Century City View Interviews Don McLean
by Keith Chagall • Music Journalist
How many have sung along to the iconic lyrics, "Bye bye Miss American Pie drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry, them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye singing this will be the day that I die” over the last 50 years? Answer? Many millions of us have worldwide. So many that "American Pie” was voted the number 5 song of the 20th Century’s best and is included in the Songwriting Hall of Fame. Composed by the legendary Hall of Famer, and World class artist, Don Mclean who is coming to the Saban Theater on February 25th 2017 with his full band to entertain us with this classic song as well as "Vincent, Starry Starry Night” and many others.
Century City View had the pleasure to interview McClean for an hour covering many topics in anticipation of his upcoming appearance.
Century City View: How did "American Pie” come about?
Don McClean: I am a bit of a fusion songwriter who loved 50’s Rock N Roll but also music from the 1930’s, 1940. So those three things were the basis for American Pie. It has Rock N Roll elements, a ballad influence and an opening vamp like the pop music of the 30’s.
I wanted to create something that was totally Don McClean, a tapestry of Americana unlike anything else in pop music during 1971.
I am so focused on my work and feel that there was a destiny to my music so that one really stands out.
Also the deaths of Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, and Richie Valens in a plane crash on Feb.3, 1959 deeply affected me and being 14 years of age, it really did feel like that was "the day the music died.” Something about death had a huge impact and it stayed with me.
Century City View: Tell us about your early years working folk and coffee houses.
Don McClean: Well I never had a boss in all these years and music was my only thing and did what I wanted to do and lived simply and below my means. I would travel in my car, arrive at the clubs, and sleep in the car afterwards. Almost like a travelling gypsy, observing life, and writing about America.
Century City View: If you were writing "American Pie” today with the current state of events, would it have been different?
Don McClean: Yes it would because I think we live in a world of empty spectacle, the world of spectacle rock, songs you can’t remember, it’s all about the expression of money, power and kind of empty and fascistic. Where technology has changed society, where people are not using their brains as much, not seeing the bigger picture but constantly looking down at the cellphone and not seeing the bigger picture. What I do love about the cell phone is you can look up anything. But balance is missing. Today’s songwriter need to be on outside, find their own trip if you will and find a way to connect from a place that no one has heard before. It might be taken as weird but that is what makes it unique.
Century City View: How do you reinvent your live performances in today’s context?
Don McClean: I like to bring my audience on a journey during my 90 minute concert. I will tell stories every few songs about the creation of a tune etc. and it gives the listener a glimpse inside my songs and then as you get to the last half hour you pick up the pace and work harder and get more into the show. It’s all about stagecraft.
Century City View: We couldn’t agree more Don. What do think of another story telling artist, Bob Dylan and the state of current pop music?
Don McClean: I think we are going to miss, beyond words, Bob when he’s gone. He’s out there working all the time. And now he wins a Nobel Prize, first ever for a songwriter. The Wall Street Journal said recently that Bob should retire, no man!! The journalist who wrote that, should retire, lol. The recent Coachella event with The Who, The Stones, Dylan, Paul McCartney, remind us that people are never going see their like again, that includes Don McClean. It’s over. The society that produced them and later on people, like myself, is over. The materialistic society that produces these kinds of bombastic performances that don’t have any value or musical meaning, is very conspicuous, look at me, I’m rich, dig my brand. That’s what missing, Bob Dylan made us feel worthy, I try to do the same thing. Respect for the audience with music that is meaningful and soulful. Go for what moves you and not necessarily what you think will be commercial.
Century City View: In today’s landscape of disposable repetitious pop do you think that songs with melodic architecture and meaning will ever have a place again in the culture?
Don McClean: We’re going to have another rude awakening, a war or depression where people are going to have to value one another again and not value money and winning alone. On the political environment we now have a President who likes winning and money and he represents aspects of the spectacle we were alluding to, and yet he’s my President and I am for anyone who is my President. I’m an American and yet it’s the style thing. We’ll see what happens. He’d like to see things work well and trying to get us to that place as a country.
Century City View: Do you have a favorite guitar that you use on stage and how do you keep your voice sounding great?
Don McClean: I have a collection of 40 guitars but my mainstay is Martin brand guitars. Some I have are from the 1940’s and they sound great. I am looking forward to coming to the Saban which is a beautiful venue. I am bringing my full band and I love the west coast, even have a home in Palm desert.
Concerning my voice, I try not to drink hard liquor which dries out the vocal tissue, get good rest and all, but I’ve been given a wonderful voice and can still hit the high notes on "Crying” (Editor’s note: "Crying” a song written and performed by the great Roy Orbison who was quoted as saying that Don McClean’s version is the finest he has ever heard! Brian Wilson also remarked that McClean’s voice could cut through steel!)
Century City View: Thank you Don. It is great to hear words of wisdom from a brilliant still vibrant and strong mind and heart. A great spectacle indeed!