Don McLean Looks Back At His Masterpiece “American Pie”

THE NEW YORK Don McLean has watched as people have performed his popular song “American Pie” aloud at last call or at karaoke for decades and he commends you for your effort. On a tour bus on route to Des Moines, Iowa, McLean tells The Associated Press, “I’ve heard whole bars burst into this song when I’ve been across the room.” “And they’re singing it with such joy that I came to the conclusion that they don’t really need to worry about their singing any longer. Even when it’s sung poorly, people genuinely like it.

A modest understatement would be to say that I’m happy. One of the top five Songs of the Century chosen by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts, “American Pie” is regarded as a masterpiece. The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s “American Pie,” which premieres on Tuesday on Paramount+, is a feature-length documentary that explores McLean and his iconic song about “the day the music died.” Fans of McLean or everyone who has admired his musical treasure must watch it. Additionally, it serves as a sophisticated model for subsequent films that delve deeply into a song and its broader cultural significance.

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McLean reveals the meanings behind the songs his followers are humming loudly in bars and on the radio. He told the AP, “That was the fun of writing the song. I was wondering about what to do with this while grinning in the middle of the night. The documentary begins on February 3, 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Jiles P. Richardson, known as the “Big Bopper,” were killed along with their pilot when a single-engine plane transporting them crashed into a cornfield near Clear Lake, Iowa.

McLean was 13 years old and residing in a middle-class suburban New Rochelle, New York, home at the time of the collision. He was referred to in “American Pie” as “a lonely young broncin’ buck” because of his bronchial asthma. The House of Music on Main Street, where he acquired albums and his first instrument, is the “holy store” he sings about. Every paper I’d deliver, as a young McLean who loved Elvis, Gene Vincent, Bo Diddley, but especially Holly, whose passing greatly touched him. “I was completely shocked. I might have even cried,” he admits in the movie. “You can’t reason it out. I was hurt.

Years later, when his father passed away, McLean would explore that agony in “American Pie,” baking in his own sorrow and praising the American dream. In 1971, he was working on his second album while the country was shaken by assassinations, anti-war demonstrations, and civil rights marches. “I wanted a big song about America,” he believed. The tune and first verse came to me effortlessly. “A very, very long time ago.” It culminated in the resounding sing-along chorus, “This’ll be the day that I die,” which goes like this: “We were singin’, “Bye-bye, Miss American pie,” “Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry,” and “These good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey ‘n rye.”

“Wow, that is something, I thought. It’s exactly what I’ve been trying to grasp for all these years — that sensation about Buddy Holly — and that plane crash, I don’t know what it is “Tells the AP, McLean. “Every time I think about Buddy, I have a tug within of me. The 90-minute documentary utilises actors to act out scenes while using news footage from the 1970s. McLean is seen by cameras touring the revered Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, where Holly and his bandmates performed just before their deadly flight in 1959.

There are interviews with musicians including Brian Wilson, Garth Brooks, and “Weird Al” Yankovich as well as Connie Valens, the singer’s sister, and actor Peter Gallagher, whose character’s demise in “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” served as a catalyst for an on-screen performance of “American Pie.” Spanish-language singer Jencarlos Canela, producer Rudy Perez, and British vocalist Jade Bird all discuss how the song has found an audience outside of the United States.

The documentary demonstrates that the album’s recording wasn’t quite a straightforward process. McLean’s collection of songs didn’t please producer Ed Freeman, and he didn’t think McLean was capable of playing rhythm guitar on “American Pie.” He finally gave in. McLean struggled with the song for two weeks during rehearsals with a small group of studio musicians before finally mastering it. Last-minute inclusion of pianist Paul Griffin was a “Hail Mary” brilliant move that brought the entire song together.

The song’s recording was just the start of problems, though. Radio stations refused to play it since it was over 8 minutes long, and McLean’s record company, Media Arts, failed just as the album “American Pie” was about to be released. McLean was struck by a recurring theme in his career after seeing the documentary: “What I observed was that I had to fight so many fights to get this thing done, to acquire everything.” “All my life, I’ve been fighting everyone,” he claims. “I’m not challenging. Simply said, I want things my way.

The song “American Pie” makes several cultural allusions, mentioning The Byrds, John Lennon, Charles Manson, and James Dean as well as anything from Chevrolet to nursery tales. The dreamy, impressionistic lyrics have been studied for years, their significance being examined. Some questions are addressed in the documentary, but not all. McLean clarifies that his ambiguous allusions to a monarch and a jester have nothing to do with either Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan, but he is amenable to alternate readings. He clarifies that “sweet perfume” is tear gas and “marching band” refers to the military-industrial complex.

The farewell is a riff off “Bye Bye, My Roseanna,” a song by his friend Pete Seeger, and the chorus’s line, “This’ll be the day that I die,” is from John Wayne’s “The Searchers.” Miss American Apple Pie was going to be used by McLean, but he decided against the fruit. An echo of the opening verse, “good news” is requested towards the song’s conclusion, but none is given. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—the three men McLean most admires—”caught the last train for the coast,” referring to Los Angeles. According to McLean, “Even god has been corrupted” in the movie.

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