Don McLean performing during the Stars and Stripes Spectacular 4th of July celebration on Portland’s Eastern Promenade in 2013. Although some Maine venues stopped booking him after he pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges, he was scheduled to perform this weekend in New Jersey and Delaware. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Chances are good, if you listen to the radio for long enough this weekend, you will hear Don McLean’s 1971 pop classic “American Pie.”

By some estimates, the song has been played on the radio more than 5 million times since its release 50 years ago, its place in American cultural history secure. And for reasons of nostalgia having to do with Chevys, levees, whiskey and rye, “American Pie” seems to surface the most around the Fourth of July holiday.

“It’s a timeless piece of art, and one of the greatest songs ever written,” said Herb Ivy, whose Portland radio station WBLM has played the 8½-minute epic regularly since the station went on the air in 1972 and has never taken it out of rotation. “We always play it this time of year. A lot.”

Less certain is the legacy of the song’s creator, the 75-year-old McLean, who lives in Camden. He was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence five years ago, and last month, Jackie McLean, his grown daughter, who is also a musician, accused him of a lifetime of mental abuse in a high-profile interview with Rolling Stone magazine. At a time when celebrities are getting canceled for all manner of transgressions in their personal lives past and present, sending many into the shadows of their careers, McLean has stubbornly clung to what remains of his dimming light. Throughout the pandemic, he has promoted career-defining projects across the entertainment spectrum – a children’s book, a documentary movie, perhaps a musical, and now, with the concert business resuming, live performances. All the while, he has vigorously denied the accusations from his ex-wife and daughter in interviews, while disparaging both. He declined to talk with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram for this story.

McLean’s situation is complicated because his most famous song is so widely revered. The Library of Congress has preserved the original recording, citing its cultural significance, and the National Endowment for the Arts considers it among the top songs of the 20th century. Despite the song’s long-term hold on the psyche of rock ‘n’ roll fans in the United States and other countries, there are signs McLean’s reputation for bad behavior might be catching up with him. In 2019, the student alumni association of the University of California rescinded a lifetime achievement award after it learned of McLean’s guilty pleas. A few weeks ago, around the same time Jackie McLean’s interview with Rolling Stone appeared online, Backbeat Books announced it had canceled the fall publication of a children’s book based on “American Pie.” And both McLean and his 50-year-old epic are missing from this weekend’s Parade magazine Fourth of July feature on the greatest American songs.

When arrested in 2016, McLean was charged with six misdemeanors and pleaded guilty to four, and one of the charges – domestic violence assault – was dismissed after a year. He paid a $3,600 fine for the other three charges while maintaining his innocence, saying he pleaded guilty to settle the case. He also came to financial terms with his ex-wife, the artist Patrisha McLean, agreeing to a divorce settlement worth $10 million – a relatively modest sum for a man who boasted to the financial publication MarketWatch in 2019 that he had earned $150 million from his music, including publishing royalties and money earned from touring.

The pandemic postponed his plans for a 50th anniversary tour to celebrate “American Pie,” but McLean was back on the road this weekend, with shoreline concerts in New Jersey and Delaware, where some fans paid $70 for a ticket to the concert and another $40 for his autograph afterward.

Patrisha McLean, here at her Camden home, founded Finding Our Voices, an organization that encourages women to talk about domestic abuse, after her ex-husband, musician Don McLean, was arrested on domestic abuse charges in 2016. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Meanwhile, Patrisha McLean, who also lives in Camden, has advanced her high-profile “Finding Our Voices” exhibitions across Maine, filling storefronts with images and words to raise awareness of domestic abuse, empower victims by giving them a space to share their stories, and reform the justice system to hold abusers to more account. On Friday, while Don McLean was preparing for his concert on the pier in Ocean City, Patrisha McLean was collecting the artwork and poems that been displayed in businesses and at City Hall in Belfast throughout the month of June.

“Business as usual,” she said of her ex-husband’s decision to resume his touring. “The glorification should end. Glorifying a convicted domestic abuser absolutely sends the wrong message.”

Joseph Terry, a lecturer in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of New Hampshire who teaches classes in media and music, said McLean would do himself a favor if he acknowledged his mistakes and apologized for the behavior he pleaded guilty to, instead of denying it and attacking his accusers. He cited the example of the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who admitted to being a domestic abuser. Fans are able to reconcile their love of art with their mixed feelings about an artist if the artist communicates openly and honestly, he said.

“Legacies are maintained when people come face to face with their demons,” Terry said. “It’s interesting that McLean has obviously chosen a different path. … This is the 50th anniversary of ‘American Pie,’ and he sees anything that distracts from that as something he needs to silence. He could have dealt with this in a much different way that probably would have held up his personal legacy more.”

He thinks McLean’s popularity has been sustained by the age, loyalty and the sheer number of his fans. The people who love his song the most are those who grew up with it, and they are reluctant to let go of the nostalgia they associate with it, Terry said. “The song captures his generation, and that is the generation I see as fueling his career today. And that is also the generation that is often dismissive about wanting to hear about victims. They certainly don’t want to see someone’s star dimmed.”

LOADED LYRICS

“American Pie” has always been a bit of a mystery, with lyrics that reference the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Charles Manson, James Dean and others. For years, fans tried to figure out the song’s meaning and decipher its clues. McLean had always been cryptic, until he began revealing secrets when he sold the original 16-page manuscript of lyrics for $1.2 million in 2015. He told reporters then that he wrote it about the death of the American dream, which he tied to both the assassination of JFK and the death of rock ‘n’ roll on a cold February night in 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, whose real name was J.P. Richardson, died in a plane crash after performing at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.

“Basically in ‘American Pie,’ things are heading in the wrong direction,” he said when Christie’s auctioned his lyrics. “It is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right, but it is a morality song in a sense.”

Brian Farrell, music director at WCLZ and Rewind 100.9-FM in Portland, said his stations play McLean’s classic song far less frequently than in the past – rarely, if ever, on WCLZ and occasionally on Rewind. That may be in small part because of the domestic abuse situation and listeners’ awareness of it in Maine, but the diminished airplay is mostly because the song is beginning to age out of rotation, he said.

Younger listeners aren’t as familiar with or interested in the song’s many veiled references, he said.

“I am 30 years old, and I am not sure how many 30-year-olds know what the song is about,” he said. “It got a lot more spins in the past than it does today, no question. At Rewind, we do touch down on landmark songs from the ’70s, but it does not come up very often for us anymore. It has shrunk down to once a week, and I’m not even sure if it’s that often.”

Terry said most of his students at UNH are familiar with the song, but they are less familiar with McLean. “His song has transcended his celebrity. Many of my students wouldn’t be able to name who sang that song. They just know it’s a culturally significant song,” Terry said.

The debate about whether art should be separated from artists accused of wrongdoing has swirled in recent years around previously celebrated work, such as the music of Michael Jackson, the films of Woody Allen and the comedy of Bill Cosby, who last week was released from prison after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned a sexual assault conviction after he served nearly three years of a 10-year sentence.

Ivy, host of the morning show at WBLM and director of content for the New England radio stations of Townsquare Media, said McLean’s history with domestic abuse complicated his legacy, but didn’t diminish his accomplishment of writing a masterpiece.

“These artists who have had troubles in their lives and who have done allegedly horrible things but have made amazing art, you have to acknowledge their mistakes but also recognize they did amazing work. You can do both,” he said.

Maine singer and songwriter Anni Clark is someone who can. She graduated from high school in 1971 and fell in love with “American Pie” when it came out later that year. It went to No. 1 early in 1972. She remembers riding in cars with her friends blasting the song on the radio and singing the lyrics at full throat.

“Most of us had just gotten our licenses, so we were driving around listening to the radio. That song was huge,” said Clark, who lives in Old Orchard Beach. “I just remember trying to memorize all the words. We all wanted to memorize all the words, but none of us knew what it meant, and that was part of the draw to the song – we didn’t know what it was about, but we all still loved it.”

She still does – and still sings out loud when it comes on the radio when she is driving. Clark hesitated when asked if McLean’s guilty pleas to domestic abuse have caused her to re-evaluate her opinions. As an artist, she said she can distinguish the art from the individual who made it: “What he wrote was a masterpiece.”

‘A SOCIETY PROBLEM’

Clark also praised Patrisha McLean for her advocacy work. “Any form of raising awareness about domestic abuse is an important and admirable goal,” she said.

Through her “Finding Our Voices” project, Patrisha McLean has made domestic violence awareness and victim advocacy the focus of her work since her divorce five years ago. Thanks to a donation by writer Tess Gerritsen, Patrisha McLean recently printed 20,000 bookmarks with the faces and stories of Maine survivors of domestic abuse, along with resources to help people. She is arranging more exhibitions, talking to more victims and is beginning to speak nationally as an advocate.

“We are trying to let women out there, who are everywhere, know they are not alone. We are trying to educate the community,” she said.

In an email, Gerritsen wrote: “It’s a tough subject to talk about because before this all came out, we considered both Pat and Don our friends – and we were utterly clueless about what was really going on in their marriage. It just goes to show how much happens behind closed doors. It was a shock to realize we knew nothing. I’ve long been a supporter of the local women’s shelter and when I learned about Pat’s ordeals, of course I wanted to support her as well.”

Patrisha McLean prefers not talking about her ex-husband, but is infuriated with people in the music and publishing industries who continue to do business with him.

“I think it’s absolutely disgusting, and I think it’s standard operating procedure. When it comes to money, people look the other way,” she said. “And then they always say, ‘Oh we didn’t know’ if there is an uproar. But it takes a lot for there to be an uproar.”

That is particularly true with McLean, who has a history of attacking his attackers, including newspapers that have written about his wife’s exhibitions and others who have spoken against him. Robert Gregg, a longtime friend of both Patrisha and Don McLean, who managed McLean’s website for years, declined to speak on the record for this story, because he said McLean has threatened to sue him if he speaks publicly about him. Their falling out stemmed from Gregg’s support of Patrisha McLean when the abuse charges surfaced.

In an interview with the Atlantic City Weekly ahead of his concert there Friday night, McLean said he was eager to resume touring. “I just like the idea of moving and seeing things, and I have a desire to be out in the world,” he told the newspaper. “Having sat for a year and a half without being able to travel confirmed for me that I will die on stage. I made the most of it (the pandemic), but I don’t want to do that again, so I’m going to find a way to always keep working.”

With the concert business picking back up, McLean’s performance schedule remains light at this time, with just one September date listed on his website after this weekend. The pandemic dashed his plans for a 50th anniversary world tour for “American Pie,” which would have begun Feb. 3, 2021, at the Surf Ballroom in Iowa, the setting of his song about the day the music died. The tour also was scheduled to go to Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland “and many more places to be announced soon!” according to a December 2020 post on his website.

For now, those places include the ports of call for the Rock Legends Cruise IX, sailing from Cape Canaveral on Feb. 14-18, 2022, with the bands Styx, the Outlaws and others. The executive director of the Surf Ballroom in Iowa said there were discussions about rescheduling McLean for February 2022, but she declined to speak on the record about those plans or McLean’s personal history.

McLean’s last public performance in Maine was July 2015 at the Lobster Festival in Rockland. He last performed in Portland in 2014 at the Maine Music Awards Hall of Fame Show, and appeared with the Portland Symphony Orchestra for the city’s July Fourth fireworks celebration in 2013.

Chuck Kruger, who booked entertainment for the Lobster Festival in Rockland before retiring in 2018, was quoted in the Press Herald after McLean’s arrest as saying he would never hire him for a family event again. “I felt that way then and still do,” Kruger said. “What I always wanted to see with Don was at least him acknowledging the reality that domestic violence is a big problem in this country. I understand he does not want to hurt his career, but the guy has a lot of money to live on for as long as he wants to. I am not thrilled with his choices.”

If McLean called looking for a show, Kruger said he would talk with him about an apology before offering a gig. “If we did get into a real conversation, I might advise him he should come clean and acknowledge the problem in our society, or at least fess up,” Kruger said.

“But I don’t expect he will call me. I expect he saw that quote in the Press Herald. But who knows? We are going through a lot of changes. We are not going back to the old normal. That is not in the future, in my opinion. There is new awareness, thanks to the efforts of Patrisha and others. This is a Don McLean problem, but it’s also a society problem. We have to become better men. Men have to do a better job being decent.”

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