Don McLean says he already knows how his obituary will begin. It'll emphasize the singer/songwriter's best-remembered hit, American Pie. This song, about "the day the music died," was a No. 1 chart topper in 1972. More recently, when a 2001 Recording Industry Association of America/National Endowment for the Arts poll celebrated the greatest songs of the 20th century, American Pie ranked fifth on the list. But McLean is no one-hit wonder. Other successful singles include Vincent, Crying and Wonderful Baby. And 40 years after American Pie, McLean is still writing music and still performing. He's also the subject a new documentary, Don McLean: American Troubadour, due out Tuesday on DVD. A double CD of his hits, also titled American Troubadour, will be released on the same date.
1 When you look back over four decades in the music business, what do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
The main thing I would like to say is that I have become the person I wanted to be. As opposed to reaching goals but being an alcoholic, or reaching goals but having four failed marriages, or reaching goals but having kids in rehab. A lot of people reach their goals, but at a terrific price.
2 Is it safe to say, then, that you never cared about fame?
I had a recording contract with Clive Davis for about a year. He kept sending me wimpy little songs to sing and I didn't want to do them. So we ended our association. I guarantee you if I had decided to sing those songs, with the production values they would have used, I would have had hit records. But I didn't want those kinds of hit records. I don't want songs that don't mean anything. You wind up regretting it in the end anyway. Because if you get a hit that you don't like, you've still got to sing it.
3 Songs come and songs go. So what do you think about the staying power of American Pie?
It's a real honor and a gift. The thing that I value about the songs that Buddy Holly wrote and that Elvis sang, the songs by Pete Seeger and the Weavers, those songs are my friends. Better than my friends, in fact, because they're always there. And my hope is that people will consider my songs to be their friends as the years go by.
4 Is it true that the famous song Killing Me Softly is about you?
The way it happened was that Lori Lieberman [who was first to record the song, a year before Roberta Flack sang it] was asked by a friend to go see me in concert. I sang a song called Empty Chairs. That was a song that apparently resonated with her. She had all these feelings and told the songwriters about that. So they didn't have Don McLean in their minds when they wrote Killing Me Softly. But they used her memories of what she saw when she saw me. So she feels, and has always said, that the song is about me.
5 You're doing a concert tour in England next month. At age 66, have you ever considered retiring?
It's not really a career. It's a way of life. It's like breathing. I can't do anything else.