Preview: The Twice-Famous Don McLean Plays Rams Head
He’s the man who wrote “American Pie” and inspired “Killing Me Softly With His Song”
by Theodore Thimou
Most artists are lucky enough just to have a Number One hit during their career. But almost none can boast of also having had a Number One hit written about them. Don McLean can.
The New York-born singer/songwriter first rose to national prominence in 1972 when his now-classic “American Pie” single climbed to number one with its bittersweet reminiscences about growing up in the baby boomer generation. One year later, “Killing Me Softly With His Song” a tune written by folk singer Lori Lieberman after she heard McLean perform his chart-topping hit at the Troubadour in Los Angeles was recorded by Roberta Flack. Not only did Flack’s version reach pole position on the pop chart, it also showed that the man who inspired the song was fast gaining a musical reputation of near-mythic proportion.
McLean’s hold on the American imagination has waned over the years, but he is now back with Rearview Mirror, a two-disc CD/DVD retrospective featuring mostly rare or previously unreleased recordings. The collection offers one new track, “Run Diana Run,” an edgy rock song with a hint of Nashville twang that addresses the paparazzi frenzy surrounding the death of Britain’s Princess Diana. Other highlights on Rearview Mirror include the full-length eight-minute, 27-second version of “American Pie,” a live version of “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night),” plus McLean’s renditions of material popularized by Elvis Presley (“Love Me Tender”), Roy Orbison (“Crying”) and Frank Sinatra (“It Was a Very Good Year”).
“Run Diana Run” is intended as a teaser from McLean’s upcoming new album, Addicted to Black. That the musician is readying a fresh batch of songs is big news in itself; he hasn’t released an album of original material since 1995’s The River of Love. But McLean has more in the works than Addicted to Black. He’s also preparing a biography titled American Troubadour, with his webmaster, Alan Howard. The tome is expected to feature contributions from “American Pie” producer Ed Freeman, actor Ed Begley Jr. and others who know McLean well.
There’s no firm release date for the new album or the biography, but McLean certainly is keeping busy. He says his intention isn’t to saturate the media with upcoming releases but rather to illuminate his life for the public.
“This particular package that’s out now, the CD/DVD combination, if you were to sit down and watch the DVD and listen to the entire thing, I think you have a much clearer picture of who I am than you’ve ever had before. The biography is just one more layer of fog that gets removed … and brings me into focus a bit more,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
McLean doesn’t see himself as a misunderstood artist: “I just don’t think that there’s a total picture out there. I don’t think it’s ever been done. I don’t think I’m understood either, by the way. I don’t think any artist is understood. You’re always reaching for things that people don’t quite understand. If you’re too well understood, then you’re probably pretty dull.”
Much time has been spent by fans trying to understand every arcane reference in the lyrics of “American Pie.” One of the song’s famous refrains speaks about “The day the music died,” an allusion to the 1959 plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. For McLean, that day symbolized a loss of innocence in the early rock and roll scene. He still bemoans the consequences of that loss.
“How can anybody be in the music business [today] unless they have a bank somewhere?” he asks rhetorically. “That’s a shame really. That’s not how it was when I started. That was the neat thing about the way things were in the 1960s and ‘70s. I mean, if you caused a buzz at a club in New York City, you’d get signed to a record contract [and] you could be a star. Now you’ve got to come in there with your banker.”
The radical changes McLean has seen in his field have never ceased to amaze him over the years.
“It’s almost too much to imagine that the things that have happened to me would have happened to me when I started. Basically, my goal [back then] was to work enough and to make enough money to maybe buy my own house, some little house somewhere have a roof over my head that I owned and some little ground where I could plant some vegetables. That was about the extent of my ambition, so you can imagine how far from that I’ve come.”
Catch the “American Pie” singer at 10pm October 6 at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis. $55; rsvp: 410-268-4545; www.ramsheadtavern.com/annapolis/onstage.html
About the Author
Theodore Thimou is a freelance writer living in New York. His work has appeared in The Morning Call, The Tower Times and a variety of local publications. His last story for Bay Weekly featured the Average White Band: (Vol. xiv, No 12: March 23).