Don McLean looks back at his masterpiece, ‘American Pie’

Entertainment

(NewsNation) —  “American Pie” has long been considered a masterpiece, voted among the top five Songs of the Century list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. Now, the story behind the song is the subject of a full-length feature documentary:  “The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie,’” airing Tuesday on Paramount+.

“Now it’s such a long time ago, that I’m certain there’s a lot more stuff I could have said,” McLean said on NewsNation’s “Morning in America.” “But I think people will find it fun to get into what was in my head when I was writing the song.”

The documentary starts when a single-engine plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Jiles P. Richardson, aka the “Big Bopper,” plunged into a cornfield north of Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959, killing the three stars and their pilot.

McLean was 13, living in a suburban, middle-class home in New Rochelle, New York, when the crash occurred. He had bronchial asthma, prompting the description of him in “American Pie” as “a lonely teenage broncin’ buck.” The “sacred store” he sings about was the House of Music on Main Street, where he bought records and his first guitar.

Young McLean was a paperboy — “every paper I’d deliver” — and adored Elvis, Gene Vincent, Bo Diddley but especially Holly, whose death deeply affected him. “I was in absolute shock. I may have actually cried,” he says in the film. “You can’t intellectualize it. It hurt me.”

Years later, McLean would plumb that pain in “American Pie,” baking in his own grief at his father’s passing and writing a eulogy for the American dream.

But now, McLean says, he’s happy that the song could potentially introduce musical legends to the next generation.

“If their parents want to, they’ll turn the little girl or boy on to hearing ‘American Pie,'” McLean said. “And then as they grow older, they might want to ask, ‘Who was Buddy Holly?’ and maybe, they’ll get into Buddy’s music or Richie (Valens’) music.”

“In the movie, we’ll make this come to life,” McLean added.

The 90-minute documentary incorporates news footage of the ’70s and uses actors in re-creations. There are interviews with musicians — Garth Brooks, “Weird Al” Yankovich and Brian Wilson, among them — as well as Valens’ sister, Connie, and actor Peter Gallagher, whose character’s death on “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” prompted an onscreen performance of “American Pie.” The British singer Jade Bird, Cuban-born producer Rudy Perez and Spanish-language singer Jencarlos Canela speak to how the song has resonated far past America.

The song was written at a tumultuous time in American history, McLean remembers.

“Everything was wide open,” he said. “The war in Vietnam had been going on for like 15 years, and all of a sudden, it was heating up beyond belief, and cities were on fire, and there were protests all over the place. Police were clamping down on everything.”

“American Pie” is packed with cultural references, from Chevrolet to nursery rhymes, while name-checking The Byrds, John Lennon, Charles Manson and James Dean. The lyrics — dreamlike and impressionistic — have been pored over for decades, dissected for meaning.

Although other lyrics are a bit more self-explanatory.

“When people are always saying, ‘Well, who was the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost?’ And I say, well it’s the Holy Trinity, I mean, it’s God. That’s what I meant,” McLean told NewsNation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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