Unlike those many singers who have been ripped off by unscrupulous managers, Don McLean has always been cannier than most.
His 1971 hit American Pie turned him into a multi-millionaire star and, while fans have puzzled for years over the song’s elusive meaning, Don himself would joke: ‘It means I’ll never have to work again.’
So when almost three decades later, the makers of the American Pie movies asked to borrow those famous words for their film’s title, they were in for a shock.
‘I had trademarked words such as American Pie many years ago,’ says Don, ‘and they basically blew me off by trying to give me a few thousand dollars. But I hired a lawyer and in the end they had to pay me a few million bucks just to use those two words! My lawyer told me if I went to court and lost, I’d have owed them around $40 million [£29 million], so it was a big damn gamble.’
His song — covered by Madonna and Chris de Burgh — celebrates its 50th anniversary next month and plans are under way for the 2022 release of a documentary about its famously enigmatic lyrics.
Don McLean is due to embark on a world tour next year. Add to that an ongoing relationship with a voluptuous 27-year-old Playboy model some 48 years his junior (more on her later) and it’s little wonder that the 75-year-old singer insists: ‘I’m really happy with things’
The Day The Music Died — a reference to the 1959 plane crash that killed singers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and ‘the Big Bopper’ J.P. Richardson — will finally give us the answers to why the singer drove his Chevy to the levee (and why the levee was dry), as well as his reasons for going ‘down to the sacred store’.
‘The store was actually a music shop in New Rochelle called The House of Music,’ Don says. In the 1960s, when he was embarking on his career in his hometown in New York state, ‘I was the local joke,’ he adds. ‘Everyone would say, ‘He thinks he’s going to be a singer, ha ha!’ — but now there’s a 40 ft mural of me on the side of a building in New Rochelle.’
Hits such as Vincent (Starry, Starry Night) and his No 1 cover of the Roy Orbison song, Crying, have helped him make a staggering $150 million (£108 million). Yet at 75, he shows no signs of slowing down. Last month he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As well as a recent covers album, Still Playin’ Favorites, there are plans for a stage musical.
He is due to embark on a world tour next year. Add to that an ongoing relationship with a voluptuous 27-year-old Playboy model some 48 years his junior (more on her later) and it’s little wonder that the 75-year-old singer insists: ‘I’m really happy with things.’
And yet an extraordinary argument has broken out between Don and members of his family that has cast a shadow over his celebrations. During an interview in June with Rolling Stone magazine, his 31-year-old daughter Jackie alleged emotional and mental abuse by her father —though no physical abuse.
She claimed that there was ‘a constant state of fear in the house about the slightest thing that would make my dad turn into a crazy person’. She also likened her upbringing to living in a cult-type situation — ‘it’s this feeling that there’s one person who is completely in charge and who’s almost supernatural’.
It follows a much-publicised incident five years ago when Don was arrested at the Maine home he shared with Patrisha Shnier, his second wife and mother of Jackie and their son, Wyatt. In her police statement, Patrisha claimed: ‘Don terrorised me for four hours until the 911 call that I think might have saved my life. He was scaring me with the intensity of his rage and the craziness in his eyes.’
A few months later, McLean pleaded guilty to domestic violence and, as part of a plea bargain, avoided jail. They divorced that year after 29 years of marriage.
From his home in Palm Desert, California, he talks freely. ‘It’s just so disappointing,’ he says, when asked about the interview given by his singer/songwriter daughter, Jackie, ‘because it was all for the most trashy reason — to try to promote her new record.
A few months later, McLean pleaded guilty to domestic violence and, as part of a plea bargain, avoided jail. They divorced that year after 29 years of marriage
‘But the thing is, even she, who is hostile towards me at the moment, always says there was absolutely no violence, so she’s made a monkey out of her own mother.’
Patrisha, who has founded a domestic violence organisation entitled Finding Our Voices, is, adds Don, ‘constantly going around implying that I’m a control freak, wild man and violent, and it is not true. This is important,’ he says, ‘because my reputation matters to me.’
The claims of his ex-wife and daughter mean that his many achievements now face being tarnished. Backbeat Books, which had been due to publish a children’s book inspired by his most famous song, cancelled its publication in light of Jackie’s interview. ‘But we have got a different way of publishing American Pie: A Fable now,’ he says, ‘so it’s all going to happen. But this is all the ongoing vendetta of my ex-wife who is trying to damage every single thing that I do.’
The situation has turned into an increasingly bitter public battle. In an astonishing twist, Don claims, ‘There’s something I’d like to share with you: I endured physical attacks from my ex-wife for 30 years. The first time it happened, she kicked the windshield out of a Mercedes-Benz and then I said to her, ‘I can’t live with you. I think you’re crazy’ and she composed a letter and signed it.’
The letter, dated 1994, confirmed she’d seen a doctor for her nervous condition and that Don had been ‘a perfect father in every way’. ‘She needed medical help with these nervous rages and yet they continued for 30 years,’ he says. ‘I sucked it up because I’m a man — I don’t go crying about stuff — but once the kids were grown up and had left, she started getting into these rages much more frequently.
‘I said, ‘I can’t do this for the rest of my life. My children are gone — it’s just me and her and I just don’t want to do it. I want to do something else with this last chapter of my life.’ It was a train wreck.
When I contact Patrisha about these claims, as part of a lengthy conversation she says: ‘This is coercion. This is what domestic abusers do. He did coerce me into signing a letter. Obviously when you’re with someone who’s abusive you do everything you can to keep the peace and that was just part of it.’
Of the specific accusation that she kicked out the windshield, Patrisha replies: ‘A characteristic of domestic abusers is that they are liars and they turn what they did to you on to the victim and they minimise and try to humiliate the victim.’ She reiterates several times that ‘he’s a convicted domestic abuser’ and adds that she has a ten-year restraining order against him.
Don says of his arrest five years ago: ‘There were no injuries according to the hospital where she went to try to get the doctors to write something and they wouldn’t.’ So why did he accept the charges? ‘Because I was 70 years old. I couldn’t stand it. I thought there was going to be bulls*** and stories and everything else so I thought, ‘Fine. In a year’s time all the bad charges will be thrown out.’ There’s no assault and no finding of abuse. It’s garbage, but I’m not about to call myself a victim. It is sad that that would happen because I really did everything in my power to be the best husband and best father I could ever be.’
He recently admitted that he grew up in a physically abusive household (‘I was hurt a lot by my sister, my mother, my father, I was hit a lot’) and that when he had his own children, he says, ‘I decided I would never do any of the things that my parents did to me, so I never raised a hand to anybody. It makes you feel so small and scared and terrible.’
His childhood was overshadowed by the death of his father when Don was just 15. ‘Everything changed when my dad died,’ he says. ‘There was no family any more. My sister had gone away and my mother was a basket case basically who was talking of moving back to her father’s. I didn’t want to do that, so I was on my own at 15, really.’
Though he achieved success by his mid-20s, his first marriage, to Carol Sauvion in 1969, ended after seven years, and a decade later he married Patrisha.
He admits that during those years, ‘I was nervous, I was uptight, I yelled sometimes, I was tense. But I did my best. I was trying to build an empire for everybody. Control was something that I had to have because nobody else was in control.’
He later adds: ‘I was a faithful husband and devoted father and obviously my efforts were for nothing.’ Was he faithful? ‘Completely,’ he insists, although shortly after their marriage ended, Don took up with Paris Dylan, who was hired to manage his social media.
‘I knew Paris but wasn’t seeing her,’ he says. ‘And after I got divorced, she was seeing someone else. When she broke up from him, then we got together.
‘She doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t do drugs and doesn’t party,’ says Don. ‘She’s completely the opposite of what you might think. Yes, she loves to wear bikinis, but I think she’s the greatest pin-up girl in America and I tell her that all the time. Of course, it drives my ex-wife and my daughter bananas but I don’t care because they don’t care about me.’
Might he and Paris marry in the future? ‘I think we will. I love her and she’s the one for me. I just want to make sure that everything is good with my health because I don’t want her to marry a dead man! But I feel good.’
But the fissures in his relationship with his daughter show no signs of mending. In her interview Jackie claimed that her father ‘has always used the promise of money to control me’, although, admittedly, the amounts being mentioned go beyond the scope of most fatherly financial contributions.
‘I stopped supporting my daughter last year,’ he says. ‘I have a son, you know, who grew up the same way, who thinks I’m a great father and who has none of these complaints. But I said to my daughter, ‘If you speak out about me and trash me, I’m going to disinherit you.’
‘And she did and she’s been automatically disinherited — that’s almost a $3 million trust fund that went down the tubes. I’ve always supported my daughter — $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 [up to £36,000] a year, doubling her husband’s salary. I wanted to make sure the grandkids had everything they wanted.’
Furthermore, he adds that his wife was well looked after during the marriage. When I interviewed Don a year ago he told me that he had put around $600,000 in a private account for his ex-wife, ‘so she could leave me any time she wanted to.
‘I told her I didn’t want to be the only person making money, so I started putting money in this account from the get-go, so she could have a lawyer, or do whatever she had to do. She even had a black American Express card — you can buy a house with that! — with unlimited credit. I wanted her to be there because she wanted to be with me.’
Patrisha’s response is that ‘financial abuse was a very big part of our relationship as it is with almost every case of domestic abuse. A huge part of what helped to keep me trapped.’
Patrisha received $10 million in the divorce settlement. He says: ‘The empire that I was going to give to my family will now go to my foundation. It’s all been worked out and I’m giving money to the Salvation Army.’
As for the situation with his daughter and ex-wife: ‘That’s behind me now,’ he says. ‘I’m just glad I’m not leaving my money to the people who are totally ungrateful and who don’t like me. The truth has consequences. If my daughter and ex-wife feel this way then, good. Goodbye. I’m done.’
n Go to donmclean.com