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Gerald Carpenter: Don McLean to Offer Slice of ‘American Pie’ at Granada

Singer-songwriter will perform a concert at 8 p.m. Saturday

” ... and there we all were in one place/ A generation lost in space/ With no time left to start again ...”

Singer-songwriter Don McLean will bring his special gifts — and his band — to The Granada Theatre on Saturday.
Singer-songwriter Don McLean will bring his special gifts — and his band — to The Granada Theatre on Saturday.

Don McLean, the man who wrote and sang those words on an album released in 1971, is coming to The Granada Theatre to perform a concert at 8 p.m. Saturday under the aegis of the Granada Theatre Concert Series.

Like the sudden, spectacular breaching of a killer whale, McLean’s nine-minute epic ballad “American Pie” broke through the stagnant surface of American popular music and shot rapidly to No. 1 on just about every relevant chart. Though not all that ambivalent or enigmatic — if you were an American within 10 years of McLean’s age, you knew exactly whom and what he was talking about — the lyrics of “American Pie” spawned a frenzy of amateur hermeneutics rivaling those that had previously wasted our time unpacking Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” or Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marianbad.

Something that moved us all so deeply, they figured, had to mean a lot more than it was saying. They had forgotten, if they had ever heard, the unanswerable words of the beautiful Amanda in Noël Coward’s Private Lives: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”

No, I’m not calling “American Pie” cheap — Coward had Amanda saying that about a song he had himself written, and in fact, I consider “American Pie” a great achievement. But like all great works of popular art, it is what Pauline Kael called Citizen Kane — a “shallow masterpiece.” It requires nothing in the way of explication or annotation, and all attempts to provide same are bound to read like humorless satires of real scholarship. What is obvious about it is all that matters.

McLean finished writing “American Pie” in late December 1969, when the 1960s were a few days short of over. Chronologically, the song covers about a decade framed by two mortal events: the plane crash (Feb. 3, 1959) that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, and the stabbing (Dec. 6, 1969) that killed Meredith Hunter during The Rolling Stones performance at Altamont.

Something was over, we all felt it, and we were just starting to miss it. Then along came McLean, who wrote his version of what it was into ingenious, pungent rhymes and hung them on an unforgettable melodic structure. Despite the occasional bursts of apocalyptic language, the song is not religious but nostalgic — and whatever you miss most is what you think about when you listen to it. You want apocalyptic, try Hamilton Camp’s “Pride of Man” or Phil Ochs’ “Crucifiction.”

Although McLean has written quite a few good songs — including his moving tribute to Vincent van Gogh, “Vincent/Starry, Starry Night” from the same album — “American Pie” remains his indelible signature, his guarantee of immortality. He’s a very fine guitarist, a mean banjo picker, and he has a wonderful voice, a sweet Irish tenor that Roy Orbison called “the Voice of the Century.”

His vast performing repertory is like an encyclopedia of American folk and popular music of the last 60 years. His first heroes were The Weavers (he toured with Pete Seeger for a while) and Frank Sinatra. His fourth album, Playin’ Favorites, contains no McLean originals, but is a stunning illustration of his eclecticism.

Among fine versions of such 1950s classics as “Fool’s Paradise,” “Over the Mountains,” “Muleskinner Blues” and Holly’s “Everyday,” you’ll find one of the most beautiful cuts ever committed to vinyl, his rendition of the ultimate Irish ballad of homesickness, “The Mountains of Mourne” (all four stanzas; The Kingston Trio only gave us three). We are likely to hear anything once McLean comes on the stage.

Tickets to McLean are $18 to $53 (including a $3 per ticket facility fee). Click here to purchase them online, or call 805.899.2222 or visit the box office at 1214 State St.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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