Songwriters Hall of Famer Don McLean is proud that an aura of metaphorical mystery still surrounds his most famous composition, the densely-worded, perennially-parsed hit single from 1971, “American Pie,” which turns 50 next year. The 8½-minute track contained lyrical references to kings, jesters, Chevys and levees, and a memorable chorus allusion to “the day the music died,” recalling the Feb. 3, 1959 plane crash that killed his boyhood hero Buddy Holly, and his tour-mates Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. These days, McLean, 75, who says he spent a lot of time “talking about not talking about” the famous song’s themes, is promoting his October-released covers album “Still Playin’ Favorites” and 11 back-catalog classics on Time Life.
“American Pie” was a much-discussed pop-cultural topic at the time of its release, and everyone had a different theory about its meanings. What is it about?
It’s a dream, and you know how one thing morphs into another in a dream, and it seems to make sense? I tried to do something that was so ambitious, but I never dreamed that anybody would love it and embrace it the way that people have.
What was the conceptual basis for “American Pie”?
Well, I had this idea that politics and music would really influence each other, going forward. And it’s turned out to be pretty accurate. So suddenly one day this whole front part came to me, and it was about the plane crash of my man Buddy Holly. I finally got this thing out after having it in the back of my mind, because I will gestate for years with something in the back of my head. I’m not a quick study. Then I said, “Wow, what’s that?” I had it on tape, but I didn’t know what it was, really. Then I figured out what to do with it, and I made this dream, and so therefore — even though I’m having fun with these images and one is morphing into something else — I really can’t do justice to my work on that particular song.
The early death of your father — which you’d seen in a premonition — played a big part, too, right?
My father set the tone for the depression, really, that I already had in my soul. I was always slightly depressed about a lot of things. And then all of those (1960s U.S. political) assassinations happened, so I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. Which was my own personal business — I never told people about that or went to therapy or anything like that. I don’t believe in any of that — I believe that you’ve just got to suck it up and just be who you are. So there was this blue quality that just found its way into that song so perfectly.
Do you think you have ESP?
I think everybody does. They just don’t realize it. I think school really knocks the hell out of the psychic part of a kid, because all of a sudden they’ve got to fit into this little army and do these tests. I was sick all the time, so I was home, where I invented my own way of doing things. I didn’t get along with other kids, and I liked being a singer because it meant I was on my own. I sang with my guitar and my banjo, and I traveled, and before you knew it I was onstage at Royal Albert Hall in London. The music had taken me on this trip, you see. But you had to work very hard for it, and there can be nothing else in your life but this.
You’re a rarity, in that you retained your publishing rights, and you’re now free to license your older work, plus new recordings, to Time Life.
Well, again, it was that instinct that you pointed out. I was having a lull in the 1980s, and I wasn’t doing that well in terms of income from the songs. I decided to test everybody’s rights to get percentages from having an ownership of my songs. I found a way of doing this, and I beat every single one of them, even William Morris. I got the songs back from everybody that had them, I fired a horrible manager, and I wound up with complete control of everything.
Even during this pandemic, you’re keeping depression at bay?
I’m very happy, very happy that I did this with my life. I could have been a banker, I could have been a successful businessperson, I could have done any number of things with my life, but I would have been miserable. So I’m very pleased that I was able to give things to people that they could use, like these songs of mine.