‘A long, long time ago… I can still remember,” said Don McLean in response to my question about his old 1960s folkie days in New York.
Well, not really. But in that slightly nasal twang that hasn’t changed in 50 years, it was impossible to listen to McLean speak without being reminded that this was the person – and the voice – that wrote and sang one of the most popular and enduring songs of the 20th century.
Like with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye
, or Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” or any other creation that has dominated an artist’s oeuvre, “American Pie” is the Sistine Chapel of McLean’s career. Despite recording dozens of other songs, including classics such as “Vincent” and “And I Love You So,” the 72-year-old singer/songwriter never attempted to match the breadth and scope of “American Pie” – an eight-minute mesmerizing journey through rock & roll history via cryptic lyrics, a rollicking beat and all the wistfulness and celebration that defined the music it was celebrating.
“I don’t know where that song came from,” said McLean from his home in Palm Springs, California, during a phone interview earlier this month. “I really don’t know what I’m doing most of the time when I write, I just do it.
“I’ve had a lot of magic in my life and I would say that I’m not an Earth-bound person. I’m a dreamer and what I dreamt for myself once I realized I could write songs, was for all of the them to be different and unique, almost cinematic in scope and great attention to the words. I haven’t put out a ton of records, but a bunch. And every song I’ve written would qualify as having those characteristics.”
Acknowledging that “American Pie” and the 1971 album of the same name that it appeared on were a phenomenon, McLean explained that such alignments of the stars are rare and can’t be repeated.
“‘American Pie’ was one of the most famous albums ever recorded, but I realized then that I could never do it again,” he said.
Instead, he continued writing, recording and touring over the next 45 years, challenging himself and entertaining fans, but never reaching the heights of his early and mid-1970s commercial success. Already financially secure due to having the foresight of retaining the publishing rights to his songs, unlike many of his contemporaries, McLean was able to focus on his folk-inflected music without the worry of having to produce a hit.
RAISED IN Westchester County, New York, McLean fell in love with the early rock & roll of Buddy Holly. By age 16, newly enamored with the folk music of The Weavers, he purchased his first guitar and began learning how to play. A friend would drive him into New York City’s Greenwich Village where musicians such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Josh White were redefining the folk tradition for a new generation of iconoclasts.
“I had this friend, Mike Cropp, who would drive me into the city. He was an amazing banjo player and introduced me to all these great instruments – Gibson mandolins, bluegrass guitars – and we would go to Washington Square Park and play with different people,” said McLean.
He became bold enough to contact Erik Darling and Fred Hellerman, members of The Weavers, and got himself invited to their jam sessions, where he was like a star-struck student.
“Magic was happening. All of a sudden, I was in this circle and able to ask them questions. In those days, you couldn’t find out anything about music – there were no magazines that wrote about this stuff, no YouTubes to explain how you play this chord or that lick – it was all handed down in folk tradition. So, it was very exciting for me, like being part of a secret club,” he said.
McLean began writing his own songs and began performing at the showcase clubs of the time, such as The Bitter End and Gaslight Cafe in New York, the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., and the Troubadour in Los Angeles.
At a 1967 benefit for Lena Spencer, owner of Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York, one of his regular haunts, McLean spied Dylan in the audience. The legend had semi-retired to nearby Woodstock after his infamous motorcycle accident.
“I was 22 and in college and Dylan was out there and I wanted him to hear my songs. I played “Circus Song.” That song was eventually included on his 1970 debut album Tapestry – released before the more popular album of the same name by Carole King.
“Later, there was an after-party at some guy’s house, and Dylan came up to me and said, ‘You sang that song about the circus, right?’
“‘Yes I did,’ I answered him.
“‘That was one of the most inspiring songs I ever heard,’ Dylan told me. So again, magic was happening. That’s kind of what was going on in the ‘60s. I was going to school but meeting people and getting validation for my songwriting.”
That included a close association with Seeger, who invited McLean on his Clearwater boat for a trip up the Hudson River in 1969 and to accompany him at the Newport Folk Festival the same year.
McLean took his time signing a record deal until he found one that would allow him to keep his publishing rights. But then things exploded and by 1971, he had the number one album in America. He continued to chart albums and singles through the ‘70s and ‘80s, but his life took a turn in the late ‘70s courtesy of Israel.
MCLEAN FELL in love with an Israeli woman, Orly Tzarfati – a soldier at the time – and he saw her on and off for a few years on frequent visits to the country.
“We had a great time together. I knew her family and I enjoyed her and the country very much,” said McLean, who added that he has not stayed in touch with her.
“I don’t really know what happened to her. I don’t really stay in touch with people too much, I move on. But I think about them, though.”
During his intensive period of being an honorary Israeli, McLean acceded to the request of then-Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek
to appear in a promotional film for the city, for which he wrote a song called “Jerusalem.”
“The whole Israel experience was interesting,” said McLean, who hasn’t been back to Israel since the early 1980s. “I calculate that I must have tried 20 different tastes I had never had before – spices, condiments, oh wow! I admired the celebratory spirit of Israelis who worked very hard all day and stayed up and partied every single night. They were always doing something and having a good time, in the middle of all this stuff that could happen to them at any moment.
“I went home to America after several years of back-and-forth and realized that Americans don’t know how good they have it. They have everything – security, food, welfare – and they’re all miserable. That changed me, I started to be a lot more upbeat and appreciative in my life.”
McLean married Patrisha Shnier in 1987 and they raised two children in an estate he bought in Camden, Maine. It sounded like an idyllic existence but uncharacteristically ended in tabloid headlines in 2016 when McLean was arrested for a domestic violence misdemeanor charge. The charges were dropped after a plea agreement, but the couple divorced, with his ex-wife accusing the singer of making antisemitic comments about her, an accusation he denied.
With that chapter behind him, McLean will finally be returning to Israel next month to perform twice – on June 16 at the Ra’anana Amphitheater and on June 17 at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv – as part of a world tour.
“I can’t live without performing,” he said. “I wouldn’t be me if I couldn’t sing. I learned that 20 years ago when I tried to retire. It was the worst year of my life. I didn’t know who I was. I just knew I had to get back to work.”
“I’ve had a blessed life by following my instincts and being my own guy. I’ve never worked for anybody and I don’t know how to bow down. At the same time, I know that people have to and I don’t fault them for that. I’m fortunate that I found a place that I could make a dollar by playing my guitar and sometimes, my banjo. I don’t think I could ask for more.”
For McLean, the mythic levy from “American Pie” that he keeps going back to is never dry.