Imagine a song a long, long time ago that changed your life. And it was one of those songs that you had heard a hundred times but you had never listened to the lyrics. But then one day the words penetrated your heart like the desperately sought missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle you finally found in plain sight.
And imagine if this song began with words so simply stated, so clearly expressed, that you are embarrassed to acknowledge you had never truly heard them before. Words that flowed forth like thoughtful, heartfelt sighs forming short, perfect sentences.
"And I love you so," the song begins. And those words just hang there. "The people ask me how," the voice continues. "How I've lived till now." And then the sad honest truth: "I tell them I don't know."
What changed my life, or perhaps affirmed it, were the words that came next:
"And yes, I know how lonely life can be.
"The shadows follow me
"And the night won't set me free
"But I don't let the evening get me down
"Now that you're around me."
"And I Love You So" is my favorite song by Don McLean, the singer-musician most famous for penning "American Pie," a wordy jack-o-lantern of a song that flickered between meaning and nonsense and in the process became an unsolvable metaphor for the riddle of America at midcentury. It was the No. 1 hit song in 1972, the same year I was hired out of Temple as a summer intern at The Inquirer.
On Aug. 12 I wrote a column disputing media reports surrounding the 40th anniversary of "American Pie" (now No. 5 on a pop-music industry list of American "Songs of the Century," behind Judy Garland's "Over the Rainbow," Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," and Aretha Franklin's "Respect").
In an interview with an upstate New York newspaper earlier this year, McLean said the first public performance of "American Pie" took place at a college concert in Philadelphia. I remember it well. It was March 12, 1971, at St. Joe's Fieldhouse. McLean was the opening act for the late Laura Nyro. He was terrific. It was the first time I heard his song "Vincent," and it was there that McLean announced that he was about to perform a new song with so many words he hadn't memorized them yet. And the rest is, if not history, well "Hello, Miss American Pie."
Somehow in the reporting of McLean's Philadelphia shout-out, the song's debut was credited to a show at Temple University. I described the false-positive credit to Temple as "just a cork of fact bobbing in an ocean of misinformation." Harmless, perhaps. But inaccurate.
In my attempts to reach McLean for comment, I found evidence of his views on the very same matter. He had been quietly, yet persistently, attempting to correct reporters. But the same inaccuracies kept appearing, in town after town, year after year.
For instance, in 2008, McLean was asked why he had refused to perform "American Pie" live for a number of years. "That's an urban myth and it seems every interview I've ever done I've been asked about that," McLean replied. "And in every interview I've done I've said it's not true and that I've always sung the song. But still people will not get it and stop asking that question.
"It makes me wonder how true history can possibly be when I cannot even correct a small factual error and I'm alive."
A couple of weeks after my column about McLean and St. Joe's, I received a voice mail on my cell phone. "Clark, this is Don McLean. I got your request on our website. I definitely remember singing it for the first time at that Laura Nyro show at St. Joe's College. Thank you for the date - March 12, 1971." If I had any other questions, McLean said, I could call him at his home in Maine. We have spoken by phone a couple of times since.
McLean knows the Philadelphia area well. In 1963, he was an 18-year-old freshman at Villanova University, where he met a married upperclassman who befriended him. That student, Jim Croce, was also an aspiring singer-songwriter.
"He showed me the ropes," McLean said of Croce, who died in a plane crash in Louisiana in 1973 at the height of his fame, just months after his single "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown" hit No. 1.
Following his death in September, Croce's song "Time in a Bottle" was rereleased. By December, it was the No. 1 song in America, making Croce the third pop star of his time with a posthumous hit. (The other two were Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee" and Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay.")
Clearly Croce's street-wise fatherly friendship was suburban New York-raised McLean's best memory of his days at Villanova, where the frat boy drinking culture was in full flower. "(Villanova) taught me what I needed to know and I dropped out after three months," McLean said. Presumably what he meant by that was, if he ever planned to make pop music history at a Catholic university in Philadelphia, he'd go with the Jesuits at St. Joe's.
At the age of 67, McLean still enjoys performing, though not so much the traveling. And during every show he sings the song he first sang a long, long time ago in a basketball arena on 54th Street and Overbrook Avenue.