Don McLean: Castles in the Air

2 Oct

Don McLean's album Tapestry

Don McLean's first album Tapestry

Birthday greetings to singer-songwriter Don McLean, who celebrates No. 66 today.

McLean’s American Pie was the No. 5 song of the 20th century in a poll voted on for the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts, but it’s probably No. 1 in most-interpreted songs of the century. Few artists are as connected with their songs as McLean and American Pie — McLean’s own website says it is “the official website of Don McLean and American Pie.”

McLean has largely been quiet about the specifics over the years, beyond the obvious: the song is autobiographical, the day the music died was Feb. 3, 1959 when Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash, and it’s reflective of the changing eras in America. Beyond that, you’re free to make all the references to The Byrds, Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan you want.

“When people ask me what ‘American Pie’ means, I tell them it means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to,” is the quote most famously attributed to McLean.

Legend goes that McLean wrote the song at a bar called Tin & Lint in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (a plaque marks the spot). He was struggling — his original album Tapestry was rejected by 34 record companies, according to wikipedia. After American Pie, no more rejection.

McLean has written many other songs deserving of acclaim: Vincent, a No. 1 hit in the UK (American Pie was No. 2 there, No. 1 in the States), Dreidel, Since I Don’t Have You, And I Love You So, Castles in the Air (link below), Wonderful Baby, etc. And he’s been the subject of No. 1 songs, too — Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly With His Song was written by Lori Lieberman after she watched McLean in concert in 1973 (according to McLean’s website, the two met for the first time 38 years later).

“Fifteen years ago I sang for the 3rd graders of the New Rochelle (N.Y.) schools,” wrote Pete Seeger, one of McLean’s main mentors and influences, on the 1970 liner notes to Tapestry. “One of the snot-nosed brats before me was Don McLean. Had I known he would turn into one of the most talented songwriter-singers I’d ever met, I would have Z*:X#[#}Z. Probably would have stopped in mid-song chagrined.

“Don is just that. A normal, talented, unpretentious, nervous, relaxed musician trying to use his songs to help people survive in these perilous times.”

From McLean’s Castles in the Air:

For I will not be part of the cocktail generation
Partners waltz devoid of all romance
The music plays and everyone must dance
I’m bowing out I need a second chance



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