There are certain songs that open floodgates of memories — no matter what decade you grew up in. For me, Don McLean’s “Vincent” sets off an internal slideshow with a preteen me singing my heart out while listening to McLean’s 45 play in my bedroom on the turntable my parents got me from the Sears catalog. “Vincent” happened to have “Castles in the Air” on the flip side, another of my favorites. I remember thinking the songs were beautiful, and that they were stories as well as songs.
Everyone my age knew McLean’s songs in the early 1970s when they first came out, and for years and years after. The “American Pie” album, with that red, white, and blue thumb cover photo, was released in 1971, and the namesake single came out in 1972. McLean, 76, is touring far and wide this year, the 50th anniversary of the iconic song. He comes to Martha’s Vineyard this weekend, Saturday, August 20, at the Performing Arts Center, and it’s not his first trip here.
“You know, I performed there in 1964,” McLean said in a phone interview with the Times. “I had a job at a place called the Mooncusser. It was run by Dick Randlett, and he was friends with my manager, Charles Close.” He adds with a chuckle, “They were both two young, swinging guys so they had this club, baby … it was a wonderful experience.”
McLean said he worked at the Mooncusser a couple of summers. “I ended up performing with some pretty good groups. There was a guy named Banana — he joined the Youngbloods, and a guy who ended up being in John Sebastian’s group the Lovin’ Spoonful. I think there’s a lot of creative energy there flowing from Harvard and Boston.”
McLean, who said he has a couple of properties in Maine, talked about “American Pie” and the remarkable journey the song itself has taken. He said he thought he’d be finished a year after the song came out, and he said he was prepared for that. Instead, “American Pie” took on a life of its own.
“I realized this was a phenomenal record and a phenomenal song, and I felt like I said everything I had to say in those first two albums [‘Tapestry’ and ‘American Pie’],” McLean said. “I found that it had much more longevity, I had much more longevity. I kept touring the world, and had hits all over the world.” With album sales in the millions, McLean recognizes that he’s had “a very, very good career.”
“American Pie” has been performed by everyone from Madonna and Garth Brooks to John Mayer and countless others. It was named the Top 5 Song of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. For years, people have tried to figure out the meaning behind McLean’s lyrics in “American Pie.” Does “The day the music died” refer to the plane crash in 1959 that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, “the Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson, and the pilot? “But February made me shiver with every paper I’d deliver” appears to be true, since it’s widely reported that McLean was a paperboy back in the day. As far as the “king” and the “jester” in the song, they may or may not be Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.
“I’m very careful about the songs I sing and the lyrics I write,” McLean told the Times. “I don’t write a lot of songs, but I focus on one song. If I’m making an album … you know, some guys say, ‘I write a song every day,’ but guess what, no one’s heard it. If you want to write something very good, that takes time. I’m careful with my use of language. I talk like a valley girl half the time, but when I write lyrics, I’m very particular.”
McLean says he doesn’t see his songs as a form of poetry, but rather more like a movie.
“Most of my stuff is very visual,” he says. “If you listen to ‘Vincent’ or ‘American Pie,’ they’re both like movies. That’s what enthralls people, is the cinematic way I write songs. I think poetry can get in the way of that. Poets can get in the way of a song.”
McLean isn’t known for mincing words, and talked a bit about the lyrics of his songs. “I could’ve said ‘blue’ in ‘Vincent,’ but I said ‘China blue.’ It’s a specific kind of blue painters use,” he explains. “I don’t think that people are all that smart, and they probably don’t care about that. I think people have become basic and rather crude. The world has become a lot more crude, and it annoys me quite a bit. I don’t make any effort to cater to that. I want to put something out there that is beautiful, and contrasts with the crudity of the world.”
McLean did say that he loved the time he spent on Martha’s Vineyard. Maybe Saturday will be a starry, starry night.
Don McLean at the PAC, Saturday, August 20, 6 pm. For tickets, visit mvconcertseries.com/events/detail/don-mclean.