Don McLean celebrates ‘American Pie’ 50th with documentary, Broadway show

Don McLean
Don McLean performs at the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino in July of 2012. (Photo/Las Vegas News Bureau, Darrin Bush)
WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes the 50th anniversary of 'American Pie'

It’s hard to believe it has been 50 years since the release of “American Pie.”

Singer-songwriter Don McLean will celebrate with a new documentary and a new Broadway show aimed for 2021 to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1971 song.

“Imagine a song written in 1900 that you’re talking about and hearing all the time every day in 1950,” McLean told WTOP. “If you think back to that time period where you don’t associate the internet and immediate gratification … it seems totally absurd. But when you place it in the context of today … everything in the past is an arm’s length away.”

The documentary “The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie'” will be produced by Spencer Proffer of the John Coltrane doc “Chasing Trane.”

“I like documentaries like that,” McLean said. “It had Denzel Washington doing the voice-over. … It was really gritty, black-and-white. … I wish someone would do a documentary on Wes Montgomery, who is one of my favorite guitar players and jazz people who managed to become very commercially successful near the end of his life.”

After the documentary release, he plans to turn his life into a Broadway show produced by the duo of Corey Brunish and Russell Miller (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”).

“It’s going to be my life story as fiction with the songs interwoven,” McLean said. “Can’t you see a musical of ‘American Pie’ with all of these songs that I’ve written? ‘Castles in the Air,’ ‘I Love You So,’ ‘Winter Wood,’ ‘Crossroads,’ I mean, it’s made for it.”

His most famous, of course, remains “American Pie,” which ranked No. 5 on the Recording Industry Association of America’s “Songs of the Century” countdown.

“This is my big painting,” McLean said. “I sang the first note right to ‘the day the music died’ in one shot into the tape recorder. It was in my head and that’s how it came out. Then I waited a few months and I wrote a chorus because I wanted it to be rock ‘n’ roll. Then I waited a few more months and I wrote the whole song in about an hour.”

The ambitious song tackles American pop history, sparked by the fatal plane crash of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper on “the day the music died” in 1957.

“I wanted the song to be a little crazy because America is,” McLean said. “There are child rhymes, ‘Jack be nimble.’ … As the song progresses, it becomes more dire and more dramatic as things are happening to not just rock ‘n’ roll stars that I knew in high school, but now the whole country is embroiled in something as it moves forward.”

The lyrics seem to cite The Beatles (“While Lennon read a book on Marx, the quartet practiced in the park”), Mick Jagger (“Jack Flash sat on a candlestick ’cause fire is the devil’s only friend”) and Bob Dylan usurping Elvis Presley (“While the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown … in a coat he borrowed from James Dean”).

Are any of these allegorical interpretations correct?

“You actually think I’m going to tell you that?” McLean said, laughing. “The Japanese could have me [prisoner] in World War II and I wouldn’t give up a bit of information.”

However, McLean did reveal one juicy detail.

“The one thing that nobody ever notices is: ‘Can music save your mortal soul?’ Not your immortal soul,” McLean said. “If you study Catholic theology, you have an immortal soul, but if you call it your ‘mortal’ soul, then you’re talking about soul, baby.”

He confirms that it all takes place on one day with a premonition of future events.

“The cool part about it for me was that each time I came around to the chorus, after I said, ‘The day the music died,’ it was all on that day,” McLean said. “I have no idea what I’m doing or why I’m doing it. All I know is that when I do it, I know I done did it.”

What inspired such dramatic social commentary?

“We had all those very convenient assassinations in the 1960s, which I believe the government was behind,” McLean said. “[John F.] Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, they took the heart right out of what was going on. That was no accident. Suddenly [loners] decided they want to shoot the president? That’s bulls**t.”

He laid out his assassination theory in “Color TV Blues” on the “Primetime” album.

“We all know that, but we’re too afraid to say it — I said it,” McLean said. “I was singing [‘Color TV Blues’] with Pete Seeger on the Hudson River [and] while I was singing it, lightning struck, swear to God, especially when I sang a verse about the pope.”

How does his version compare to Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul?”

“I wasn’t all that thrilled with the lyrics,” McLean said. “I didn’t think they were as good as he could do. … It’s nice that he’s making records and turning out songs at 78. … We should be thankful. That’s a gift, because contrast that against what’s out there.”

What does he think when folks compare him to Dylan?

“Everybody wanted to sound like Bob — and still do,” McLean said. “The impact of his singing style on people is enormous, so I was going the opposite way all the time. I wanted a clean sound. I wanted a pure sound. I was more into Roy Orbison, Marty Robbins, Elvis Presley, [Frank] Sinatra and people that really can sing in the old way.”

Indeed, his salute to early rock ‘n’ roll is part of the magic of “American Pie.”

“It seems current,” McLean said. “If you do it right, it’s timeless no matter when you hear the record. First of all, I enunciate my words. Secondly, I have a voice that is trained in a sense, so I can sing a song like ‘Crying’ or ‘Since I Don’t Have You,’ but I’m a rock and roll singer also, so I can sing ‘Since I Don’t Have You’ with a falsetto.”

Ironically, the pandemic has given new meaning to “the day the music died.”

“They call me the ‘king of the trail,’ but I haven’t been on the trail in about six months,” McLean said. “There’s no place for a musician to work. … It doesn’t matter whether you’re Paul McCartney, Don McLean or Joe Blow who happens to be playing lounges in his hometown, you’re out of work. It’s the most bizarre thing that I’ve ever seen.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Don McLean (Full Interview)

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