A long, long time ago, I still remember how much that music made me smile.
“American Pie,” the defining ballad of Don McLean’s generation, was released on vinyl 50 years ago in October. The first time I heard it, I was with my sister in our kitchen. I was 13 years old. I ate a bowl of Alpha-Bits cereal. It came on the radio, and my sister – only a year older but centuries cooler – said to me, “This is the best song ever.”
It’s impossible for me to hear this song now without thinking about it.
But when Don McLean’s ex-wife Patrisha McLean hears “American Pie,” she doesn’t remember the golden moments of adolescence or even the classic rock ‘n’ roll age commemorated by the song. Ms McLean says she has been subjected to years of psychological and physical abuse at the hands of her ex-husband.
Ms McLean was married to her husband for 29 years before the night five years ago she made a call to 911. In the aftermath, Mr McLean was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. He was charged with six misdemeanors; he pleaded guilty to four in a plea deal in which the domestic violence charge would be dismissed after one year. On the other three counts – criminal restraint, mischief and threats of domestic violence – he was fined some $ 3,000.
Ms. McLean has since founded Find our voices, a Maine-based non-profit organization dedicated to educating people about domestic violence and providing services to victims. Meanwhile, Mr. McLean was honored in August with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He denies ever having assaulted his wife and his lawyer said that he pleaded guilty “not because he was actually guilty of anything, but to end his family and keep the whole process as private as possible”. His iconic song is still playing on the radio.
The past few years have seen a reassessment of our nation’s many mythologies – from the legends of Confederation generals to the historical oblivion of the slave founding fathers. But as we take another look at the sins of our historical figures, we’ve also had to take a critical look at our more immediate past and present, including the behavior of the creators of pop culture. This reassessment now extends to the people who wrote some of our most beloved songs. But what to do with the art left behind? Can I still love their music if I’m appalled at various events in the life of Johnny Cash, Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis? Or by Eric Clapton’s racist rants and anti-vaccination activism?
Of course, there is no easy answer here. Even Ms. McLean doesn’t think “American Pie” should be banned from playlists, like other classic rock tracks produced by disgraced musicians. Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part 2)”, better known as “The Hey Song”, for example, was taken from airplay after the musician was convicted of possession of child pornography and a series of sexual abuse offenses against young girls.
Instead, Ms. McLean told me, she thinks we should reconsider how we raise these artists. These are the tarnished creators, she said, that should not be celebrated. In other words: the problem with “American Pie” isn’t the song. This is the singer. “American Pie” is still an excellent song. In 2016, the Library of Congress selected the original recording for retention in the National Registry of Registrations.
Indeed, it would be almost easier if it was just the song. The Rolling Stones have quietly removed “Brown Sugar” from their current US tour list. The song’s racist lyrics, which refer to slave ships and rape, have been controversial since the song first hit in 1971, the same year as “American Pie.” And yet the guitarist Keith Richards, asked about the withdrawal, seemed a little uncomfortable with the decision: “I try to understand with the sisters where the beef is. Didn’t they understand that it was a song about the horrors of slavery? “
There are a lot of things I revere in “Brown Sugar”, and Mr. Richards’ guitar riffs are not the least. But I can tell you that in 50 years it hasn’t occurred to me once that this song could even talk about empowering black women. If the Stones don’t know why the song has to leave, does just taking it off their tour sheet go far enough?
For many baby boomers, it’s painful to realize that some of the songs first lodged in our memories as teenagers really need a second look. And it’s hard to explain why the younger versions of ourselves thought they were okay in the first place.
I want to live in a world where I can be moved by art, music and literature without having to make elaborate apologies for this work or for its creators.
But does such a world exist? It’s hard to think of some of our greatest artists without also thinking about their messy, sometimes destructive lives. In many cases, it was the very chaos of those lives that helped create the art. It’s easy to romanticize this chaos and ignore the wreckage artists can leave in their wake.
It was Don McLean, in “American Pie”, who asked if music could save our mortal souls. My guess is probably not. But it can help us time travel, and not just our teenage past. Perhaps reconsidering these songs and their artists can inspire us to think about the future and how to create a more inclusive and just world.