By Jackie Moe
Enter any karaoke bar and chances are someone will request to belt out “American Pie,” a cultural phenomenon song that is an 8 ½-minute epic with the memorable lyric about “the day the music died.” Don McLean, the man behind the 1971 iconic tune, wrote the song as a tribute that refers to the 1959 plane crash that killed rock ‘n’ rollers Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens.
Thirty years later, “American Pie” was voted No. Five in a poll of the 365 “Songs of the Century,” compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. The hit was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. Along with the songs “And I Love You So” and the international No. One “Crying,” “American Pie” helped earn McLean more than 40 Gold and Platinum records worldwide. He was inducted into the Popular Music Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2004.
A man of great tunes and stories, 73-year-old McLean has continued to record and tour over four decades later with his heavy collection of discography that includes such hits as “Vincent (Starry Starry Night)” and “And I Love You So.” McLean, who released his latest album “Botanical Albums” in 2018, will make a stop at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, March 22.
Mclean opens up about his writing process (or lack thereof), musical influences, and his personal favorite covers:
JM: You’re such a great lyrical storyteller. How would you describe your writing process?
DM: I really don’t have any writing process. I really don’t. I kind of don’t even know what I’m doing. I sort of make things up as I go along, and sometimes I’m interested in writing songs and sometimes I’m not. I’ll go for a long time and I won’t write anything. Then I’ll start back up. I’ve made a lot of records and I don’t know how many more I’m going to make, But really, after all these years, I could not tell you how I did anything. For me, it’s not a science and there’s no methodology to it really. What does happen though is I will find myself thinking about a subject a lot and then I’ll decide how I want to try to write about it. But the thing, and this is the most important thing of all, is you have to have a feeling inside of you. And whatever you want to try to do with the song, make that feeling come out every time you hear it. It’s pretty tricky.
JM: So what do you think brings those feelings that inspire you to write?
DM: I consider myself to be a free radical in the system, telling my own truths about whatever subjects interest me, and I have a few rules. One is that I try not to write a song that’s about anything that I’ve ever heard before. So, you know, I don’t say, ‘Hey, I’m going to write a Beatles song…’ Like, you know, ‘Another Girl’ or ‘Help’ or something. I don’t do that. I try to create something that’s completely different and with different subjects. So that’s kind of rule number one. And the second thing is that I try to make up a new song every time. In other words, it’s got a new lyric style, a new writing style. In my latest record, ‘Botanical Gardens,’ you hear a lot of different kinds of songs and if you went all the way back to ‘Tapestry’ or ‘Don McLean’ or ‘American Pie’ or ‘Homeless Brother’ or ‘Prime Time’ or any of those other albums I’ve made, you hear many, many different forms of music, because I like to try to do that.
JM: So do you categorize yourself in any particular genre?
DM: I don’t think so. Well, I know I’m not a rap singer. Although, I mean, ‘Prime Time,’ ‘Headroom,’ some of these songs I’ve written could certainly be adapted to rap very easily. You know, they have that same kind of sensibility; they’re angry songs and they’re almost talking, you know, like rap.
I’ll just digress for a moment. Rap music comes from a form of folk music, the talking blues, and the talking blues comes from a kind of street music…and the guy that did that first really was Bo Diddley. The song Bo Diddley was really known for was the ‘Hambone’ song, which is the talking blues. So he’s really kind of the king of rock’n’roll now in my opinion, because now rap is huge and it’s really well entrenched. And he’s the guy that was first to really be doing that.
JM: Are you currently working on anything?
DM: I’m actually not working on anything right now. I’m just being lazy and I’ve been in a lot of places. I’ve been traveling 85 cities, 50 of them were overseas, and I’ve got another 65 or 70 dates on the books this year already. So I haven’t really had any time off to sit around. But I’m very, very happy to wake up and not have anything to do right now. And so I’m just fiddling around with this and that and picking my guitar and taking a rest.
JM: What would you say has always been your drive to continue in the music business?
DM: My drive is it’s my way of life. It’s like breathing, you know? I have to travel and sing and meet people and be with an audience. And I love to present, I kind of do a different show every night, you know, I don’t really have a set list or anything. And I like to give that to people. That’s what I was put here for — to do this music and give people something. I mean really so much of life as you get older is um, drudgery. You know, they say that people live lives of quiet desperation. You know, people are quietly desperate and that’s the truth. And so you give them something to make them come alive and be happy to be alive and that’s what, you know, a good musical artist or any art is supposed to do. Music enhances your existence… makes you feel happy to be a human being.
JM: Do you have any particular favorite covers?
DM: I have one favorite, which is Fred Estaire’s version of ‘Wonderful Baby.’ I love that. And I loved hearing this great artist do his thing with my song, ‘cause he does a special thing with it and it’s always a thrill, you know? To hear really good artists do your music because they always do it very well. I was also very impressed with George Michael’s version of ‘The Grave’… it’s dramatic and beautiful and I thought he was a very good performer, excellent performer. But I suppose my peak really is Elvis’s version of ‘And I Love You So.’ I’ve heard many of these versions of that song because he sang it all through the year, 1976 and 77, just before he died. And there’s been lots of, you know, board mixes that have come out from shows that he’s done and they all almost always have ended with ‘I Love You, So’ and that’s been a big thrill.
What is the Don Mclean experience like in concert?
They’re going to see a guy who sort of makes it up as he goes along. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I have a great band that is very hot and it’s sharp and also very lyrical. So, you know, we’ll usually start off with a few old songs and then I’ll start going into some of my material from my back catalog, and then maybe digress into a story about something and perhaps get the audience to sing a tune or two. Sometimes I get them to sing the ‘Waving Man’ that’s on the ‘Botanical Gardens’ album. So it’s that kind of thing… if you saw me now and you’d seen me two years ago, you’d see a different show.
Theater: Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts; 18000 Park Plaza Drive, Cerritos
Date: Friday, March 22, 2019, 8 p.m.
Ticket Prices: $85/$70/$40
Ticket Information: Tickets are available only at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts’ Ticket Office, at cerritoscenter.com, or by calling (562) 916-8500.