In 1971, Don McLean released the single, “American Pie.” This classic song brimmed with imagery of the United States in the 1950’s, as well as the sadness of Buddy Holly’s premature death and McLean’s pointed, rock-and-roll commentary about “the Jester,” Elvis Presley, stealing Holly’s rightful place in the Rock-and-Roll pantheon “in a coat he borrowed from James Dean and a voice that came from you and me…” Okay, okay, so that’s just my take, and feel free to form your own position, because McLean has deftly avoided interpreting the enigmatic pop tune through decades of probing interviews, most frequently describing the meaning of the song’s cryptic lyric as, “It means I’ll never have to work again.”
Fair enough. But as you likely know, “American Pie” was ubiquitous on radio in the early 1970’s, it rocketed to number one on the Billboard charts, remaining there for 4 weeks, and it continues to be a radio staple to this day, garnering new generations of fans every year, who are drawn-in by its rock-and-roll imagery and infectious, sing-a-long chorus. In fact, the song is so revered that it’s used to close down bars at the University of Illinois, has been parodied by the wonderful Weird Al Yankovic, and was even given an electronica treatment by Madonna in 2000 (which I didn’t hate). And besides the follow-up single, the majestic, “Vincent,” a tribute to artist Vincent Van Gogh that reached #12 the following fall and McLean's “comeback” hits from a decade later, the remake of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” #5, in 1980, and “Castles In The Air,” #12, in 1981, that’s pretty much everything pop fans know of Don McLean.
And this is the problem, since the scattered hits tell only a part of the story, and American Pie isn’t even McLean’s best album. That distinction goes to his third LP, the self-titled, Don McLean: a portrait of the artist in the wake of massive commercial success and wide critical acclaim. Backstory: when McLean recorded the American Pie LP, he was still a relatively unknown singer/songwriter, whose first album, Tapestry, failed to make a dent on the charts (even though it contained two future hits, the original version of the aforementioned, “Castles In The Air,” and the song that Perry Como turned into a hit three years after, the 1973 #29 single, “And I Love You So”). When Don McLean recorded his eponymous third album, however, the eyes of the world were watching. So how does one follow a monstrous one-two punch, like the American Pie album?
For McLean, it included writing an album about the spinning, crushing, whirlwind-lifestyle, “stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.” He introduced the album with the challenging leadoff single, “Dreidel,” (#21 in 1973). The song, while a fitting description of his life in that past year, was a left-turn choice, in terms of selecting a song representative of the album. But maybe that was the point. In fact, half of the introspective Don McClean album finds the artist seeking solace from the typhoon of concerts, interviews, and television appearances that followed the behemoth success of American Pie. Themes reflect in like manner: the emptiness of show business (“Bronco Bill’s Lament,” “The Pride Parade”), love’s mutability (“Falling Through Time,” “Oh My, What A Shame”), a few tender love songs (“If We Try,” “Birthday Song”), and even a novelty remake of a 1920’s ditty (“On The Amazon”). My favorite song on the album, however, has always been “Narcissisma,” with it’s playful, silly lyrics (to wit, “…She’s got no...cryers, no pliers, no liars and no sleeves, and she will always tell you everything that she believes, she's got no belly button too, no high heeled shoe…”) and especially the sassy backing vocals by the West Forty-Forth Street Rhythm and Noise Choir.
What the album, McLean, didn’t do, however, was recreate the American Pie experience, which would have been the most fiscally-responsible choice as well as what the record-buying public expected. Instead, McLean opted to release an album that was true to his personal and artistic journey. Great art. Poor marketing potential. In fact, had McLean been released in 2011, we might have seen a few well-placed, high profile celebrity breakdowns leading up to its release. I can envision McLean visiting a Hollywood salon to borrow clippers for a self-shaved Mohawk before running off, barefoot, into a public men’s room, a public intoxication arrest or, better-yet, an “embarrassing” twitter scandal. These incidents would have beautifully set the stage for the themes included in this album, and perhaps the public would better appreciate it. But as it was, the album quietly limped its way up to #23 and only remained in the Top 40 for a paltry 7 weeks. But I guess I’m lucky. Not everybody has an older brother (hey, Jeff), who purchased the album in the late-1970’s and played it endlessly on the families' wood-grained, 3-speed stereo. For the rest of you, this sensitive, imaginative album must be discovered on your own.
**Oh, and quick, but relevant post script: McLean doesn’t ever get credit for his tremendous singing ability when, in fact, he’s a remarkable singer with tremendous vocal dexterity. And in the age of Britney / Glee / Kanye vocoder-abuse, I appreciate that so much more…