When you hear the name Don McLean, your first thought is likely his magnum opus “American Pie.” That song was voted the 5th best song of the 20th century and is truly a classic. Yet, McLean produced a significant body of work that is often gets overshadowed by that song’s huge success. My wife and I had the pleasure of seeing McLean perform in a theatre venue which was perfect for his style of singing and it was truly an enchanting evening. His voice is underestimated, so he can make his wonderful words and music come to life.
Here is a small sampling before we get to his main event. I have several favorites, but let me start with “And I love you so” about how his life becomes complete when he meets his love:
The people ask me how
How I’ve lived till now
I tell them I don’t know
I guess they understand
How lonely life has been
But life began again
The day you took my hand
Probably his second most popular song is his tribute to Vincent van Gogh, called “Vincent” or more commonly known as “Starry Starry Night.” McLean’s melancholy singing and strategic pauses make this song both haunting and compelling.
And now I understand
What you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free
They would not listen
They did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now
Another favorite is a reflective and sad song about the emptiness when his lover finally leaves hims. It is called “Empty Chairs.”
Morning comes and morning goes with no regret
And evening brings the memories I can’t forget
Empty rooms that echo as I climb the stairs
And empty clothes that drape and fall on empty chairs
And I wonder if you know
That I never understood
That although you said you’d go
Until you did I never thought you would
McLean began as a folk singer in the 1960s and was mentored by Pete Seeger. He also knew Jim Croce before he left Villanova University after four months (he did complete his college degree at Iona). So, he spent a lot of time in small venues along the Hudson River and was able to hone his craft. I mentioned his voice. He did a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” and it became a number one hit record internationally before it was brought back to the US. To sing that song, you must have some vocal chops. And, he truly does Roy proud. Another great song of his is “Castles In The Air” and here is a taste:
And if she asks you why,
you can tell her that I told you
That I’m tired of castles in the air.
I’ve got a dream I want the world to share
And castle walls just lead me to despair.
But, any tribute to McLean would have to include “American Pie.” When we saw him, Madonna had just done a cover of the song, so he referenced he would get to that Madonna song later. He references so much musical history in the song beginning with day the music died when the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed. I particularly like one of the final stanzas where it is believed he references Janis Joplin.
I met a girl who sang the Blues, and I asked her for some happy news
She just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store where I’d heard the music years before, but…
The man there said the music wouldn’t play
And, in the streets the children screamed, the lover’s cried, and the poets dreamed, but…
Not a word was spoken – the church bells all were broken
And, the three men I admire most: the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they…
Caught the last train for the coast the day the music died
You would think I would close with that classic, but I have personal observation which may not be correct, but I like it anyway. Let me run it by you. He has a wonderful song lamenting George Reeves who played Superman on TV. It actually destroyed his career and he could no longer get good acting roles and for some reason was alleged to have committed suicide. My thesis is McLean had such overwhelming success with “American Pie” that he did not want to only be remembered for that song, hence his fascination with Reeves. Here is a glimpse of the song “Superman’s Ghost.”
I don’t want to be like old George Reeves
Stuck in a Superman role
I’ve got a long way to go in my career
And some day my fame will make it clear
That I had to be a Superman
Don McLean, you may not be a Superman, but you are an American treasure and much more than the writer and singer of “American Pie.” Yes, that is one fine song, but so are the above and many others. Thanks for sharing your words, music and voice with us.