This’ll be the day … Don McLean talks ‘American Pie,' at 50, with North White students
North White High School’s roster of firsthand guest lectures got deeper last week when songwriter Don McLean checked in on the 50th anniversary of his hit, ‘American Pie’
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MONON – As Don McLean settled into a couch in his California home, asking someone nearly 2,000 miles away in rural Indiana whether things looked too dark on his end of a Zoom call and then making a few adjustments to lighting in his room, teenage faces crowded the thumbnail views popping up along the top edge of the screen.
Making hearts with their hands and pointing cellphones to snap pictures, the high school students came close to the screen before class started to get a better look at McLean. Here was the singer-songwriter, celebrating the 50th anniversary of “American Pie,” who sang the epic and iconic pop song a long, long time ago about “the day the music died” that their teachers had been playing for them in elective history and music classes over the past few weeks.
“I’ve never done anything like this in my life,” McLean confessed before the 2 p.m. class hour started, as students at North White High School in Monon and Carmel High School, schools 90 miles apart in Indiana, filtered in from hallways for a long-distance Q&A session.
“We’re so appreciative that you’re here,” Todd Shriver, decked out in a light blue “Don McLean American Pie” T-shirt, told the singer from an office just off the North White High School library. “You’re going to do great, I know.”
Shriver knew what he was talking about.
If this was a first for McLean – now 75 and about to meet targeted questions from teachers and an under-18 set half-a-country away – the North White teacher had been there, done that, navigating these firsthand pop culture history sessions long before Zoom meetings were on anyone’s radar.
Two decades ago, Shriver had come up with curriculum for North White’s “Topics in the ’80s” class. The social studies elective course took a semester to track the decade, year-by-year, pulling together national and world events with the decade’s pop culture to trace the Reagan era, changing media trends and the Cold War.
With the easy, face-to-face availability of Skype, FaceTime and eventually Zoom, Shriver started pestering key figures from the era to be guest lecturers. The first came in 2013: Mark Goodman, one of the original MTV VJs. (Goodman has been back at least six more times, by Shriver’s count, to talk about MTV’s launch in 1981, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and the cable network’s ubiquitous influence through the decade.)
Mike Eruzione, captain of the gold medal-winning USA hockey team, beamed into the school with an enrollment of fewer than 300 in 2015 during the 35th anniversary of the 1980 Olympics. (Eruzione’s also been back four more times to discuss that Olympic moment and what a signature victory over a high-powered Russian team meant in the U.S. at that time.)
“There’s something about hearing about it firsthand that really works,” said Shriver, who has since transitioned into a role as a technology coach for North White but still works to bring in guest lecturers.
“And you find that if you ask, people – these huge names, really – are interested in sharing what they know, some of that context of being part of the history of those days.”
Among the others who have popped in for hourlong sessions at North White since then: Saturday Night Live’s Joe Piscopo; Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who played Theo on “The Cosby Show;” MTV VJ Alan Hunter; 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis; the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis: John Stamos, star of “Full House;” Rolling Stone and Billboard editor Joe Levy; Curtis Armstrong, who played Booger in “Revenge of the Nerds;” and Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, who spoke about the band’s role in the soundtrack for the movie “La Bamba,” a bio-pic about Ritchie Valens.
Which brings us, in a way, to why McLean was in class last Wednesday.
McLean recorded and released “American Pie,” in 1971. At more than eight minutes, “American Pie” references the 1959 plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, that killed Valens, Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper as “the day the music died,” then recounts the lost innocence for a rock ‘n’ roll generation with veiled references to the figures and events of the following decade. Audiences have been debating and trying to dissect the lyrics ever since.
The audience this time was made up of students in North White courses “History of Rock and Roll” and “Garage Band” – think “School of Rock” for music teacher Leander Hoover’s class that goes from introduction to the guitar to performance during the semester – and teacher Shawn Curtis’ history students at Carmel High School. (Curtis, a former North White teacher, teamed with Shriver to bring some of the early guests to the “Topics in the ‘80s” class and taught a complementary course devoted to the year 1988.) A few other guests from Purdue and the Indiana Department of Education tuned in, too, at Shriver’s invitation.
McLean didn’t let go of any secret interpretations of “American Pie” that afternoon. But over the course of an hour, he offered a look at the song, now at age 50, and how it has endured.
Along the way …
On why he resists offering line-by-line interpretations and references in the song “American Pie.”
“I’ll tell you why. Because the two main areas are, ‘Who's the king? And who's the jester?’ … I don't like simplifying and basically dumbing down the song by getting into, ‘Who's this?,’ and ‘What's that?’ Because that's not really what it's all about. I tried to create a dream with words. You know how you dream something, and you're thinking of how you're in a dream and everything makes total sense. And you wake up in the morning, and you start thinking about it, and it's all ridiculous? That's what I wanted.
“It's a crazy thing to want to try to capture in the song, but that’s what I was after. Because in those days, you had the Beatles writing ‘A Day in the Life’ and the Beach Boys doing ‘Good Vibrations,’ and you had all these other artists doing songs that were pretty far out there. And the audience was receptive to these things. We had a very smart audience.”
On how “American Pie” came together as a song, answering North White student Michael Bowman’s question about whether it worked because of the vocals, the story, the guitar or something else.
“I knew how I wanted the song to sound. I went into the studio with my producer, and the musicians really could not play the song. It was a big mess for quite a while. And I was always saying, ‘No, that's not right.’ … It kept coming out like a polka. It was awful.”
McLean credited a piano player named Paul Griffin, a studio musician who worked during his career with Bob Dylan, Wilson Pickett, LaVern Baker, Solomon Burke and Steely Dan, for saving the session – and the song. As he told the story, McLean picked up a guitar next to his couch – apologizing that it was a bit out of tune – and ran through a verse of “American Pie,” humming the melody over the familiar chord progression.
“All of a sudden, (Griffin) started playing that gospel piano and everybody just jumped on that train. And so he really made that happen. Without him, I don't even know if we'd even be talking now. That's how important he was. And, you know, it's just another day at the office for him. Yeah, that's what these guys do.”
Three times during the hour, people told McLean stories about times impromptu renditions of “American Pie” started when someone simply sang eight notes: “Bye, bye, Miss American pie …” Did he think the song would be so popular so many years later? What is it about that song that made it indelible?
“I don’t know. If I knew that, I’d have done three or four more like it. So, I haven’t got a clue. Then again, I’m an inventor, I’m not really a songwriter. James Taylor is a songwriter. He writes the same kind of song all the time. Carole King is a songwriter. She writes hit songs. And Jim Croce was a songwriter who could write hit songs. I don’t write hit songs. I wouldn’t know a hit song if you showed it to me. And I probably wouldn’t want to sing it. I’m interested in ideas, and I invent songs.”
On whether he thought he could write an “American Pie 2” today?
“No, I couldn’t. I have no idea of what’s going on today.”
On whether he knew he had a hit when he was done recording – the kind that would have him talking to high school history students 50 years later.
“The answer is no. I didn't know what it was to have a hit record. I didn't know what it was to be famous. I didn't know anything. I was as dumb as Elvis was, or the Beatles were when it first hit them. I was dumb as all those people, and it took me a long time to realize the ramifications of worldwide fame. … I really love making people feel things and think about stuff. And if American Pie can turn kids on to learning about Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper and all that music, I've done my job.”
Thanks, again, to the Feast of the Hunters’ Moon for sponsoring today’s edition. The 54th annual Feast will be Oct. 9-10 at Fort Ouiatenon, 3129 S. River Road, West Lafayette. For tickets and more details, click the graphic below.