Another Slice of American Pie – The Story’s Bigger than the Song

American Pie, the 1971 anthem inducted into the GRAMMY hall of fame and later covered by Eddie Vedder and Madonna, catapulted songwriter Don McLean from his humble beginnings at Caffè Lena to international stardom. For years the tune has been said to have its origins in Saratoga Springs. Legend has it that while drinking, McLean wrote the song’s lyrics on a napkin at the Tin and Lint bar just down the street from the Caffè where he’d performed earlier that night. According to the story retold by the bar’s owner, Saratoga community members, and storyteller Utah Phillips, McLean passed out and his buddies saved his napkin to return to him. For years, including in a 2005 interview recorded for the Caffè Lena History Project archives, Don McLean has refuted the story stating that he wrote the song in Philadelphia.

American Pie plaque - Photo by Kelsey Thorn, 2011

Still the legend persists. The landmark T&L bar is now marked with a plaque that visitors rub for good luck. Don McLean’s name is still scribbled on the Caffè Lena bathroom walls, where a new generation of songwriters are writing their own legendary tunes. This week the Glens Falls PostStar revisited the story at McLean’s stomping grounds in Saratoga:

Bye, bye local legend: Don McLean refutes tale of song’s origin

The tale of American Pie is certainly persistent, but like so many Caffè Lena legends the story goes deeper. What is perhaps as inspiring as the American Pie story itself is that Don McLean, indebted to Lena Spencer for urging him on as a young songwriter, returned to the 80-seat Caffè Lena venue through the early ‘70s when American Pie was a hit record all over the world. He performed multiple benefits for Lena, where he recalls meeting Bob Dylan who was there in attendance. A megastar who earned top dollar from large scale venues, he recalled “I used to come and just sing for nothing. I never took any money from Lena.” In 1973, McLean gave Lena the ultimate gift: he invited her to be his special guest at the GRAMMY awards.

Don McLean at Caffè Lena - Photo by Joseph Deuel, 1970s

McLean spent a great deal of time hanging out at Caffè Lena in the 1960s and 1970s, absorbing the variety of musical styles he heard there. He said that of all the places he played in those formative years, Caffè Lena was by far his favorite place, and Lena was the best club owner that he ever worked for. He described the way the legendary venue answered a young songwriter’s great need for a place to learn and grow: “We need a lot of those places around the country for people to learn how to perform. It’s kind of like Vaudeville. It takes years and years of being out there on the end of the diving board.” The PostStar article ends with the statement: “Unfortunately for Caffè Lena or Saratoga Springs – neither of those places can lay claim to anything with regard to ‘American Pie.” But McLean’s love for Lena begs the question, what if he had never set foot in Caffè Lena in Saratoga, never been nurtured by Lena Spencer as a young songwriter? Does the song make the songwriter, or does the songwriter make the song? The Caffè Lena book project will expand on these questions with never-before-seen images and interview material. Caffè Lena’s current programming answers these questions each week on the same stage where Don McLean performed over four decades ago.

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