Dedicated to the History of Maine and the People and Places That Preserve It

Maine’s Don McLean Lives the American Pie Dream

By Ann Carrie Fisher
Maine has been home to several well-known celebrities in recent decades. Martha Stewart, Kirstie Alley and John Travolta have all lived here. But one of the first to exchange noise and notoriety for the sound of the sea was Don McLean, who has called the Pine Tree State his home since 1984.

So it’s only fitting that when the acclaimed songwriter celebrates his 40th anniversary tour this year he included a performance in Lewiston on April 17. Forty seems to be a seminal number for McLean: on February 12 his original recording of American Pie returned to the United Kingdom charts, 40 years after its first release.

Like the Grateful Dead so famously said, "What a long, strange trip it’s been," and that is certainly true for McLean, a baby boomer born in 1945 who penned an anthem for his generation that continues to echo for those who followed.

According to his authorized biography, Killing Us Softly With His Songs, penned by Alan Howard, McLean had a pretty typical 1950s upbringing in the Larchmont neighborhood of New Rochelle, N.Y. His mother’s family had big Sunday dinners and he and his friends had the run of their neighborhood, playing in the woods, fields and yards.

McLean was exposed to show biz as a child, as his parents’ social circle included an announcer for the Tommy Dorsey show and a producer of TV commercials. When his parents hosted parties, their only son would sometimes entertain the group with his singing. "I like what Mick Jagger said" McLean relates in Killing Us Softly. "I started performing for family, only the shows got bigger."

McLean had to work long and hard to succeed in the music business, however. It was during times of isolation due to his chronic asthma that, as a young child, he first became interested in music. McLean would spend endless hours listening to the radio and playing 78 rpm records, according to Howard’s book. His mother encouraged him to sing as she played piano and his maternal grandmother, who also played piano, taught him to harmonize.

It could have been wishful thinking on the part of a precocious young man, but in an eerily prescient moment when he was just five or six, McLean told his mother he was going to be a famous singer and buy her a mink coat. He fulfilled that promise in 1973.

"Don always knew that music was the right path for him," wrote Howard, "and he was willing to let it take him where ever it would." McLean’s music has taken him on 14 world tours, into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and to the Sydney Opera House as the first American to perform there.

The first musical instrument McLean played was a ukulele, which was introduced to him by a neighbor. When he was 10, McLean became captivated with Elvis after a friend’s father played a 16mm film of Presley’s first appearance on the Tommy Dorsey show. Coupled with trips to the city to see Alan Freed’s Rock and Roll Show at the Brooklyn Fox Theater, "he decided from then on, that rock and roll was it," according to Howard.

With money earned from his paper route, McLean bought his first guitar when he was 14. He had wanted a baritone ukulele like his neighbor, but his father said if he was going to play an instrument, he should play a real one. The elder Don McLean had a motto: "If you want to do something, do it all the way."

Soon McLean and his friend formed the first of many bands that he was a member of, playing at dances all around New Rochelle. Singing lessons and participation on a local swim team strengthened McLean’s lungs and helped his asthma disappear.

Around his teen years, McLean became enamored of folk music - close in style to rock music of the time - and his lifelong admiration of the Weavers blossomed.

At the age of 15, McLean left his childhood behind forever when his tough, but loving, father died suddenly. In his own words, McLean said he was "shattered" and grieved terribly. That was the first profound death that influenced him and may have contributed to the sentiments behind "American Pie"

While McLean was attending Villanova University President Kennedy was shot and killed. McLean said it brought back memories of his father’s funeral, which took place during the time of Kennedy’s inauguration. Now, Kennedy too, was dead.

"Nothing in America was worth believing," Howard said. "Something told Don it was time to leave school."

"I’m a wild person, a free person, and I don’t like taking orders from people," McLean said in his biography. McLean said he doesn’t believe in dreams, he believes in reality. He made up his mind to be a troubadour and a legend and worked to make that his reality. Leaving college after only four months, McLean began auditioning and eventually ended up in the office of manager Howard Leventhal.

Despite an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival and winning a singing contest at the World’s Fair in 1964, McLean still had no recording prospects. He decided to take a break and try college again, earning a degree in business administration from Iona College in New Rochelle. He didn’t let school get in the way of performing and, according to information on his website, during those years McLean appeared with artists such as Steppenwolf, Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, among many others.

McLean fulfilled his destiny as a troubadour when in 1968, the New York State Council on the Arts decided to hire a musician to walk the Hudson River and sing three concerts in three towns each day. They envisioned a troubadour dressed as a jester to provide family entertainment.

As a regular singer in a local club, McLean was recommended by the club owner.

Fresh out of college, he got the job, but refused to dress like a clown and played to his own agenda: he threw the costume into an incinerator and decided to educate the public about the history of the river and the effect pollution was having on it. McLean grew to love the Hudson River Valley so much he decided to make his home in Cold Spring, where he wrote many of his most famous songs. Included were songs on the Tapestry and American Pie albums.

McLean’s most well-known song did not spring from McLean’s psyche fully formed; it was revealed over time and was the last song McLean wrote for his American Pie album.

In a December interview on National Public Radio, McLean again dispelled a long-held myth about the origins of American Pie when he spoke from his home in Castine.

With good humor, McLean disputed a newspaper story – not the first – that claimed he wrote his famous anthem in a booth at a Saratoga Springs bar.

"Well, you know, through the years, people have asked me about that. I guess there’s a plaque or something there," McLean replied. "And I always would say, well, no, that’s not really how it was. First of all, it was written in Cold Spring, New York and in Philadelphia, and it was performed first at Temple University when I was just getting started with Laura Nyro. I was opening to her at Temple University."

His first album, Tapestry, saw some commercial success, but it was the release of American Pie that began McLean’s ascent as an international star. It was recorded in May 1971 and a month later was first played on the airwaves in New York to mark the closing of the famous Fillmore East concert hall.

McLean has had other success stories with his songs Vincent and And I Love You So. But nothing has touched people like American Pie, which was voted number 5 in a poll of the 365 "Songs of the Century" compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. McLean’s anthem was bested only by Over the Rainbow, by Judy Garland; White Christmas, by Bing Crosby; This Land Is Your Land, by Woody Guthrie and Respect, by Aretha Franklin.

As for the meaning behind American Pie, in Killing Him Softly, McLean said it is part autobiographical and partly the story of America in the idealistic 1950s and turbulent ‘60s.

It was inspired by the death of Buddy Holly, which McLean learned of when he delivered papers in 1959. Although Holly’s death affected him deeply, in a 2008 interview published on his website McLean said, "In the eighties there were some pictures that surfaced of the plane wreckage and I was appalled. No, I have no interest in going to where the plane went down or any of that stuff and I think it’s tacky and I think people shouldn’t do things like that. I’m sure it’s not a place Buddy Holly wanted to be so I don’t think there’s any reason to go there."

McLean decided to move to Maine from Garrison, New York which was facing increasing development. His first house was in Castine. It was where he married his second wife, Patrisha, in 1987.

In 1990, the McLean family, which includes a son and daughter, moved to a 200-acre estate called Lakeview in Camden, where they are surrounded by dogs, cats and horses.

According to his biography, McLean enjoys decorating his homes with antiques and "loves to be surrounded by beautiful objects."

"We do a lot around here at Christmas for ourselves and our friends and our community. The Don McLean Foundation gives away a lot of money every year for homeless shelters and food banks. They’re very stressed this year and it’s very sad to see people lining up for food, reminiscent of the Depression and not looking like it’s getting any better any time soon."

McLean modestly plays down his talent, saying, "I don’t think my talent is rare. What’s rare about me is that I’ve defended all efforts to try to make me into something I’m not. I don’t plan to retire from the music business. It really is a wonderful thing that has happened to me ... I still have people screaming and jumping up and down and getting excited and it’s such an honor to still be able to perform."