Song of the Day: Vincent by Don McLean

 

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Vincent” is a song by Don McLean written as a tribute to Vincent van Gogh. It is also known by its opening line, “Starry Starry Night“, a reference to Van Gogh’s painting The Starry Night. The song also describes different paintings done by the artist. It was created on the 100th anniversary of the midpoint of Van Gogh’s life.

Lyrics:

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
And 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 in sight
On that starry, starry night

You took your life, as lovers often do
But I could’ve told you Vincent
This world was never meant for
One as beautiful as you

Starry, starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frame-less 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
The silver thorn of 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

……

McLean wrote the lyrics in 1971 after reading a book about the life of the artist. The following year, the song became the number one hit in the UK Singles Chart and No. 12 in the US.

“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.” Don McLean interview: Why I had to write ‘Vincent’ – Telegraph

The Telegraph wrote “With its bittersweet palette of major and minor chords, Vincent’s soothing melody is one of high emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Allmusic retrospectively described the song as ” McLean’s paean to Van Gogh… sympathiz[ing] with Van Gogh’s suicide as a sane comment on an insane world. ” The site also said McLean performs “a particularly poignant rendition of “Vincent” ” on the live album Starry Starry Night.

Song interpretation (wikipedia)

The song clearly demonstrates a deep-seated admiration for not only the work of Van Gogh, but also for the man himself. The song includes references to his landscape works, in lines such as “sketch the trees and the daffodils” and “morning fields of amber grain” which describe the amber wheat that features in several paintings. There are also several lines that may allude to Van Gogh’s self-portraits: perhaps in “weathered faces lined in pain / are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand”, McLean is suggesting that Van Gogh may have found some sort of consolation in creating portraits of himself. However, this line may also refer to Van Gogh’s painting “The Potato Eaters”, which depicts a hard-working Dutch farming family sitting in semi-darkness and eating their meager meal. There is, too, a single line describing Van Gogh’s most famous set of works, Sunflowers. “flaming flowers that brightly blaze” not only draws on the luminous orange and yellow colours of the painting, but also creates powerful images of the sun itself, flaming and blazing, being contained within the flowers and the painting.

In the first two choruses, McLean pays tribute to Van Gogh by reflecting on his lack of recognition: “They would not listen / they did not know how / perhaps they’ll listen now.” In the final chorus, McLean says “They would not listen / they’re not listening still / perhaps they never will.” This is the story of Van Gogh: unrecognised as an artist until after his death. The lyrics suggest that Van Gogh was trying to “set [people] free” with the message in his work. McLean feels that this message was made clear to him: “And now I understand what you tried to say to me,” he sings. Perhaps it is this eventual understanding that inspired McLean to write the song.

There are also references to Van Gogh’s sanity and his suicide. Throughout his life, Van Gogh was plagued with mental disorders, particularly depression. He “suffered for [his] sanity” and eventually “took [his] life as lovers often do.”

Van Gogh was a hypergraph and the lyrics “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” and “They would not listen, they’re not listening still, perhaps they never will” are very likely an acknowledgement of Van Gogh’s writing.

Covers

  • Spanish singer Karina (Maribel Llaudes) covered this song in English. It is included in her album Tiempo Al Tiempo (Time Needs Time) released in 1972.
  • Little Tony released in 1973 “Come un anno fa”, an adaptation in Italian by singer-songwriter Francesco De Gregori.
  • Dutch singer Martine Bijl released the single “Vincent” in 1980, from her self-titled 1980 album Martine, with Dutch lyrics.
  • Italian singer-songwriter Roberto Vecchioni included a cover of “Vincent” in Italian in his album Canzoni e Cicogne, a live collection released in 2000; the song was also included in the live album Il Contastorie released in 2005.
  • Guitarist Chuck Loeb on his 2001 album In A Heartbeat featuring his wife Carmen Cuesta-Loeb.
  • Josh Groban on his debut album, Josh Groban.
  • Chloë Agnew, the youngest member of the Celtic Woman musical group, released a version of this song on her CD Walking In The Air.
  • Justin Hayward in his solo album Classic Blue with Mike Batt.
  • Declan Galbraith in his 2006 album Thank You.
  • Ruthie Henshall recorded the song for her 2013 covers album I’ve Loved These Days.
  • Jane Olivor covered the song on her 1977 album First Night.
  • The band Spot 1019 released an homage to this song on their 2002 album In Her Satanic Majesty’s Secret Service Entrance.
  • Chet Atkins covered this song in a fingerstyle guitar arrangement. McLean and Atkins performed the song once together.
  • Julio Iglesias covered this song on his album Starry Night and it was later included on the compilation album My Life: The Greatest Hits (1998).
  • Vonda Shepard for the TV show Ally McBeal and its companion album, Heart and Soul.
  • Damien Leith performed a cover of this song on his 2008 album Catch the Wind: Songs of a Generation.
  • Nana Mouskouri covered this song on her 2005 album I’ll Remember You.
  • Ronan Keating performed a cover of this song on his 2009 album Songs For My Mother.
  • Rick Astley covered this song on his 2005 album Portrait.
  • Jackie Evancho covered the song on her debut album Prelude to a Dream in 2009.
  • Lena Park covered the song on her remake album Cover Me Vol. 1 in 2010.
  • Patti Austin covered this song on her 2011 album Sound Advice.
  • Idols South Africa winner Dave van Vuuren recorded the song on his 2011 album Free the Animals.
  • NOFX covered this song on the 1996 compilation album Survival of the Fattest.
  • Former ELO bassist Kelly Groucutt covered the song on many occasions as he toured the UK.
  • Joanna Wang covered the song on her second album Joanna & 王若琳 in 2009.
  • Fightstar covered the song for their live DVD Be Human in 2010. A studio version was also recorded for the digital bundle of their single “A City On Fire”.
  • Original and former Celtic Woman member Méav Ní Mhaolchatha covered this song for the Divinas concert.
  • Chinese singer Li Wenqi and Ikram covered this song in episode 9 of The Voice of China (season 3).
  • The song was performed at football superstar George Best’s funeral in 2005 Replacing the word Vincent with Georgie, Brian Kennedy had a top 10 hit with music from the funeral (Bring him home, you raise me up & vincent) in the UK along with Peter Corry.
  • Marina Prior recorded the song for her 2012 album Both Sides Now

Use in popular culture

  • The song was used during the meteor shower on the “‘Scuse Me While I Miss the Sky” episode of The Simpsons. English musician Jake Bugg credits this use of the song as his formative musical experience.[20]
  • The line “This world was never meant for someone as beautiful as you” was said by Grandpa in the “So It’s Come to This: A Simpsons Clip Show” of The Simpsons.
  • The song appeared in “Survival of the Fittest” episode of Supernatural
  • “Vincent” is featured on The Runaways.
  • “Vincent” appeared in the first episode of “Angel Eyes” – Korean TV series (Korean drama)

Don McLean

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Birth name Donald McLean III
Born October 2, 1945 (age 70)
New Rochelle, New York
Genres Folk, rock, folk rock
Occupation(s) Singer-songwriter, musician
Instruments Vocals, guitar
banjo, piano
Years active 1969–present
Labels United Artists
EMI America
Website http://www.don-mclean.com
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This entry was posted in Music and Musicians / Song of the Day and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Song of the Day: Vincent by Don McLean

  1. Christa chn says:

    I always loved that really soothed brainy song, but never have I known that it was a composed so as to pay tribute to the great Van Gogh, thank you for this great information, to compose a music through another artist work.

    Like

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