A long, long time ago – I can still remember how that music made me laugh.
Don McLean’s generational ballad, American Pie, was released on vinyl 50 years ago in October. The first time I heard it, I was in our kitchen with my sister. I was 13. I ate a bowl of Alpha-Bits cereal. It came on the radio and my sister – only a year older but centuries cooler – told me, “This is the best song ever.”
It’s impossible for me to hear that song right now without thinking about her.
But when Don McLean’s ex-wife Patrisha McLean hears “American Pie,” she isn’t reminded of golden moments of adolescence or even the classic rock and roll era the song commemorates. Ms McLean says she was emotionally and physically abused for years by her former husband.
Mrs. McLean had been married to her husband for 29 years before the night five years since she called 911. In the aftermath, Mr. McLean was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. He was charged with six crimes; he pleaded guilty to four as part of a plea deal that would dismiss charges of domestic violence after a year. For the other three charges — criminal restraint, criminal mischief and expressing domestic violence — he paid about $3,000 in fines.
Since then, Ms. McLean founded Finding Our Voices, a Maine-based nonprofit dedicated to educating people about domestic violence and providing services to victims. Meanwhile, Mr. McLean was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in August. He denies ever assaulting his wife, and his lawyer has said he pleaded guilty “not because he was, in fact, guilty of anything other than closing in on his family and keeping the whole process as private as possible.” His iconic song is still playing on the radio.
In recent years, our country’s many mythologies have been reassessed – from the legends of the generals of the Confederacy to the historical obfuscation of the founders of the slave owners. But when we look again at the sins of our historical figures, we also had to take a closer look at our more immediate past and present, including the behavior of pop culture creators. That 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 am shocked by different events in the life of Johnny Cash or Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis? Or Eric Clapton’s racist diatribes and anti-vaccine activism?
There is, of course, no easy answer to this. Even Ms. McLean doesn’t think “American Pie” should be banned from playlists like some other pieces of classic rock produced by disgraced musicians. For example, Gary Glitter’s ‘Rock and Roll (Part 2)’, more popularly known as ‘The Hey Song’, was taken off the air after the musician was convicted of possessing child pornography and a series of sexual abuse of young girls.
Instead, Ms. McLean told me, she thinks we need to rethink how we take these artists to the next level. It’s the tainted creators, she said, that we shouldn’t celebrate. In other words, the problem with “American Pie” isn’t the song. It’s the singer. “American Pie” remains a great song. In 2016, the Library of Congress selected the original recording for safekeeping in the National Recording Registry.
Indeed, it would almost be easier if it were just about the song. The Rolling Stones have quietly removed “Brown Sugar” from their current set list for the US tour. The song’s racist lyrics, which refer to slave ships and rape, have been controversial since the song first became a hit in 1971 – the same year as “American Pie.” And yet, when asked about the removal, guitarist Keith Richards seemed a little uncomfortable with the decision: “I’m trying to figure out with the sisters where exactly the meat is. Didn’t they understand that this was a song about the horrors of slavery?”
There are many things I appreciate about ‘Brown Sugar’ and not least about Mr. Richards’ guitar riffs. But I can tell you it hasn’t crossed my mind in 50 years that this song is even remotely about black women’s empowerment. If the Stones don’t know why the song has to go, will it go far enough to just remove it from their tour magazine?
For many baby boomers, it’s painful to realize that some of the songs first held in our memories during adolescence really need a second look. And it’s hard to explain why younger versions of ourselves ever thought they were okay.
I want to live in a world where I can be moved by art and music and literature without having to make elaborate excuses for that 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 so many cases, it is precisely the chaos of those lives that has contributed to the creation of art. It’s easy to romanticize that chaos and ignore the wreckage that artists can leave in their wake.
It was Don McLean, in American Pie, who asked if music can save our mortal souls. My guess is probably not. But it can help us travel through time, not just our adolescent past. Perhaps rethinking those songs, and their artists, can inspire us to think about the future and how we can create a world that is more inclusive and fair.