Did the Music Die with 'American Pie'? No, Don Mclean Has Cried His Way Back Onto the Pop Charts
Since hurling his pop epic American Pie in the face of the music world nearly a decade ago, Don McLean has made some strange marks on Western culture. The 1973 Grammy-winning Killing Me Softly with His Song was written by two composers inspired by a McLean concert. His poignant paean Vincent is played daily at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The words to his So Long Hopalong Cassidy are inscribed on a plaque in South Laguna Beach Hospital, where actor William Boyd, who portrayed the cowboy hero, died in 1972. Verses from McLean's The Legend of Andrew McCrew, about a one-legged black hobo, are engraved on McCrew's tombstone in Dallas.
The real question was whether McLean had written his own epitaph. He seemed, at 35, as dry as the levee he hymned in American Pie: He hadn't had a hit in the U.S. in eight years. Then finally this spring his recycling of Roy Orbison's '61 tearjerker Crying reached the top five on the charts and spurred sales of his LP Chain Lightning to 1.5 million worldwide. The music hadn't died for Don McLean after all.
His quizzical classic, hailed as the coda to the Age of Aquarius when it was released in 1971, earned him a reported $1.4 million. "I went from moving at car speed to moving at jet plane speed," he recalls. "It was like a complete creative life lived with the release of one song."
In person, however, he was erratic. He could be so laid back he sometimes seemed to be lying down, and his live performances often fizzled. At the same time McLean managed to antagonize the rock press, and one L.A. writer spoke for many, calling him "self-centered and egomaniacal."
McLean continued to thrive abroad, however. Of his 25 gold album awards, only one was earned in his native land. He won them in places like Australia, Brazil and Italy, and he developed a particularly strong following in Israel, where in 1980 he gave a series of concerts to benefit music education. Along the way he became involved with Ronit Peretz, now 21, a soldier in the Israeli army—though he notes she is not his only romantic interest. He was married from 1969 to 1972 to a sculptress, and says: "Eventually I'll think about remarriage, but I'm real happy to be free of things to hold me down."
Not that McLean isn't sentimental. He has five oldies on his latest LP, and says: "It's all back there for me—Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, the Weavers, Bing Crosby." His nostalgia for various good old days isn't restricted to music either. He lives near Bear Mountain, N.Y. in a rustic seven-room country house built in 1780, and fosters a fondness for the Old West. McLean even lives out his rawhide fantasies by moseying off on camping trips atop one of his two geldings.
If not a genuine gunslinger, he takes pride in marksmanship. "I can put eight shots into a three-inch target at 15 yards," he boasts, having done just that last year in Israel with a Beretta pistol. Such is his devotion to the genre, in fact, that he's writing a couple of Western screenplays, one based on his song Bronco Bill's Lament. "I really loved John Wayne," he says. "The idea that pop can attain the level of myth is what intrigues me."
Donald McLean III was born on the rather populous prairie of New Rochelle, N.Y., where his father was a representative of the utility Consolidated Edison. As a child Don had asthma attacks, and when they kept him home from school he listened to idols Holly and Elvis Presley. On Sundays he sang in a church choir. "I could get into a slingshot fight, get caught but not punished," he says. "People have a weakness for singers." When Don was 15 his father died of a heart attack, and from then on he used his lilting tenor to help support his family, as well as pay his way through a bachelor's in economics from the local Iona College. He met folksinger Pete Seeger and landed a summer gig as an ecology-spouting Hudson River troubadour.
McLean has already written the title song for his next LP, Believers (it's about fantasizing denizens of skid row), but is currently on a concert tour before going into the studio. He's resigned to the furor he always seems to stir. "What it comes down to is trying to keep my anonymity and pushing up the ticket sales a bit," he says. Then, pointing to his Appaloosa, Papago Warrior (a member of a breed whose mottled coat evolved into near camouflage in the West), McLean adds: "Adaptability is the keynote to survival."
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