A Starry Night in Fort Myers

by Matt Mulcahey

In early 2001, Don McLean’s sprawling pop epic "American Pie" crossed over the radio airwaves for the three-millionth time. To put that figure in perspective, if the 8-minute song were played on a continuous loop it would take 25 years to reach that number.

McLean has charted other hits in nearly every nook of the globe and his songs have been interpreted by artists ranging from Sinatra to Madonna to Guns N Roses, but he has never fully escaped the dwarfing shadow cast by what has become one of pop music’s most beloved anthems.

Rather than resenting that singular success or attempting to duplicate ‘American Pie’’s formula, the acclaimed singer/songwriter has instead forged onward in his own direction and quietly crafted a career that continues to thrive well into its third decade. In fact, on the cusp of his 60th birthday and in his 36th year of recording music, McLean is busier than ever.

Currently in the midst of a fourth-month U.S. tour that includes a stop at the Edison College’s Lee Campus in Fort Myers on October 29, McLean will release a 35-year retrospective of his work entitled Rearview Mirror on October 11, featuring live recordings, previously unreleased studio tracks and one new song. Next year, McLean’s first record of new material in nearly a decade, Addicted to Black, is scheduled for release, as is a biography by Alan Howard entitled American Troubadour.

Born in New Rochelle, New York in October of 1945, McLean came of age in the Greenwich Village folk movement. He played his first gig in 1962 at an Israeli coffee house in Manhattan and continued to slowly build a following in Big Apple folk clubs.

During that time, McLean befriended the great Pete Seeger and eventually sailed as part of Seeger’s crew on the Clearwater, a sloop that sails up and down the Hudson River, stopping at towns along the way to share music and raise awareness about environmental issues.

While on the Clearwater, McLean wrote several of the songs that appeared on his first record Tapestry. Recorded in Berkley, California in 1969 while student riots raged on the streets outside, Tapestry was a socially conscience concoction of activist folk and gentle love songs.

The 23-year-old singer/songwriter’s first effort was rejected by more than 30 record labels before Media Arts, which would shortly thereafter be purchased by United Artists, picked up the record.

It failed to make an impact commercially, though Perry Como did turn a cover of one of the album’s tunes, ‘And I Love Her So,’ into a hit.

McLean’s next effort had no such trouble finding its way onto the charts. Powered by the title single, 1971’s American Pie remained on the U.S. pop charts for over a year and claimed the Number 1 spot in Britain for seven consecutive weeks. ‘Vincent,’ McLean’s lyrical ode to tortured 19th Century painter Vincent Van Gogh, reached Number 12 on the U.S. charts and has itself become an enduring pop classic.

But it was American Pie’s title track that became forever intertwined with its author. A poetic, elegiac allegory of lost innocence and corrupted ideals, ‘American Pie’ begins with the 1959 death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper and subsequently traces the changes in McLean’s own life through the changes in pop music from Elvis to the Beatles, Bob Dylan to The Rolling Stones.

‘American Pie’ also earned McLean another piece of musical immortality when one of his live performances of the title song inspired the Grammy-winning tune ‘Killing Me Softly,’ a hit for both Roberta Flack and The Fugees.
Part of the enigmatic tune’s enduring popularity is its mystery. McLean has steadfastly refused to comment on the specifics of the song’s cryptic lyrics, raising ‘American Pie’ from the realm of mere ditty to a mythic piece of pop culture folklore.

While McLean never recaptured the commercial success of ‘American Pie,’ he has ceaselessly continued to record music and has experienced a series of periodic career renaissances. He again returned to the charts with 1978’s ‘Chain Lightning,’ a record that charted in the Top 30 and spawned a Top 10 hit with a cover of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ and a pair of Top 40 songs with ‘Castles in the Air’and a cover of ‘Since I Don’t Have You.’

The years since have seen McLean tackle mainstream Nashville country with 1987’s ‘Love Tracks,’ record three Christmas albums and release a number of ‘greatest hits’ compilations.

Through it all, McLean has continued to tour, logging thousands of miles to traverse the globe for more than 3,500 concert appearances, each one another stand against the death of rock ‘n’ roll foretold in the song that remains his eternal musical legacy. •

from the September-October 2005 issue

McLean's 'American Pie'
inspired Roberta Flack's
classic 'Killing Me Softly.'

Edison POPS @ Sunset
Don McLean
with the
Edison POPS Orchestra
October 29
Edison Collge campus
Fort Myers