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 Patrisha McLean, Don McLean’s ex-wife, hears “American Pie,” she doesn’t remember the golden moments of adolescence or even the classic rock ‘n’ roll age commemorated by the song. McLean says she has been subjected to years of psychological and physical abuse at the hands of her former husband.
McLean was married to her husband for 29 years before the night five years ago she made a call to 911. In the aftermath, McLean was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. He was charged with six misdemeanors; he pleaded guilty to four charges as part of a plea deal in which the domestic violence charge would be dismissed after one year. On the other three counts – criminal duress, mischief and threats of domestic violence – he was fined some $ 3,000.
Since then, McLean has founded Finding Our Voices, a Maine-based nonprofit dedicated to educating people about domestic violence and providing services to victims. Meanwhile, McLean was honored in August with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He denies ever assaulting his wife and his lawyer said he pleaded guilty “not because he was actually guilty of anything, but to end his family and keep the whole process as well. private as possible “. His iconic song is still playing on the radio. The past few years have seen a reassessment of the many mythologies of our country – 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 am horrified by various events in the life of Johnny Cash, Elvis, or Jerry Lee Lewis? Or by the racist rants and anti-vaccination activism of Eric Clapton? 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 of 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. 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.
Boylan is an opinion writer with NYT © 2021
The New York Times