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Singer Don McLean, 75, on his model girlfriend, 27, and American Pie lyrics


Few pop song’s lyrics have been as thoroughly pored over and pulled apart as Don McLean’s singalong classic American Pie.

There is plenty to analyse, the full song is over eight-and-a-half minutes long. And there’s been plenty of time to do it, it was released 50 years ago.

It references the death of Buddy Holly and possibly the decline of the US and the death of the American dream. But it remains a complex enigma – like the man who wrote it.

McLean does not conform and even now, aged 75, he is unusual. He lives with 27-year-old model and Instagram star Paris Dunn, who was hired in 2016 to manage his social media accounts.

McLean smiles: “She’s my buddy. She goes everywhere I go and she tells me the truth.”

That year his 29-year marriage to Patrisha Shnier McLean, the mother of his kids Jackie and Wyatt, ended amid claims of domestic violence.

The musician denied physically assaulting Patrisha but admitted domestic violence assault as part of a plea arrangement. The charges were dismissed the following year.



Don and girlfriend Paris Dunn
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Image:

Instagram)






The singer circa 1970
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Image:

Michael Ochs Archives)




Now he regards his ex-wife as a ­nuisance and says his chief concern is the quality and beauty of his music.

So, on the 50th anniversary of his folk-rock classic, which topped the US charts yet surprisingly only reached number two in the UK, is he about to enlighten us about those cryptic lyrics?

There are fan sites dedicated to ­decoding the track, voted number five in songs of the last century by a US record trade organisation.

But McLean has spent the past 50 years refusing to explain his words.

He says: “I am not a pop songwriter, I am an inventor, like the people who invent folding stadium chairs or luminous screen windows.

“I think in terms of ideas. With American Pie, I wanted to write the great American song about the new America. Not America the Beautiful, or any of that. I wanted to write about the crazy, rock ‘n’ roll America. I thought it was a really great song, but from that point on you can’t know what’s going to happen.”

He’s understandably proud of the record but is clearly irritated by a half-century of debate.









He says: “People want to make things out of the lyrics that are not there.”

It’s been assumed when the song mentions the King, McLean is singing about Elvis Presley and the Jester is thought to refer to Bob Dylan.

But for the first time ever he shoots down that theory. He says: “If I wanted to call the King Elvis, I would have called Elvis the King, I called James Dean James Dean. If I wanted to call Bob Dylan the Jester I would have said Bob Dylan was the Jester.

With a hint of exasperation, he says: “I said ‘the King has a thorny crown’. Only Christ has a thorny crown.

“People always try to simplify stuff that isn’t simple.”



He called himself an ‘inventor’
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Image:

Michael Ochs Archives)




So is it important to him that there remains an air of mystery about the song, which Madonna covered in 2000? “I think I’ve just answered that question,” the veteran singer says, firmly closing the subject.

But one thing is indisputable about the song that took him three months to complete when he was 24.

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In the past, when asked what American Pie meant, he has jokingly replied: “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.”

A shrewd businessman with a degree in finance, he has trademarked the phrases “American Pie”, “The Day The Music Died,” “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie” and also “Starry, Starry Night,” from his follow-up hit Vincent.

Six years ago he sold his original working manuscript for American Pie for £809,000. Even now he refuses to rest on his laurels. Lockdown was spent writing a new album, a ­children’s book and working on ­business deals.

“Like looking for a nice whiskey deal for the American Pie trademark,” he explains. “I’ve got a very good company that makes exceptionally good whiskey.”

McLean is also touring and has 17 dates in the UK, including in London, Manchester, Cardiff and Birmingham, from September next year.

Born and raised in New York, home these days with Paris is Palm Desert in California.

His first marriage to Carol Sauvion, lasted seven years, ending in 1976 and he married Patrisha in 1987. In 2016 he was arrested on domestic violence charges. One of their children, Jackie, has since said that she was terrified of her father growing up, claiming he was emotionally and mentally abusive.

Within months of their split, the couple reached a multi-million dollar divorce settlement.

Patrisha, who became an ­advocate speaking out against domestic violence, cited “adultery, cruel and abusive ­treatment, and irreconcilable differences” in legal documents.

But McLean is dismissive about his ex.



The singer and his family
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Image:

WireImage for Songwriter’s Hall of Fame)




He says: “I have an ex-wife Patrisha Shnier, who calls herself Patrisha McLean, who attacks every single thing that I do. That’s how they are sometimes, I don’t care, she’s just a pest. All I care about is the quality and the beauty of my music.

“When you get famous you’re going to have all sorts of idiots throwing stones at you. I say to them – what have you accomplished?”

McLean has always spoken his mind and as a younger man rebelled against his middle-class upbringing to sing with communist folk singer Pete Seeger. He developed an anti-war stance he still holds.

“I hate America starting wars in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea and Vietnam,” he says.

“What we have done to these beautiful people is disgusting. That’s why we have a bad reputation as Americans. We should be helping people.”

He goes on: “Don’t you think America is pretty sad?

“It’s enormously great and it’s very sad, because there’s no tradition. England has tradition, America doesn’t. Tradition is very important.”

He is also fiercely critical of his government’s handling of the pandemic and musician Eric Clapton, whose song This Has Gotta Stop appears to rail against lockdown restrictions. “What is with this guy? Writing a song about not getting vaccinated. I think that is absolutely outrageous and very stupid and selfish.



He also questioned Eric Clapton’s song about not getting vaccinated




“Does he think he’s that good a guitar player? I can name 20 guitar players who are better.

“A lot of people who get to the level of Eric Clapton, well he’s not that high, they think that they’re gods of some sort.

“They’re just lucky b*****ds, that’s all they are. And I’m a lucky b*****d. Damn lucky and I know it.”

American Pie has overshadowed his other recordings, but it was Vincent, his tribute to painter Vincent van Gogh, and a cover of Roy Orbison’s Crying that reached number one in the UK in the 70s.

His tender love song And I Love You So was a chart hit for Perry Como, was covered by Elvis Presley and was played at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle ’s wedding reception.

He is looking forward to touring here and has a new album, American Boys.

“But I make sure when I’m on stage people hear Vincent, American Pie, Castles in the Air and Wonderful Baby, so they get what they paid for.”

I risk a final question about American Pie. Did he ever consider giving the song a happier ending?

“Never,” he says firmly. “America will not have a happy ending. I’m not depressed about my country, I just know what I know.”

  • Tickets for Don McLean’s 50 Years of American Pie Tour go on sale on Friday at donmclean.com

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