Don McLean – Vincent

Just a beautiful song and it’s close to perfect. The song was obviously inspired by Vincent Van Gogh. Underneath the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, there is a time capsule that contains the sheet music to this song along with some of Van Gogh’s brushes. This song is often played at the museum.

The song peaked at #12 in the Billboard 100, #1 in the UK, and #3 in Canada. It was on the album American Pie.

Don McLean: “In the autumn of 1970 I had a job singing in the school system, playing my guitar in classrooms. I was sitting on the veranda one morning, reading a biography of Van Gogh, and suddenly I knew I had to write a song arguing that he wasn’t crazy. He had an illness and so did his brother Theo. This makes it different, in my mind, to the garden variety of ‘crazy’ – because he was rejected by a woman as was commonly thought. So I sat down with a print of Starry Night and wrote the lyrics out on a paper bag.”

McLean was going through a dark period when he wrote this song “I was in a bad marriage that was torturing me. I was tortured. I wasn’t as badly off as Vincent was, but I wasn’t thrilled, let’s put it that way.”

 

From Songfacts

The words and imagery of this song represent the life, work, and death of Vincent Van Gogh. A Starry Night is one of the Dutch impressionist’s most famous paintings.

The lyrics, “Paint your palette blue and gray” reflect the prominent colors of the painting, and are probably a reference to Vincent’s habit of sucking on or biting his paintbrushes while he worked. The “ragged men in ragged clothes” and “how you tried to set them free” refer to Van Gogh’s humanitarian activities and love of the socially outcast as also reflected in his paintings and drawings. “They would not listen/They did not know how” refers to Van Gogh’s family and some associates who were critical of his kindness to “the wretched.”

“How you suffered for your sanity” refers to the schizophrenic disorder from which Van Gogh suffered. 

This song and Van Gogh’s painting reflect what it’s like to be misunderstood. Van Gogh painted “Starry Night” after committing himself to an asylum in 1889. He wrote that night was “more richly colored than the day,” but he couldn’t go outside to see the stars when he was committed, so he painted the night sky from memory.

Talking about the song on the UK show Songbook, McLean said: “It was inspired by a book. And it said that it was written by Vincent’s brother, Theo. And Theo also had this illness, the same one Van Gogh had. So what caused the idea to percolate in my head was, first of all, what a beautiful idea for a piece of music. Secondly, I could set the record straight, basically, he wasn’t crazy. But then I thought, well, how do you do this? Again, I wanted to have each thing be different.

I’m looking through the book and fiddling around and I saw the painting. I said, Wow, just tell the story using the color, the imagery, the movement, everything that’s in the painting. Because that’s him more than he is him.

One thing I want to say is that music is like poetry in so many ways. You have wit and drama and humor and pathos and anger and all of these things create the subtle tools that an artist, a stage artist, a good one, uses. Sadly, this has really gone out of music completely. So it makes someone like me a relic because I am doing things and people like me are doing things that utilize all the classic means of emotional expression.”

There could be some religious meaning in this song. McLean is a practicing Catholic and has written songs like “Jerusalem” and “Sister Fatima” that deal with his faith. The “Starry Night” could mean creation, with many of the other lyrics referring to Jesus. McLean has said that several of the songs on the American Pie album has a religious aspect to them, notably the closing track “Babylon.”

Josh Groban recorded the song for his self-titled debut album, which was released in 2001 when he was just 20 years old.

The British electronic artist Vincent Frank aka Frankmusik (check out “Better Off as Two”) was named after this song.

Irish singer Brian Kennedy sang this song at footballer George Best’s funeral.

According to the movie Tupac, the Resurrection, Gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur was influenced by Don McLean, and this was his favorite song. When he was fatally wounded in a drive-by shooting in 1996, his girlfriend put this tune into a player next to his hospital bed to ensure it was the last thing he heard.

This soundtracked the moment on the “‘Scuse Me While I Miss the Sky” episode of The Simpsons when Lisa becomes interested in astronomy.

Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)

Starry, starry night 
Paint your palette blue and gray 
Look out on a summer’s day 
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul 
Shadows on the hills 
Sketch the trees and the daffodils 
Catch the breeze and the winter chills 
In colors on the snowy linen land 

Now I understand what you tried to say to me 
And how you suffered for your sanity 
How you tried to set them free 
They would not listen, they did not know how 
Perhaps they’ll listen now 

Starry, starry night 
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze 
Swirling clouds in violet haze 
Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue 
Colors changing hue 
Morning fields of amber grain 
Weathered faces lined in pain 
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand 

Now I understand what you tried to say to me 
And how you suffered for your sanity 
And how you tried to set them free 
They would not listen, they did not know how 
Perhaps they’ll listen now 

For they could not love you 
But still your love was true 
And when no hope was left inside 
On that starry, starry night 
You took your life as lovers often do 
But I could have told you, Vincent 
This world was never meant 
For one as beautiful as you 

Starry, starry night 
Portraits hung in empty halls 
Frameless heads on nameless walls 
With eyes that watch the world and can’t forget 
Like the strangers that you’ve met 
The ragged men in ragged clothes 
A silver thorn, a bloody rose 
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow 

Now I think I know what you tried to say to me 
And how you suffered for your sanity 
And how you tried to set them free 
They would not listen, they’re not listening still 
Perhaps they never will

Author: badfinger20

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

20 thoughts on “Don McLean – Vincent”

  1. After I read the story of how Tupac was a fan of McLean’s and how Vincent was his favorite song- it made me look at him in a different light. Great song- a lot different from American Pie but just as outstanding.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. For years, I used to say this was my all-time favorite song. I don’t know that I have one single favorite today, but this one is still way up there. The lyrics are gentle and insightful, and full of imagery, with a unique, lovely melody.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good song for sure. Surprising we basically heard nothing from Don after this album. If you’re interested in Van Gogh, I definitely recommend movie ‘Loving Vincent’…about last years of his life but done in animation made from 1000s of paintings making his life look like his art. Visually stunning & a rather good story too.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’ve never forgotten the line, “this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”. There are individuals who fit that to a t and Vincent was one of them. Great write-up and choice of song for today.

    Like

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