Don McLean reflects on ultimate American anthem — ‘American Pie’

It’s the ultimate American anthem. The quintessential Fourth of July song. Or not.

Don McLean doesn’t argue “American Pie” is like a Rorschach test. “There’s a ton of stuff about this song,” says the singer-songwriter of one of rock’s most famous and enigmatic tunes.

“It’s durable, I’ll give you that,” says McLean, in something of an understatement for the song that made “the day the music died” a universally known phrase.

“It’s a funny thing because it’s an enormous song. It’s a huge song. And it’s a song that everybody knows, like ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ or something like that.”

OK, that’s more like it.

“And it does overshadow the hundreds of other songs that I’ve written,” says the 70-year-old troubadour, who rings in the holiday weekend with a Friday show at Boulder Station.

In a phone call, McLean agrees another song he wrote, “And I Love You So,” is undoubtedly more important to Las Vegas, if you figure the number of times it must have been performed on showroom stages by Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Engelbert Humperdinck, Shirley Bassey and everyone else who recorded it.

But that’s not the song that will score fireworks displays around the country. Or the song whose handwritten lyrics sold for $1.2 million in auction last year.

McLean says he still doesn’t know whom the buyer is.

For years, he says, the lyrics were in a box in his house, along with those of other songs, including “Vincent,” which he someday plans to put up for auction as well.

What if there had been a flood, fire or break-in?

“I really didn’t care that much. I didn’t think about it,” he says. Back when the song came out in 1971, “the lyrics on a piece of paper wouldn’t have been worth anything. Decades go by and suddenly a song becomes very, very valuable and then it’s history. Not much history, but it’s some. So that’s when you figure out what you want to do.”

The song’s legend has grown over the years, in part because of McLean’s wise refusal to explain it.

The basic facts are on McLean’s website, if not obvious enough from listening: The catalyst was the plane-crash death of Buddy Holly. But the bigger theme is McLean’s own passage to adulthood, as the fun ’50s became the tumultuous ’60s, and the Vietnam War and assassinations sapped the country’s can-do spirit.

Beyond that, is Bob Dylan the jester? Elvis the king? (In Las Vegas we like to think so.) Pull up a beer and discuss.

“I had a manager that wanted me to do that: ‘Why don’t you go on TV and tell them what everything means?’ ” McLean says.

“I said, ‘First of all, it’s not that kind of song.’ It’s not like I’m holding back on something. It’s a mystery. It’s what I want.

“You ever had a dream where some strange thing appears for no reason? And it’s perfectly clear — you know, that REM sleep where you’re involved with something that’s completely ridiculous, all night. OK? And then out of the blue, something else pops in and takes you somewhere else.

“That’s what the song’s (expletive) idea was!”

Other aspects of the song were more calculated, less abstract. “You have to take chances. You never know. Believe me, releasing ‘American Pie’ was a gigantic chance, I’ll tell you that,” McLean says.

The album of the same title was “the second album on a record deal that was gonna go south,” he says. “I was finished. I had one more album to make and I said I was just gonna go for it, do what I want to do.”

At 8½ minutes, the song is still the longest No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Back in the day, people had to flip over their 45 rpm single to continue it.

“I was looking for something really big to close the show with, some masterpiece. And I said, ‘I’m going to make my masterpiece now. And I just went for it. The producer (Ed Freeman) was an idiot, but he was right on this particular song. Everything happened and it was a wonderful moment.”

Coincidentally, two admirers of McLean are also performing in town this weekend. Garth Brooks called up McLean for his big Central Park concert in 1997. “I think I’ve been sort of an inspiration to him in some strange way only he understands,” McLean says. And Brian Wilson did an interview for a documentary about McLean, “American Troubadour.”

But McLean is resigned to the fact that “American Pie” will always be more famous than he is. “Basically, no matter what happens to me, it’s here to stay,” he says. “And that’s not bad.”

Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Mikeweatherford

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