By Ethlie Ann Vare
Pasadena, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/4/19 – You can tell a lot about a person by which Don McLean song they know by heart, and pretty much everyone knows one Don McLean song by heart. You’ve got your “American Pie,” a song of bittersweet nostalgia, the reminiscence of a twenty-something who thinks he has lived a life long enough to reminisce about. It theoretically commemorates February 3, 1959 — Buddy Holly’s plane crash — as “the day the music died.” But he wrote it in the spring of 1971: Remember, Jimi Hendrix had just died in the fall of ‘70, and Janis Joplin in the winter of ‘71. Jim Morrison would die in the upcoming summer. “American Pie” is a song of the tumultuous ‘60s that bids farewell to the optimism of the ‘50s and recognizes the darkness of the ‘70s. But its rousing singalong nature makes it an anthem, not a dirge.
Then there’s “Vincent (Starry Starry Night),” a paean to the wounded souls, the beautiful losers. It was written for Vincent van Gogh, an unappreciated genius who died by suicide. “Eyes that know the darkness of my soul”… didn’t we all find that romantic when we were young?
I used to be a Vincent. Now I’m more of a Pie.
What’s more remarkable than that one man wrote both of these indelible compositions is that you can still go out and hear him perform them. According to the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Top 5 “Songs of the Century” were:
- “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland
- “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby
- “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie
- “Respect” by Aretha Franklin
- “American Pie” by Don McLean
The only one still standing is McLean. So when he’s playing out at a modest dinner theater in Pasadena… you go. I do, at any rate.
It’s hard to overstate McLean’s importance to the American songbook. Roberta Flack’s timeless “Killing me Softly With His Song” was written about McLean performing at the Los Angeles Troubadour. Prince Harry and Quentin Tarantino each got married to the strains of “And I Love Her So.” McLean is in the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress Recording Registry. And yet the man is still on the road. Since 2018, McLean has toured the UK, Europe, Scandinavia and Israel, and plans to keep going until “American Pie’s” 50th anniversary in 2021.
“I never expected to be on the charts,: he shrugs self-deprecatingly. “I just wanted to make a living, have a little house, a dog, a garden.” As it turned out, his manuscript for “American Pie” ended up selling for more than a million dollars at Christie’s. His music has been covered by everyone from Perry Como to Drake, NOFX to Josh Groban. He probably doesn’t need to be play out as much as he does, but he says he bores easily. Also, he’s had some legal and management problems. Either way… lucky us.
The hair may not be the same as it was in 1971, nor the waistline. But McLean’s unmistakable voice is a sure and pure as it ever was. He powered through a 95-minute set in front of a grateful crowd on Friday night with self-deprecating warmth and good humor. “If you’re just here to hear ‘American Pie,’ you’re going to have to wait for a while,” he smiled early in the set, and went on to play everything from rockabilly (Buddy Holly’s “Everyday”) to easy listening (his own “Castles in the Air”) to thoughtful material from a new album, “Botanical Gardens.”
Of course the set ended with “American Pie” – could he do otherwise? — a song that clocked in at 8 ½ minutes on vinyl, the longest #1 single in chart history. McLean knows he’s going to end every set with it. He knows it’s going to be 12 minutes long live, and that the crowd is going to want it to be energetic and uplifting. He’s 73, and he still pulls it off. Even better, he enjoyed himself doing it, and transmitted that joy to the crowd. A reporter who saw the show at the London Palladium called it “a religious experience.” It certainly got the audience Friday night out of their chairs dancing… or onto their walkers, as the case might be.
The backing band — Tony Migliore on piano and keyboards, Jerry Kroon on drums, Brad Albin on bass and Carl Vipperman on guitar – was as tight as you would expect of a band that has been playing together for decades. I particularly liked Vipperman’s rockabilly slide work and Kroon’s snappy snare.
Opening act was country popster Haddon Cord, an interchangeable blonde waif with a reedy voice and an acoustic guitar who seems to fall in love a lot. Word to the wise: When you’re 20 and your audience is on Social Security, “Forever Young” might not be your best song choice.
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