NPR Story
12:00 pm
Thu December 1, 2011

'American Pie' Doesn't Belong To Saratoga Springs

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Forty years and a few days ago, an eight-and-a-half-minute song broke on to the record charts, soon drenched the radio and claimed a permanent place in the lives of millions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN PIE")

DON MCLEAN: (Singing) I can't remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride. Something touched me deep inside the day the music died. So bye, bye, Miss American Pie. Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry.

CONAN: Singer-songwriter Don McLean, of course. All these years later, "American Pie" continues to haunt the imagination and to inspire folklore, including the claim that the song was first written and performed in Saratoga Springs, New York. The facts from the horse's mouth in just a moment.

For many, "American Pie" recalls a specific moment in time. Where does the Chevy from the levee take you? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Don McLean joins us now from his home in Maine. His latest album is "Addicted to Black." Next year, he'll be on the road in the United Kingdom for his 40th anniversary of "American Pie" tour. Thanks very much for joining us today.

MCLEAN: Thank you. Pleasure to talk to you.

CONAN: Last week, the Glens Falls Star-Post published a story that begins by citing a plaque next to a booth in a Saratoga Springs bar called the Tin & Lint that claims that is the exact spot where you started to write "American Pie" in the summer of 1970. True?

MCLEAN: Well, you know, through the years, people have asked me about that. I guess there's a plaque or something there. And I always would say, well, no, that's not really how it was. And so, finally, somebody up there in one of the newspapers said, I really, really want to know this. And he sent me two questions, and I said, well, 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. And so that caused The New York Times in this thing. So I think it's kind of funny, and you called, and I said, OK, I'll talk about it, sure.

CONAN: Well, do you know the bar, the Tin & Lint?

MCLEAN: No.

CONAN: No?

MCLEAN: No. But like I said in the article, in The Times, "American Pie" is a little bit like the Mayflower, you know? Everybody has been on it or their parents were on it or something. People knew me that I didn't know, and people know things about me that, you know, that they imagine, and it's just the way things are. But the funny thing is - and there are other of these kinds of little things, like, for example, for a while, everybody was saying "American Pie" was the name of Buddy Holly's airplane, you know? And that was floated around for a while.

CONAN: A little like Rosebud, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCLEAN: Yeah. So I said, no, actually I coined that phrase. And Buddy's plane did not have a name and wasn't even Buddy's plane, you know? But what makes me think this is funny is that I've been kind of knocking these down for years and it persists. So it makes you wonder, how can you believe history?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCLEAN: You know? I mean, guys who are dead 100 years and you say, oh, this is how it happened, you know, in 1066. I mean, I don't think so.

CONAN: There is a venue that you did perform at a lot, though, in Saratoga Springs.

MCLEAN: Oh, no. The Caffe Lena was a terrific place for me when I was just, you know, a boy just getting started, and Lena Spencer was - and, you know, a wonderful lady who really kept me fed. I mean, you know, I was starving, pretty much. And she kept many, many other people working and encouraged. Encouraged - that was the thing. And she was a sculptor's model whose husband ran off with somebody else, and she just - up in Skidmore. And she decided that, you know, she - you know, what she wanted to do is not get married again, but to have this nightclub and she named it after herself and she brought people up there, and it was a great place to fail. A lot of these places, you know, by the time you get a job in New York, you know, you'd bounced around on that stage and everything.

Anything could happen. And you had to play three shows a night to the same audience, so you had to have hours and hours of material. And it was a terrific place to lean how t o perform.

CONAN: Is it still there?

MCLEAN: Yes, it is. Yup.

CONAN: And, in a way, do you wish you had debuted "American Pie" there, just to lend her some...

MCLEAN: I don't make wishes like that. I'm just - I just think that all of this is fascinating and interesting. And I have songs of mine that turn up in all different contexts and people ask me about them and they're used in different ways. I'll tell you something really funny, is right now, there's a song by the rapper Drake. And he has taken two of my songs from an album called "Prime Time" - one is "When a Good Thing Goes Bad" and the other is "The Wrong Thing To Do" - and used them on a song that he has in his new album.

And I think it's called "Do It Wrong" or something like that. But you just - I've had other things like this happen. You know, kids out there in every area of music are pouring over the work of all of us as singer-songwriters from the '70s and the '60s and looking for little things that they can use, you know, and run with.

CONAN: We want to get some listeners involved in the conversation. Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And let's start with Tim, and Tim's calling from Cincinnati.

TIM: Yes. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Tim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

TIM: Thank you. Thank you for taking my call. I just have a comment. I wanted to share a personal story. I met Don McLean from the back row, back years ago, mid-'70s. He played the Temple University outside music festival. And it was just an amazing evening. He came out and thanked the audience for letting him have a career for so long in something that he loved, which I thought was an awesome thing to say.

But the most amazing thing about the concert is that he played "American Pie," as always, and in the very last verse his string broke. He urged the audience to continue to finish the song, although he didn't need to urge us too much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TIM: And then he proceeded to play the entire song a second time. And it's just something that's stuck with me forever. I wanted to thank Mr. McLean for his service for all these years and it was just something that I like to remember.

MCLEAN: Wow. Well, thank you for reminding me, that I remember that, and I still feel exactly the same way. I mean, I've been given a terrific life by the audiences who stuck with me all over the world. And I don't take it for granted, especially, you know, now when times are difficult and it costs a lot of money to come and see somebody sing with a guitar. And it's really an honor to be able to continue this.

Now I've been doing this for 44 years almost. And you know, we have a wonderful band that we love to play with. And of course I play solo stuff too. I sit down and do, like, a half an hour just with a guitar sometimes. But thank you for reminding me of that. And I still feel exactly the same way.

TIM: Thank you.

CONAN: Tim, thanks for the call. Here's an email from Hardin(ph) in Salt Lake City. I read the article in The New York Times yesterday about "American Pie," and I've been thinking about it since then. My memory, perhaps fogged by 40 years believing what I wanted to believe, is different from Don's. I remember going to a concert in a small church in Greenwich Village in September 1970. Don did a great job, very entertaining. He was called back for a couple of encores in the days before obligatory encores were the norm.

He introduced his last song by telling us he has just written it and wasn't sure he could remember the words correctly. Of course, no one there had any idea if he remembered the words because none of us had ever heard it, "American Pie." Perhaps when he performed it at Temple, it was the first time it was actually in a set list? Question mark. If he'd already done it at Temple, why would he have waited to do it so late at a little church and introduce it the way he did? Or is my memory totally bogus?

MCLEAN: That I don't remember. But I do remember the church in Greenwich Village. And if I can have a minute, I'll tell you. This is probably one of the most important shows I ever did, and that was before I was ever really famous. It was around the time of the first album I came out with called "Tapestry." And there were people in Greenwich Village who were - who would basically - they were the backbone of that whole music scene. And one of them was a guy named Israel G. Young, and he ran a place called the Folklore Center, which was on Bleecker Street.

And it was as different from Larchmont or New Rochelle, where I came from, as anything possibly could be. And, you know, I started to come down there a little bit. Friends would take me because I didn't drive. And when I started to perform, he suddenly liked me. And it was a little bit like, you know, like Lena. You know, I was kind of a, you know, a scrubbed-up white kid from Westchester, and they were used to a lot of hippies and stuff. But something or other in what I was doing struck a chord with Lena and with this guy.

And he said, I want to have the Folklore Center actually put you on in a concert. And it was - people still come back and say that they saw that or - and it really started me going in New York City. And those were the days when, you know, the music business was a secret business. And people knew talent and record companies knew talent. And there were only a few radio stations that if you were number one in 1970 or '71, especially also the '50s, '60s, whatever, you were the biggest thing on the planet, and everybody knew your song. Everybody knew you, and it was a huge thing. Now there's so many outlets, hundreds and hundreds of things, stuff's going on, you're - you just - it's a storm of - it's a sensory assault, you know, that's happening all the time. I can't remember anything.

I watch television. I see these people. I don't remember - none of the songs stick in my head, and that's just me. I'm an old guy, you know? But I knew - in the old days, if a song was a good song, I don't care if it was "Yellow Submarine" or, you know, or "The Times They Are a-Changin'" or "Don't Be Cruel," you knew it, you know? You heard that song, and you were talking about it, and you knew it.

CONAN: It's funny you should mention Izzy Young. One of my first jobs in radio was engineering the Izzy Young folk show on WBAI a million years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCLEAN: That's very funny.

CONAN: Where I - I don't think in connection to that - met an earnest young man who was pressing a record into my hand called "Tapestry."

MCLEAN: Oh my God.

CONAN: Long time ago.

MCLEAN: So funny.

CONAN: Don McLean is with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We have some emails from people who remember that song distinctly. This is from Ruth in Houston, Texas. I remember driving down the River Road in Baton Rouge, looking at the levee and singing the words to "Bye, Bye, American Pie." Wonderful memories. Thank you for this great song. Melinda in Kansas City: I was in the eighth grade the first time I heard the song, before school. We had a dress code and I remember getting to school that morning and having my skirt measured by a male vice principal, no less, and I remember humming that song, and he told me to be quiet. I'll never forget it, and I did get sent home for wearing such a short skirt.

MCLEAN: I liked to be a skirt measurer. I think that would be a great job.

CONAN: This from David Jackson in - or Dave in Jackson, Wyoming: "American Pie" was my very first LP. I got it when it first came out in the mid-1970s. I love that album and still listen to it on my iPod. Thanks for the great music. Let's go next to Margaret, calling us from Fairbanks in Alaska.

MARGARET: Hi. I'm glad to be here. The memory I have with "American Pie" is growing up in Larchmont, New York.

MCLEAN: Oh.

MARGARET: Yeah. And spending the night at my cousin's house, and about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, my aunt and uncle had come home from a party. They were probably a little tipsy, and they had gotten the record player, and they were blasting "American Pie" as they were calling their friends on the telephone. So it obviously was a talk of the party, and anyway, my cousin and I just kind of kept looking at each other, laughing, and couldn't believe that her parents were doing this.

MCLEAN: But isn't it funny how, you know, a song that was around and in the wind, you know, turned everybody on, you know, and this happened a lot, you know. All the time we were having - even through the '50s there were, you know, every Everly Brothers song that came around and, you know, whatever it was, you know, a Fats Domino tune, you were hearing it all the time.

MARGARET: Yeah. Definitely, it's a fun song, fun song to listen to in the radio and sing along.

MCLEAN: It came along really at the end of that era, you know? After that, disco came in, and we've been sort of dancing ever since.

CONAN: Margaret, thanks very much for the call.

MARGARET: OK.

CONAN: One more call. Let's get Mora on the line, Mora from Nashville.

MORA: Hi. I'm from Nashville, as you say, and - but I was born and reared in Ireland. In 1970 - I was very young - '71 when the album with "American Pie" came out. And as you mentioned earlier about the radio, given the fact, we were as much - we hadn't(ph) heard as much about "American Pie" as anybody did in America and which was part of our whole generation's view of life and poetry and everything like that. And also, I just want to say that you did a lovely version of "The Mountains of Mourne" when you recorded it. It was kind of my first vision of seeing an Irish song treated as just a song and not just an Irish song, and I really thought that was beautiful.

MCLEAN: Well, one of the things that I started doing in 1972 was to tour the world, and different recordings were released. Of course, "American Pie" was the biggest song, but there was "Crying" and "Vincent" and "Castles in the Air" and "And I Love You So." But in Ireland, for some reason "The Mountains of Mourne" took off from an album that really didn't do very well called "Playin' Favorites" that I put out. And that's still one of the songs that the people like the most when I tour Ireland, which I will be doing next fall.

MORA: Oh, well, good for you. Just one more thing, my husband is a farmer, and he said you can't literally drive to a levee. That's always bothered me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORA: You can't literally drive to a levee. It's not possible.

MCLEAN: No, you really can't, can you?

CONAN: Mora, thanks very much.

MCLEAN: But to tell you, once after - nobody knew what levees were until after Hurricane Katrina, and then everybody knew what a levee was.

CONAN: Well, Don McLean, I know you're going to be touring the UK next year, as you mentioned. There's also a PBS documentary due out. Good luck with all of that.

MCLEAN: Well, oh, thank you. I really thank you for having me on the program.

CONAN: Singer-songwriter Don McLean joined us from his home in Maine. On Monday, actor John Lithgow will join us to talk about his career and his memoir, one of the books we missed this year. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.