He Left That Chevy at the Levee, Already : 20 years After ‘American Pie,’ Don McLean Still Rejects Easy Predictability


“Just don’t cut my throat and I’ll be happy,” laughed Don McLean. Nearly 20 years after his mega-hit “American Pie,” the singer/songwriter/guitarist--who plays tonight at the Coach House--still remembers some of the critical bumps and bruises that accompanied his high-flying comet ride through the pop-music skies.

McLean’s problem--or, more accurately, his critics’ problem--was that he was not a one-note artist. “American Pie” was followed by the dramatically intense “Vincent.” He then shifted gears into a cover of the Roy Orbison classic “Crying.”

It was not the sort of easily understood predictability that can endear performers to the professional reviewing community, and McLean was frequently taken to task, sometimes in particularly hostile fashion.


“Vincent,” for example, a deeply moving tribute to Van Gogh, was described by one critic as representative of a “tendency to inflate insight into dogma.”

“I was trying to do things, different things,” McLean recalled earlier this week, “and I really needed some support, even just a little bit of bridge time to get my career established. But I didn’t get one second. Now, today, people look at ‘Vincent’ and some ofthe other songs and they say, ‘Wow, this is a great song--wonderful.’ But they’re the same songs now that they were then.

“I don’t know why there wasn’t more of an effort made to understand what I was doing, rather than this tendency to analyze and make instant comparisons of everything. If the public hadn’t been presented with so many negative reactions, it might have been easier for me to make transitions. But what happened was that it became harder, not as a result of what I did, but as a result of what was done to me. Which is why I haven’t always been exactly thrilled about talking to the press.”

But McLean has survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with characteristic wit and wisdom. “Please don’t mistake struggle for anger,” he said. “I’m not angry and I’m not bitter. I’m determined to survive, and I’m determined to do the things I started out to do. I’ve been hurt, but that’s not at all the same thing as being angry.”

Indeed, despite the peaks and valleys of 20 years in a very public profession, he is now as content as an ever-probing singer/songwriter can expect to be. A happy marriage, a 7-week-old daughter (his first child) and a cartful of new projects--including “For the Memories,” a collection on Gold Castle Records of McLean’s interpretations of songs ranging from Hank Williams to Irving Berlin, have given him a measure of stability and security in both his private and professional lives.

“I’ve achieved much more than I ever thought I could get,” McLean said.

“I’ve always believed in one thing, and that’s repertoire. I believed that if I wrote songs that were as good as I could make them, the repertoire would carry me through, regardless of anything else. If you write a good song, they really stay forever, and that’s the goal. I just wish I could write more of them.”

McLean’s diverse repertoire traces to an early fascination with a wide array of music. Born in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1945, he was 15 when his father died. “I was basically on my own from that point,” he recalled. “So I found models, people I admired, like Pete Seeger in his time, a little bit of Elvis, a little of Josh White.

“And then I started learning, learning from everybody, and one thing led to another. And I developed a philosophy of my own music, which was that everything, and I mean everything, was there to be used. I was listening to Nat ‘King’ Cole and Mabel Mercer and Count Basie and Woodie Guthrie and Django Reinhardt and Gene Vincent. I just went all over the place; I was like a nymphomaniac for music.

“When it came time to write my own songs, I just wrote down what I knew, inside, had to be said. And it was said with everything in mind that I had experienced.”

His dedication to good material, whether his own or someone else’s, hasn’t changed over the years. “You don’t know how many times I’ve had producers and people with a quasi-bedside manner try to feed me a lousy song,” he said. “And you want to scream at them, ‘This is a piece of crap!’ But you have to be very nice and say, ‘No, I’d rather not, I think I’ll do my own thing.’ And they say, ‘Oh, well, but this is a real hit here,’ and the record company tries to jam it down your throat. But you’ve got to be nice, you’ve got to hold your emotions, you’ve gotta be adult, and not scream.”

When the song is right, the feeling is entirely different. McLean described the process of working with good material in glowing terms: “You have to go into the recording studio and say, ‘This is the moment, and I’m ready for it. I’m going to eat this piece of material up. I’m going to eat it live, because I love it so much.’

“And then you struggle over the mix and all the myriad . . . little things you have to do after the recording, and you think they’ll never end. Then, when it’s done, you think you’ll never be satisfied, and probably you never will be 100% satisfied. But you’ve brought that work to a place where it’s as good as it’s ever going to get. And I just love doing that.

“Lee Hays of the Weavers once gave me a quote that I think is from Whitman, something like this: ‘The artist, finding no sphere worthy of himself, creates one.’ I like that, the idea of taking an audience into your world. It’s about as good a definition I’ve found of what I’ve been trying to do with my music for all these years.”

Don McLean sings tonight at 8 and 10:30 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $15. Information: (714) 496-8930.