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Another bite of 'American Pie'

Courtesy photo
American Pie" will surely be on the setlist when Don McLean performs at the WVU Creative Arts Center in Morgantown Saturday, but the 67-year-old singer has plenty of other songs to play, too -- he's released 20 albums in his 40-plus year career.

WANT TO GO?

Don McLean

WHERE: WVU Creative Arts Center, Morgantown

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

TICKETS: $40 to $55

INFO: 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If there's one thing Don McLean has learned over the years, it's to be prepared. Over the course of his 40-plus year career, the songwriter best known for the American rock anthem "American Pie" said he's seen it all.

"I've had people throw things at me," he said. "I've had them come up on stage, fall out of balconies, get in fist fights. I came up the rough way."

Of course, most of that was when he was really starting out, long before he became anything like famous, playing small clubs and later when he was a little known opening act for bands like The James Gang and Steppenwolf.

McLean, who performs Saturday at the WVU Creative Arts Center in Morgantown, said he learned to deal with anything.

"You have to be really ready for everything," he said.

A few years ago, Charleston got a demonstration of that. On stage, performing his iconic hit at the Clay Center, McLean snapped an E-string on his guitar and without ever stopping the band or the song, he managed to install a new string and finish.

McLean didn't remember the show or the incident, though he wasn't particularly surprised. It's happened before, though not too often.

"It happened on 'Austin City Limits' once," he said.

Still, it's often enough that McLean carries spare strings in his back pocket and an extra guitar pin. He said he started doing that after learning that bluesman Josh White, one of his musical heroes, would sometimes break strings and fix it on stage.

"I figured if that ever happened to me, I'd have to figure out what to do."

McLean added that it took a lot of years of practice to be able to do something like change a guitar string while still performing and make it look seamless, but he said it was better than the alternative: stopping the show.

"A person who just walks in and starts singing one song after another is just like a deer in the headlights if they have to move off that script," McLean said. "When you're relying on this instrument in front of thousands of people and it fails you, you have to be able do something that's entertaining that can sort of save yourself."

McLean remembered back in his early, unknown days, watching a performer ahead of him lose an audience.

"His jokes started to fall flat," he said. "He wasn't singing too well, and then he just had this look on his face of what am I going to do next?"

McLean said someone from the crowd was eager to offer a suggestion. Somebody yelled out, "Why don't you just get the hell off the stage?"

"And he turned bright red," McLean said, "and did."

It was humiliating.

Shows these days are much different. There isn't much of a risk of things taking a wrong turn at one of his shows. The crowds know what they're getting, and if the crowd gets wild that's just fine with him.

"I love it when they're wild," he said. "They're wild for me, and I'm wild for them."

McLean still likes getting out to play, though he stopped recording a few years ago and isn't really writing songs anymore. He doesn't think there's much of a point.

"The music business, in case you hadn't noticed, is dead," he said. "What you have now is a lot of amateurs making a lot of noise. Where are the Elvises, the Sinatras, the Dylans, the Paul McCartneys, John Lennons and Mick Jaggers?

"They don't exist, and that's the reason you don't really hear a hit record any more."

The music isn't all that interesting to him. It doesn't electrify people or change something.

"Think of everything The Beatles did and about half of what Elvis did," he said. "Those were hit records."

He's just not particularly impressed by latter day rockers like Bon Jovi or Bruce Springsteen.

"They're great attractions," he said. "But I don't hear any hit records."

And he doesn't get what all the fuss is about Justin Bieber.

"That's not even a talent," he said. "I mean he has no talent. I've seen him on 'Saturday Night Live.' He can't act. He can't sing. He can't dance.  I don't know; he's a pet rock."

For McLean, the music, or at least the music business, died a long time ago, but he's not complaining, he said. He got his chance. He made the people dance and maybe they were happy for a while.

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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