Singer-songwriter Don McLean is best known for his 1971 hit single “American Pie”—but he’s enjoyed a string of other hits throughout his career.
After appearing at Stagecoach last year and stopping in Riverside last summer for a show, he’ll be returning to the area—specifically, the McCallum Theatre—on Tuesday, March 17.
During a recent phone interview, McLean was quick to answer my questions; in fact, he often started answering before I finished asking—hinting that after 45 years in the music industry, he feels like he’s heard it all.
McLean has been open about the fact that he suffers from asthma.
“If you have asthma, you’re always an asthmatic,” McLean said. “Some people have bronchial asthma when they’re young. In my case, I had bronchial tubes that were not the proper size. When they spasm, you have terrible attacks, and it leads to pneumonia, and sometimes, you can die. I’ve had that happen many of times, and a few times, I was close to death. When you get to puberty, if you’re lucky, the bronchial tubes enlarge to the proper size, and you can outgrow the asthma. You still get spasms, but it doesn’t close everything off.”
McLean said that despite his asthma, he was involved with a swim team. That led, indirectly, to an interest in singing.
“I was on this swimming team at a beach club we belonged to for a few years. I had these very difficult workouts, and I learned to suffer doing these workouts,” he said. “… It changed the whole breathing situation, and I also gravitated toward opera and singers like Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Marty Robbins and people who could really sing. I wasn’t interested in the singing of Bob Dylan and people who talked lyrics. I loved the breathing, and it all sort of came together.”
While McLean was at Villanova University, he met the singer-songwriter Jim Croce, and the two became close friends before they entered the music industry.
“I think about him sometimes,” McLean said. “Two guys who I knew pretty well were Jim Croce and Harry Chapin. Harry Chapin, and I never want to disparage the dead, but he was not a great artist; he was a very aggressive, hard-working person who wanted success very much. He was very image-conscious. He did very well, and he had a good heart. Jim Croce was a real star. He was very humorous, and he knew what a hit record was. In my guess, if he would have lived as long as I have, he would be bigger than most people—he would have 30 to 40 hit records. A hit record is a special thing, and he knew what it was.”
McLean emphasized that Croce was a unique and kind person.
“He was still in Philadelphia when I was No. 1 on the charts,” McLean said. “… He was a very nice person, and he was also a very humane individual. He actually had a degree in psychology, and maybe even a master’s in psychology. He wanted to work with troubled children, and he had such a big heart. It was a big loss.”
Croce died in a plane crash in 1973 at the age of 30.
On the subject of “American Pie,” McLean has probably heard every conceivable question about the famous song. I brought up the subject of the song’s manuscript heading to the Christie’s auction block in April, with an estimated price of $1.5 million, and I mentioned the song has references to topics beyond Buddy Holly and “the day the music died.” McLean stopped me right there.
“I’ll just tell you this: All these years, people have made ‘American Pie’ like a parlor game: ‘Who is this and who is that?’ And if you see the manuscript … you’ll see that I’m just writing this image and this stream. I don’t have anything like, ‘This is this person, and that is that person.’ It’s poetry. … Romance and poetry are under attack in the world by technology. It’s happening very fast. The beautiful English language—words, subtlety and also the dramatic things we use these days, they’re all being destroyed by this Pac-Man of technology, aided and abetted by rap music, which is a cultural virus of some kind. That’s where we are now. We’re in a very dark place, and it will in the future put us in a dark age that can last for a very long time, artistically.”
Another one of McLean’s well-known songs is “Jerusalem,” a 1981 work about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I sing it every night,” he said. “You might say Jerusalem is the blasting cap for the end of the world. Whatever goes on there will eventually determine what happens to the human race, which is interesting, because it’s biblical, and it gives the Bible a lot more power than you might think it has. When I was there, and when I was singing around there for a few years, I realized every type of religion has a home there. The Israelis try to make it theirs, and it isn’t really theirs; it belongs to every religion.”
McLean is not a “one-hit wonder,” as many people call him—and he wanted to make it clear he’s thrived artistically in the years since “American Pie.”
“I want to clarify that I’ve had other albums that went gold, and albums that have went gold around the world. In Australia, for example, my first 10 albums were gold,” he said. “The Best of Don McLean also went gold. The reason I bring that up is because that allows a lot of people to hear many songs that are on that record. They go to the concert when they see my name. I don’t sell out stadiums, but I do lovely theaters where it’s 1,000 to 2,000 seats, sometimes more than that. … (My fans) listen to all the songs on the record. They want to hear songs like ‘Sister Fatima,’ ‘Babylon,’ ‘Winterwood,’ ‘Dreidel,’ ‘Mountains o’ Mourne’ and so on. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have a career. Just because everybody loves a certain song doesn’t really mean anything, and it never really meant anything to me. I never liked the Beatles’ ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’—I hated it, actually, but I loved some of the other songs, and I loved them.”
McLean said he enjoys touring and performing in front of audiences.
“I’m going to be 70 this year, and I’m going to keep going,” he said. “I sing hard, and I have hard songs to sing; I don’t sing easy songs. I have to keep in shape, but I’m enjoying every minute of it, and I enjoy bringing music to young people and having them hear songs I’ve written and the songs I sing.”
Don McLean will perform at 8 p.m., Tuesday, March 17, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 to $65. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.