garland. Listen to that Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, sometime, if you want to hear some singing. She’s stoned out of her mind and forty pounds, and probably a little drunk. Nobody can sing like that. This is a function of doing it. Not doing it at home but traveling, working, doing it, doing it, doing it. Year in. Year out. Year in and year out until you have command of this stuff. It’s a nice thing. It’s a nice feeling.
“My command is disintegrating, somewhat. I probably peaked in my fifties and maybe even in my early sixties. I’m getting older. I’m a little tired. There’s that thing. You really have to work hard. Maybe lift some weights and do some vocal exercises. Drink a little less. Eat a little less. All that stuff.
“Also, you have peaks. I had a certain voice in 1970 and another voice in 1980 and, then, another voice in the nineties. A little darker. A little lighter. I still have the high notes but a different voice now. I still sing everything in the same key. But I don’t hit outrageously high notes like I might’ve done when I was twenty-five.”
When I brought up about him taking opera lessons as a kid, he said:
“I took a few for maybe a month – two months, until my voice just started to change and then she kicked me out and said, ‘Come back sometime when you’re finished.’
“I never came back but I remembered everything she told me and I did the exercises. I kept building my voice. The voice is an amazing instrument because it’s a muscle and, if you use it properly and use throughout the years – if you have a run, say, a tour of a month or two months where you’re singing every few nights, that voice will be much better when you’re finished than it was when you started. If you don’t know how to sing, it will probably crash.”
My last question should’ve been my first and that was for him to tell me about his new album, Botanical Gardens.
“It’s a new album. All new songs. The album is called Botanical Gardens. It all stems from the theme song or the title song, I should say, which is a guy – an older man thinking about his life. It’s gotten kinda stale. ‘What am I gonna do? I’m going to this botanical garden and I see all these beautiful women and all these lovely flowers and colorful birds and memories of my youth. Start dreaming about romance and that wonderful youth and feeling. As the day goes by, the sun goes down, the gates are going to be closing. ‘Do I leave or do I stay? Do I go back to the world or do I stay?’ A kind of heaven. All the other stuff flows from that.”
Botanical Gardens is available March 23rd online wherever great music is sold. You can also keep up with Don McLean at his website, Don-McLean.com.