Monday, November 28, 2011

Bye, Bye Miss American Pie: The story behind the legend

"IF I can't stop little things about a song I wrote that are incorrect, how can anyone believe history in general?" said singer-songwriter Don McLean, on the eve of the 40th anniversary when “American Pie” first hit the pop charts.

On Nov. 27, 1971, Don McLean's eight-minute, 27-second anthem about the day the music died first broke through the Billboard top 100.
Six weeks later, "American Pie" ascended to the top spot in the nation, spending the next month at the No. 1 position, and carving out a place in pop music history and Saratoga Springs legacy.
McLean was one of Caffe Lena's own prodigies, performing regularly at the little second-floor coffeehouse on Phila Street.

"Lena was my good friend and she was wonderful to me in the '60s when I had no money. She was always out to help me and everybody else for that matter," McLean said earlier this week.
Shortly after graduating from Iona College in 1968, the singer-songwriter turned down a scholarship to Columbia University Graduate School in favor of becoming resident singer at Caffe Lena.

"He was known around the coffeehouses at the time, but that was pretty much all," recalled Jim Staley, who worked as a doorman at the Tin & Lint in 1970 and is the bar's current owner.
Inside the Caroline Street bar, the wood booths are inscribed with the initials of one-time patrons who have passed through its doors during the past 40 years. Its most notable feature is a gold-faced plaque, fading with age, which resides over one of the middle tables and reads: "American Pie, written by Don McLean, summer 1970."

"People come in here and take pictures with it," Staley said, pointing to the plaque and the table where stories of the night that McLean penned the pop opus are nearly as legendary as the song itself.

"An entire city of people have put themselves in there at the time. It must have been some busy night," said city resident Al McKenny, who worked with many area musicians at Caffe Lena for the past four decades, but who was not at the Tin & Lint on that infamous night.
Hud Armstrong, a longtime city resident, recalled the night, but said the story has changed through the years.
In most re-tellings, McLean was in town for a performance at Caffe Lena and had wandered into the Tin & Lint, where he spent the night alternately drinking and scribbling phrases like "American Pie" and "drove my Chevy to a levy" on a series of bar napkins, which were forgotten about and abandoned during the course of the evening, but rescued by one of the workers at the Tin & Lint that night.
"I heard what he left behind was a notebook," Armstrong said. "What was in the notebook? I have no idea."
Michael Taub, a Vermont-based optometrist, spent several years helping out at Caffe Lena during his high school years in the late 1960s and early '70s.
In 2005, he returned to the city where he was raised and spent time reminiscing with musician Bruce "Utah" Phillips.
"Back in the day, people used to drink a lot. What Bruce told me about that night was that Don was playing a gig at the cafe and went to the Tin & Lint after the show," Taub recalled.
In the Phillips version, McLean either "fell asleep" or "passed out," Taub said, leaving a slew of bar napkins scribbled with lyrics splayed across the table, which Phillips gathered for safekeeping and later returned to McLean.

"He was pretty loaded," said Staley, who recalled McLean's scribbled bar napkins being left behind inside the tavern where he worked.
"The next day he came back and asked if we had his notes. If the kid working the tables at the time didn't hold on to them, who knows, he may have forgotten all about it," said Staley, depicting a world where "American Pie" would never had been heard.
The tavern owner insists that although the song may have been completed elsewhere later, it was first scripted inside the Tin & Lint.

The story of the song's origins has moved into the pages of commercial publications as well as cyberspace.
Frommer's travel guide points to the American pop anthem being written by McLean in the city on a "cocktail napkin," and the county chamber of commerce website cites the city as the location where the song was written and Caffe Lena as the venue where it was performed for the first time.
"It's folklore, but I guess there's something to be said for misinformation," McKenny said.
McLean has heard the stories for the past 40 years.

"Was the song written in Saratoga Springs? The answer is no. The song was written in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania," McLean said.
“Was the song first performed at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs? No. It was first performed at Temple University with Laura Nyro.
"I have heard this for years. I guess you can't really control these things, but these are both not true. That is from the horse's mouth that's exactly what happened," McLean said.

"Unfortunately Caffe Lena or Saratoga Springs - neither of those places can lay claim to anything with regard to ‘American Pie,’” he said. "It makes you wonder about history. If I can't stop little things about a song I wrote that are incorrect, how can anyone believe history in general?"

story published in The Post-Star

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