Don McLean’s Lifelong Struggle With ‘American Pie’
Don McLean outlined his lifelong struggle with having written “American Pie” and described it as a “biographical song.”
He revealed that his favorite part of the work is its structure, rather than the lyrics that have come to represent an entire musical era.
In a new interview with The Guardian, McLean explained that the 1971 hit single was a fusion of pop, rock ’n’ roll and folk music, with the slow intro, the main beat and the verse-chorus-verse assembly representing each genre. “I’ve never said that to anybody in 50 years,” he said.
He remained cautious about revealing too much about what he meant in the lyrics. However, asked if the jester in the line “And while the king was looking down / The jester stole his thorny crown” was Bob Dylan, as has often been suggested, McLean replied: “I can’t tell you. But he would make a damn good jester, wouldn’t he?” He added that he also refused to answer the question when asked by Dylan’s son Jacob.
McLean said he “cried for two years” after his father dropped dead in front of him, blaming himself at age 15 because he had a premonition of the event. He admitted that the tragedy was embedded in the famous “day the music died” line that presumably refers to Buddy Holly. “That’s why I don’t like talking about the lyrics, because I wanted to capture and say something that was almost unspeakable,” he said. “It’s indescribable. ‘American Pie’ is a biographical song.”
He also discussed the “dreadful, ugly secret” of his older sister Betty, who struggled with drugs and alcohol. “You couldn’t talk about her, because you couldn’t tell the truth about what was happening to her," he noted. "It was a disaster to see it. She was always so shackled. It was terrible.”
Reflecting that many experiences of his youth were references in "American Pie," McLean explained: “All my stuff is about loss – and a certain kind of psychic pain. I’ve never really been happy. Writing a song that everyone on Earth knows shouldn’t make you resentful. But you better have a lot inside you – because it’s gonna get sucked out.”