Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Go up to anyone on the street, just about anywhere in the civilized world, mention the words, “Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry,” and chances are quite good they will actually know what you are talking about.
That is how pervasive the song “American Pie“‘ has become in the world today. Considered an anthem for a generation, it is constantly on the radio, 3.5 million times and counting. It is the subject of numerous Web sites and discussions of its meaning have made more than a few graduate thesis. The National Endowment for the Arts ranked it as the fifth most significant song of the past century and it is in the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2000 Madonna recorded a new version of “American Pie” that once again hit the top of the charts. And then, of course, there is the movie of the same name.
“Fortunately, I own the trademark to the name, so I made a ton of money from that,” says its writer, singer/songwriter Don McLean, with a chuckle over the phone from his home in Maine. “Not to mention the (recent) Chevy ads, too. And Madonna made this song a worldwide hit all over again. But actually, I originally wrote it with the intention of having an anthem-like song to close my set with, a big piece.”
It’s been that and more. “It has been like having a constant hit record,” he says in retrospect. “At first, in the ’70s, it was difficult. You set yourself up with something you can never top, but actually, I never tried to. I always had other songs I was proud of as well. But it has kept me famous through the years, and, of course, there have been the financial benefits, too.”
McLean, who will appear at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts Saturday night with fellow singer/songwriter Stephen Bishop opening, received some excellent advice early in his musical career. “Lee Hayes of the Weavers once told me that whatever you do, don’t part with your songs,” McLean relates. “It was probably the best advice I’ve ever had.” To this day, McLean still owns all his songs and records.
“The record companies learned early that the real money is in the music publishing,” McLean says. “It was really hard, because as a young artist it is really easy to sign away your rights, just so you could get that first record made. Luckily, I held firm and never gave in.”
He laughs. “Of course, I also happened to study business law in college.”
Madonna and friends singing American Pie in The Next Best Thing (2000)
While growing up in New Rochelle, N.Y., McLean developed a love for folk music through a 1955 live recording by the Weavers. He learned to play guitar as a teenager, and after only four months at Villanova University, he dropped out to pursue life as a folk troubadour. He did eventually earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Iona College, where he attended night school.
McLean spent most of the ’60s as a struggling folk artist, befriending people like Jim Croce and Pete Seeger, with whom he sailed the Atlantic seaboard on the Sloop Clearwater, giving concerts along the way. He views it all as a valuable experience.
“There was just so much music happening then, so many different great artists to see. I spent several summers in Lennox, Mass., playing a couple of different clubs and seeing people like Thelonius Monk, Carlos Montoya, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. I even got to live together one year with McGhee and Terry, and I learned so much from them. It was invaluable woodshedding time.”
He finds that times have changed greatly. “Nowadays, there is really no sense of being part of a fabric,” he says. “Young artists are insulated, and the market has fragmented so that there is no sense of real community. Back then, it was like a fountain of creativity, in a very competitive setting. Now they hand down videos instead of songs.”
Since he released his first album, “Tapestry,” on the tiny Mediarts label, in 1969, McLean has more or less followed his own path concerning his career, sometimes to the consternation of the record companies he has recorded for. But he has also had other hit songs, such as “Vincent,” his musical tribute to painter Vincent Van Gogh, which has been played on radio more than 2 million times itself and is now a hit for young crooner Josh Groban, and “Starry, Starry Night.” And Martin Guitars introduced a special edition ‘Don McLean Guitar’ at $7,500 apiece a couple of years ago.
“The guitar was a real satisfying honor,” McLean says proudly. “Anyone I ever cared about played a Martin. And,” he enthuses, “it came out at the same time they were doing a Lester Flatt edition.”
McLean has released a number of new recordings recently, and as usual, they have been quite varied as the artist continues to follow his own muse. “Well, let’s see,” he recounts, “the newest one is an album of Western songs — I’ve been a horseman for 30 years now, and I have three horses here at home; I work in the stalls. Then there is a children’s album that has my daughter on it, entitled “You’ve Got to Share.” There is the DVD and two-disc soundtrack to “Starry, Starry Night,” the PBS special I did in 2000; a 22-track Christmas package; and an album where I sing Marty Robbins songs. And I’m currently working on a new one, laying down some rock and roll tracks, all new songs — who knows, it might be my last one. After all, I turn 60 later this year. But I do have two young kids still here at home, and I’d probably be neurotic without them.
“That was one of the things about being inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame last year; it made me feel old,” he says. “But this is how I wanted to turn out. I couldn’t handle the fame that Madonna or Bruce Springsteen have, all that ugly paranoia that it puts you through. Imagine what David Letterman is going through, knowing that someone wanted to steal your kid. I like being right here, right under the radar. I’m happy where I am, with every record I’ve ever done, still in print.
“It’s all a matter of being tuned in to life. To me, songwriting is a visceral art form, not an intellectual one. Things occur, certain things at certain times, and you just go with it. It’s like a sense of karma, with jags where you’re involved.” He pauses. “Life is like a kaleidoscope, twisting the tube, shaking the broken glass, trying to interpret the new forms, what it all means.”
Sort of like what people have been doing with “American Pie’ for quite awhile now.
Source: Paul Andersen/presstelegram.com