The day that Don McLean died

Preamble soundtrack: Bat Hearse, “The Day Don McLean Died”

One of the ways I’m a bad blogger is failing to post about the good stuff when it happens. Usually because the best moments are the hardest to get right, and I worry about seeming obnoxious in celebration, showing the right amount of gratitude, or trying not to leave anyone under-recognized. In life something shitty usually comes along soon enough, the good vibes recede, and the opportunity is lost.

So what follows is an attempt to recapture a little of one such time.

Readers know of my long connection with freeform radio station WFMU, which goes back to reading the book Radiotext(e) in 1992 and then becoming a fanatic listener shortly after they pioneered online streaming in the late 90s. The station’s ethos and eclecticism shaped how I thought about music and the internet, and I admired station manager Ken Freedman for how he seemed to run such a tight ship tossed about on roiling seas of madness. I long dreamed of having him join an open ed tech gathering, as I thought he would have a lot of relevant insights, and that came true when he keynoted the OpenEd 2009 conference that I co-organized. People say it is dangerous to meet your heroes, but Ken was the absolute coolest.

In addition to his work as station manager, and his regular Wednesday morning music show, Ken has co-hosted what’s been described as a radio stunt show mostly called Seven Second Delay since the early 90s. His co-host is Andy Breckman, a longtime comedy writer (early Letterman, 80’s Saturday Night Live) and entertainment producer, and a non-stop irreverent joke machine on the air.

One of the long-running recurring jokes on the show has been Andy’s feud with his nemesis, Don “American Pie” McLean. Early in his career, Andy had been a comedic folk singer, and once opened for McLean. As Andy relates:

…my dream tour was a disaster and I’ll tell you why. Don McLean — Mr. “Starry Starry Night” — Mr. “And I Love Her So” — turned out to be the most bitter, petty, insecure scumbag I ever met.

The tour started like this: we were on the plane. McLean glanced out the window. he said he saw a shooting star. I said make a wish. He said “I did, but it didn’t work. You’re still here.”

…One morning in Calgary, I met McLean in the lobby of our hotel. He had bought a local paper, and was reading a review of our show. But he wouldn’t let me see it. All he said was “Well, they hated us.” Then he crumpled up the newspaper and threw it away.

After he left, I fished the paper out of the garbage. It’s true, the reviewer did hate McLean. He called McLean pompous and out of touch. But the reviewer LOVED the opening act! It was one of the first rave reviews I’d ever gotten, and McLean didn’t want me to see it.

A few years later, McLean demanded the piece be edited to add his side of the story:

Little did I realize until I got around this guy a little bit that he was a thin skinned egomaniac and a dreadful stage performer. Maybe he could have had a career in Winnapeg where they liked him. Anyway, things went downhill and I disliked Breckman for precisely the type of low blow remarks in this piece. It’s like I have my own Mark David Chapman but without the balls since it took scared little Andy 17 years to get up the nerve for character assassination. There’s something very tattle-tale about all this, but he still seems to be what I thought he was, a dufus.

Over the years, Andy has kept up his end of the feud, at one point offering $200 to anyone who could get Don McLean to say Breckman’s name onstage, and McLean responding with threats to sue if his shows were disrupted. So when Ken wanted to prank Andy on-air for a show, it was natural to have a Don McLean angle.

Ken put out a call on the Seven Second Delay newsletter (which Andy never reads), requesting help on a prank by creating fake websites. I emailed back, saying my skills were very basic (I was playing around with Mozilla’s X-Ray Goggles) but if he couldn’t find anyone better I would try. Evidently he couldn’t because he wrote me back with his idea. Ken wanted to drop on Andy that Don McLean had died in some kind of hot air ballooning accident somewhere in the southwest. He asked me to create a variety of online stories of the breaking news that he would show to Andy in-studio as people called in to convince him it was real.

It was maybe the highest pressure and most terrifying writing assignment I’ve ever been entrusted with… A whole episode of my favourite show hung on my ability to create convincing news stories in order to fool someone who has been a prankster and jokester his whole life, someone with a well-honed bullshit detector. I pored over stories of balloon crashes and accidental celebrity deaths, trying to get a feel for the wording and cadences of how different outlets presented them. The technical/visual part ended up being relatively simple, limited by my lack of skills… I could share the stories as JPEGs that would show in a browser, but they couldn’t scroll or be clicked on. I obsessed on the wording, scouring the text for any gaffes… trying my best to provide lively fodder for the show without going over the edge and giving it all away.

I reproduce my side of the prank below: the screenshots of the stories that I gave to Ken, and audio selections of the show that align with when they were shown to Andy. So you can get a targeted sense if you like. That said, I think the episode is pretty great overall, and you can listen to the whole thing (via the playlist or listen here). The prank starts to take shape about 20 minutes into what seems like a fairly normal show. When I listen to the archive, I am taken back to the unbearable suspense of listening along live, wondering whether Andy would take the bait, agonizing that I would blow the whole thing.

The prank is initiated with just a listener calling in to share the news of McLean’s death. Andy is having none of it.

Screenshot of fake CNN story on the death of Don McLean
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But with the CNN story on the monitor, Andy’s reaction is quite different. “I swear I felt something an hour ago.” He’s shocked, but the zingers and his deep loathing of Don McLean cannot be held back.

Screenshot on the fake New York Times story of Don McLean's death
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Andy wonders if Don McLean would top Sid Caesar in the New York Times as celebrity death of the day, and right on cue…

Screenshot of Fake Twitter account announcing the death of Don McLean
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Andy only followed one account on Twitter: Don McLean. I figured he might want to check that page. He talks it over with producer Andrea Silenzi.

Screenshot of fake TMZ story of Don McLean's death
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I may have pushed my luck too far with the TMZ story, Ken senses that Andy might be suspicious and does a nice job of covering.

Believing his nemesis is now dead, Andy riffs down memory lane for half an hour, processing his very mixed feelings. This next clip is probably the funniest bit of the show to me, where Andy pulls out his long-running joke that he actually co-wrote “American Pie”.

Finally, as the show ends… the reveal. Ken was nice to shout me out. I can’t express how relieved I was feeling at this moment.

The following week, Ken and Andy looked back on the prank. Remember how I said I’d done my best to take out jokes, knowing that Andy had such a keen sense for them? In fact I couldn’t resist a couple. One of them was that TMZ headline. The other was a line in the CNN article describing McLean as “an avid balloonist”, which for some reason made me giggle when I wrote it. That small slip nearly torched the whole thing:

A few months later, I was in New York City with Grant Potter, and Ken gave us a tour of the station. He could not have been more generous with his time (even though the annual WFMU Record Fair was the next day), and the experience was all I could have hoped. When introducing me to DJs and staff, Ken usually called me “the guy who introduced me to Nardwuar” (another story), or “the guy who helped me with the Don McLean prank”. The DJs usually either ignored it, or drily said something like “oh, you’re that guy”. They may not have been impressed but I was pleased.

2 thoughts on “The day that Don McLean died

    1. Man, that whole trip to NYC was so epic, I can’t believe it all. So grateful to do it with you, and definitely could not have had a better WFMU pal along for that tour.

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