In Part 1 of our exclusive interview with singer/songwriter Don McLean, we covered his famous song about Vincent van Gogh, “Vincent” (Starry, Starry Night), his late father, secrets to success and touring at age 76. Here, we focus more on his biggest hit, “American Pie,” ranked No. 5 of the greatest songs of the 20th Century by Recording Industry Of America and National Endowment For The Arts. That’s just behind classics like “Over The Rainbow” (No. 1) by Judy Garland, and ‘’White Christmas’’ (No. 2) by Bing Crosby. Despite being eight minutes and 42 seconds long, ‘’American Pie’’ sat atop the U.S. record charts for four weeks in 1971. A half-century later, the tune is still wildly popular, currently in the top 10 of 100 iTunes songs. Following are more edited excerpts from more of my phone conversation with McLean.
Jim Clash: In a general sense, “American Pie” seems to comment on seminal sixties’ events, but in an ambiguous, somewhat playful way.
Don McLean: If you understand the 10 years it took to write the song, the 10 years from when my dad and Buddy Holly died, the 10 years of me seeing and learning and explaining all of that, then you understand that some of the things in there have several meanings at once. Some have no meaning that people have tried to make into something, and some are just funny nonsense I threw in. I had a fun time writing it. People say, “The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,” is such and such. No, it’s not. It’s actually the Holy Trinity I’m referring to. [The song] is very confusing, but it’s made to be that way. There’s something left to your imagination, to allow for it to run away a bit. Once video came in, of course, imagination went out of the window. But with radio, you still had it.
Clash: I find amusing the line, “While Lennin read a book on Marx,” a double entendre maybe?
McLean. Yes, I’m referring to both John Lennon and Vladimir Lenin, so when I spelled Lenin’s name [in the hand-written manuscript], I used two n’s [laughs]. But I did a lot of stuff like that.