'American Pie' Was A Long, Long Time Ago

Don McLean AP PHOTO

When Don McLean wrote this song, "Castles in the Air," more than 35 years ago, he had no way of knowing that one day he would find himself a castle of sorts.

Today he's living in what he describes as "an old estate, the kind they used to have at the turn of the century in what you would call the Gilded Age."

Actually, "A Castle in the Air" is a pretty good description of his home, which is set on 175 mountaintop acres along the coast of Maine. For McLean, it's the culmination of a journey that began, "a long, long time ago."

In 1971 Don McLean was a struggling 25-year-old folk singer when he picked up his guitar to write a song for his second album.

"I was up in a — in a — in a little bedroom of a little house that I had, and I started singing, 'A long, long time ago,'" he told Early Show co-anchor Russ Mitchell. "And I started writing it down. 'Oh, that sounds good. I like that,' you know. And then I — I started going with it and started — the — the — the memory of the death of Buddy Holly came — came along, and I — you know, but I didn't want to say that. So I — you know, I said, 'February made me shiver.' I just really went back in time to when I was a paperboy."

He was a 13-year-old paperboy on Feb. 3, 1959, when he delivered the news that three pioneers of rock 'n' roll — Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly — had died in a plane crash.

"I was always interested in the — in — in the American experience. And I suddenly, in my little head, I realized that I could use rock 'n' roll and the story of rock 'n' roll and forward-moving lyrics, starting with the death of Buddy Holly, to tell the story of America," he said.

"American Pie" quickly became a number-one hit and it's been a hit ever since. The song has been played on the radio more than 3 million times in the United States alone — an average of 274 times a day, 11 times an hour, for the past 35 years. And still, to this day, wherever he goes, people continue to ask him: "What does it all mean?"

There are Web sites, college courses and books dedicated to deciphering "American Pie," but McLean says it was meant to be vague.

"Because it's meant to be a dream," he said. "It's a cautionary tale about — written to America about what happens when the spirit goes out of — of something and when you start to put commercial things ahead of beauty and poetry and literature."

Beautiful things are what McLean believes life is all about, so he and his wife Patricia have spent the past 11 years surrounding themselves and their two children with flowers.

"'I like the flowers because they're poetry," he said. "You know, they're very much like music. Music is beauty and poetry, and — and — and that's what — that's what gardens are. This is our expression of — of everything, really."

Art begets art, the McLeans believe, so Patricia uses the flowers to complement her other passion: photography.

"The Casablanca lily is so huge, so I — I grew those on purpose, so that I could use those for the — my models," she said, showing Mitchell examples of her work.

McLean's house and land didn't come from just one song. There were other hits, like "Vincent" about painter Vincent van Gogh. McLean's rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying" was a number-one hit. Elvis Presley recorded a song McLean wrote called "And I Love You So," but it took Perry Como to make it into a hit.

He has released more than 20 albums in the last 20 years, and has just completed another one, but "American Pie" is always front and center.

The original single was almost nine minutes long. McLean said half was on one side of the 8-track and half was on the other.

"See, everything about that song was double, so if you went to the jukebox, you had to pay twice to hear it," McLean said.

A finance major in college, McLean was able to avoid the mistakes other musicians made and, from the beginning, kept firm control over the rights to all his work. For example, if someone wants to make his own brand of pies and call them American Pies, he would have to check in with McLean first. The phrase is trademarked.

And after decades of saying no to advertisers eager to capitalize on the song's popularity, McLean finally said yes. In 1999 there was "American Pie" the movie, a smash hit teen comedy that had nothing to do with Chevys or levees. Beginning in 2003 there was a series of car commercials for Chevrolet.

"I said no all through the years, and then I decided that it would be a good thing for the song to do this, and I was right," he said. "They did a — they did the right job with it. It made the song more popular."

It hardly seems possible for the song to be any more popular. He's about to begin a world tour and at his concerts people are still dancing in the aisles.

As years go by, some people wonder when, or if, McLean's next big hit will come, but at age 61 his priorities have changed.

"What I try to do is make the best music I possibly can and do the best performance that I can do and try to take care of my health and be a good husband and a good father," he said. "That's my — those are my goals right now, really."

And while some might think being so closely linked with one song may seem like a curse, McLean doesn't see it that way.

"Although I'm known for many songs, I will always be known for this song, and I would want it that way," McLean said. "I would want it that way because I would want to leave behind this sort of tale about my country."
  • Caitlin Johnson

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