A Slice of American Pie

Singer Don Mclean sounds off on critics, Donald Trump, and the enduring appeal of his iconic song prior to his Fantasy Springs concert.

Staff Report Arts & Entertainment, Current Digital

Don McLean: "At this point in my life I’ve written so much that I have very little to say. But when I do have something to say, I write about it."

According to Don McLean, the most important quality for a songwriter is having something to say. And he would know, having written one of the most enduring epics in rock ’n’ roll history. The “American Pie” singer, 73, touched on that and a variety of topics in a recent, unflinching interview ahead of his July 13 concert at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino’s Special Events Center, including:

His connection to a Western film star and how he came to call Palm Desert “home”…

I’m a big fan of Western films. And one of my favorite Western stars is William Boyd, Hopalong Cassidy. I learned about 10 years ago that his little house that he lived in, this little black-and-white house in Palm Desert, was for sale. So I came back from a tour in Australia to California, to Los Angeles, and the owner of the house asked if I’d like to come visit. I was really excited about visiting William Boyd’s house…  So over the course of the drive from L.A. it went from 74 and rainy to 92, bright and sunny. And I said, ‘Man this a great place.’ I fell in love with it. … I love the heat. I’m like, 120? Bring it on!’

How he overcame a chronic illness and isolation as a youth…

From the time I was born until I was about 15 years old, I had pretty serious asthma. It would come and go, and sometimes it would bring on pneumonia where I was close to death. So I spent a lot of time at home, away from school. I didn’t do well in school; I didn’t learn the skills of study. I also didn’t do well socializing with other kids because I wasn’t with them every day. I was quite a lonely boy. So I put my energy and my thoughts and my imagination into what was on television, what was on the radio and what few records we had around the house. That’s what got me excited about music — listening, hearing a record over and over and over again… The desire to hear myself helped get through school.

Becoming a songwriter and why an artist must have something to say…

There was a group called The Weavers. They had been blacklisted. I started to call them on the phone and I became friends with them.  A few years later I was being managed by their manager, singing in nightclubs and one thing led to another. It was all very exciting because you’re always learning new things. And then the songwriting thing started after that… I very much became a musicologist in my own way, but not in a serious way. And I ended up knowing thousands and thousands of songs.

I realized at some point that there were certain things that I wanted to say. Things that were not in any songs that I’d heard. That’s what started me writing — I had something to say. You can’t be a writer if you don’t have something to say. At this point in my life I’ve written so much that I have very little to say. But when I do have something to say, I write about it. The problem today is that you have a lot of people who feel they have to be ‘writers.’ You know, they have to write stuff. And they have nothing to say.

The friendship and lasting influence of a folk music icon…

I got to know Pete Seeger for about seven years, and I’m so glad that I did. We were pretty good friends and he did a lot to help me. Like he did Bob Dylan and other people. But I was living near him and working on his project, the Hudson River sloop, and I got to see how he worked and how he operated… His wife [filmmaker, producer and activist Toshi Seeger] really ran the show — she was the flipside of Pete. She put on the festivals and had a Rolodex for days. They were very open with me.

Why his music remains influential and why he doesn’t like Alice Cooper…

I really don’t think about genres too much. I’m just me. I meld together the old fashioned pop and the early rock and the folk music. That’s what I do. My music has been pretty influential. The albums I made in the ’70s have had a big impact on a lot of country singers who came along later. You know, Brenda Lee loved me and Jerry Lee Lewis, all those people… But I still have people like — what the hell is his name? Alice Cooper. He said ‘American Pie’ isn’t a rock ’n’ roll song. Well that’s fine coming from a circus act. I hear shit from people sometimes and I don’t take it.

How Thelonious Monk was an inspiration for “American Pie” …

It’s got a lot of facets to it, you know? First of all, it has a lot of music, a lot of memorable moments lyric-wise. It’s a strange combination of emotions — you know, you’re happy being sad in a way. It’s the essence of me. It’s how I think. It’s the way my mind works. It’s this jumble of influences that came from my childhood, and ideas — I can’t really describe it. It was meant to be. Someone had a hand on me, I do believe this. It’s not really in the normal musical realm.


What I tried to with words was what Thelonious Monk did with the piano. Or some of the great rock groups do with guitars and things: create a mysterious land of some sort. I’m out there digging for gold. I’m a prospector, and I don’t know what I’m going to come up with. Sometimes I come up dry, but not a whole lot. And sometimes I hit a big vein!”

“This Is America,” his 2009 ode to Dwight D. Eisenhower, and what’s wrong with the country today

Eisenhower warned us against the military industrial complex when he left office. He said that the mixture of this corporate and military power was dangerous. He said it was dangerous to the spiritual life of the nation. Now, this is a very interesting remark because you have all these secret wars going on now. Where these people within the military industrial complex have a secret budget. And they’re making all these horrible weapons. And we have to try them out, so therefore we need theaters of war to do this. We know this in the back of our minds. Why aren’t we protesting the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan? Because we’re not hearing about it! And Obama, for all his wonderful press and everything, was completely complicit in this.

There’s so much wrong with this country right now. And it’s so Orwellian. We spend all of our time worrying about whether some actor put his hand on the ass of some girl in 1985, instead of these wars. And what’s happening to our food, what’s happening to our water, what’s happening in so many realms. We’re just stuck with this high school shit, you know? “What did Trump tweet today?” Who gives a fuck? People are kept in the dark by the very news media that they think is giving them the news. So that’s why I like Eisenhower, and that’s why I wrote the song about him.

Upcoming projects and future plans…

I’ve got one more album that I’m going to come out with. I’ve got a couple of other project that I’m going to get serious about getting out. But I’ve been sidetracked with a very ugly divorce that’s taken the last couple years of my life; that’s pretty much over now. So I’m going back to thinking about these projects. I had a few really good shows in Northern Ireland that I want to get out on DVD. And I have another project, which is rehearsals with the Jordanaires [vocal group known for backing Elvis Presley], which we did so many songs for show at Carnegie Hall many years ago, so I want that out. And maybe start to work on some new material. I’ve got some things I want to get done!

Tickets for Don McLean’s concert on July 13 are on sale at the Fantasy Springs Box Office, 800-827-2946 or visit FantasySpringsResort.com.