American Pie

Don McLean

United Artists Records, 1971

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


This is my father's fault...

When I was a little boy, my dad would listen to an adult-contemporary stattion, WFYR-FM, in Chicago (though it's now a rock station under different call letters). Sometmes, I would go into his office at night with him, and when we would be coming home, this station would play a song called "Vincent" by Don McLean. Of course, they would also play the song that made his career, "American Pie."

When I got older, I went out and bought a copy of McLean's American Pie, listened to it, liked it... and forgot about it.

I don't know what possessed me to dig it out of the Pierce Memorial Archives (where we're having a 2-for-1 sale on Cubs merchandise), but when I listned to it, I got angry...

I got angry at myself for not listening to such an incredible album on an almost daily basis. But I also got mad at the music industry for all but forgetting about McLean after this masterpiece. (I was surprised to read on a few Don Mclean sites on the Internet that he did have a charting hit in the early '80s.) This man was one of the best storytelling songwriters this country has ever produced, and is still with us. We lost Jim Croce in 1973 and Harry Chapin in 1981, and while their work blows me away as well, they seem to get more airplay than McLean.

I'm listening again to the album as I write this review - let's all get an education together...

Probably there has been no song in modern music (except for "Louie Louie") that has been analyzed and picked apart for messages more than "American Pie." Supposedly a song about rock and roll from the death of Buddy Holly to the time the album was recorded in 1971, I have heard more theories about what this song is supposed to represent than I can count. I am not willing to venture forth into this argument; rather, I'd like to appreciate the song for what it is. (McLean wrote to columnist Cecil Adams of "The Straight Dope" fame when the meaning of the lyrics was posed to Adams: "...long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.")my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Just this song alone secured American Pie a place in the annals of rock fame. But the album is more - much more - than the title track. The track "Vincent," a song about the life and trials of artist Vincent Van Gogh, is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard (and kids, that's a long time). The sole accompaniment of Warren Bernhardt's piano on "Crossroads" highlights McLean's soft but powerful delivery.

And McLean is an incredibly talented guitarist as well. His acoustic work on "Till Tomorrow" and "Vincent" echoes louder than the reverb of any Stratocaster in existence. One listen to "The Grave" will prove to you that McLean's characters in his songs are screaming for you to notice them - and when you do, look out, 'cause you're about to be blindsided with a message that's worth learning. Wow!

But not all on American Pie is just serious work. "Winterwood" is a sweet love song that has a touch of country to it. "Everybody Loves Me, Baby" is McLean and band letting loose in the studio, having fun with the material.

The closing track, "Babylon," is short but haunting - the use of banjo and multi-layered harmony vocal tracks make this one errirly powerful, and one you wish would go on for some time.

If McLean is bitter about not staying in the spotlight past the hits on American Pie, it didn't show recently when I saw him performing on cable's Family Channel. Instead, it seems McLean embraced that moment of fame and continued to enjoy performing it while his audience reveled in hearing a song they loved. For that, he is a better man than some artists I could name.

While American Pie is one of the best albums I have ever listened to, let us not forget that this is not the only work in McLean's discography. Enjoy the ten songs on this one, but let it serve as the gate to discovering the rest of his catalog. Go back to Tapestry, enjoy the folk roots of Homeless Brother, go back to the '50s for a moment with his cover of "Since I Don't Have You" on Chain Lightning - just don't stop at this one!

That's why this is all my father's fault - not only will I be digging up other McLean albums from my local record store, but I think my dad knows what he'll be getting for Father's Day.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 1997 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of United Artists Records, and is used for informational purposes only.