Few songs are as inextricably linked to a generation as New Rochelle native Don McLean’s magnum opus, “American Pie,” an eight-and-a-half-minute rock ’n’ roll allegory that became a boomer anthem almost immediately upon its release in 1971.
In March, “American Pie” was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress for its cultural, artistic, and historical significance to American society and to “the nation’s audio heritage.”
Though McLean, who will be performing at the Paramount Hudson Valley Theater in Peekskill on September 15, has always adamantly refused to discuss the “meaning” of “American Pie’s” lyrics, we sensed a little crack in the levee when we caught up with him recently. (Or perhaps it was just a nostalgic soft spot for his hometown?)
There’s this urban, or suburban, legend that “the levee” referenced in “American Pie” was actually a club in New Rochelle. Is that true?
No, no. That’s not true. Some people say that The Levee was the Beechmont Bar [Tavern] on North Avenue, which was near Iona College. I graduated from Iona College in 1968 and moved out of New Rochelle at that time, so I wasn’t frequenting those bars. So no, not true.
There’s another rumor that the line about drinking “whiskey and rye” was actually “whiskey in Rye.” How about that?
No. [Laughs] Nope! That’s not true either.
Are there any stories and rumors that are true?
Well, I did deliver the Standard Star, which was the newspaper that most people in New Rochelle received back in the 1950s. That’s one thing that’s true! I was a newspaper boy, and that’s how I discovered the death of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper.
So how did you become a musician?
Well, I started singing, like a lot of kids do. And my sister, who was 15 years older than I was, got me some lessons at an opera singer’s apartment on Franklin Avenue in New Rochelle. Her name was Mrs. Wagner.
Any other local musical influences?
There was the House of Music in New Rochelle, run by a lady named Mrs. Cohen. Her assistant, Henry, who also went to Iona and became my good friend, sold records and was the guy that I’d go to after school and talk to about record companies, groups, and anything musical.
Is that the “sacred store” reference?
You know, I tried to make the song as poetic as I’m capable of, and therefore I want the imagery to be elusive, vaguely recognizable. In other words, if I’m specific, I lose that effect.
Not even the Westchester stuff?
The thing about it is, New Rochelle played a big role in the song, because my biography is woven into it. New Rochelle was important to me, growing up there.