Monday, March 10, 2014

Don McLean's Vincent

I’ve been getting back into the music of Don McLean, who was such a key player in my high school years from 1970.

I am unable at this stage to go into the sort of depth I have with previous artists, but have discovered that the many gaps in my album/CD collection can, with a bit of dedication, be filled thanks to that miracle called the internet, and more specifically YouTube.

Everyone knows that Don was best known for his 1970 album American Pie, with the title track especially being ranked as among the greatest rock songs ever written.

There is a wealth of other good writing on his albums, especially the early ones like his first, Tapestry (a vinyl copy of which I picked up for a few rands at a second hand shop, albeit that it was released in Spain in 1972, with the liner notes in Spanish).

Listening to these early albums and watching the young Don (he was born in 1945) perform around 1970, when he was about 25, reveal just what a wonderful talent he was.

Wikipedia tells us his mother’s side of the family were Italian, and he grew up in Port Chester, New York. Oh and that he suffered from asthma as a youngster and missed a lot of school – time which he increasingly devoted to listening to music and learning to play the guitar and banjo.

He paid his dues in the mid-1960s, playing at folk clubs and even the Newport Folk Festival. Bizarrely, he was turned down by 72 record labels for Tapestry before it was released to good reviews but little commercial success by an obscure label, Mediarts, in 1969. Fortunately for him, Mediarts was bought out by United Artists Records, who then released American Pie, which gave him two No 1 hits songs – the title track, and Vincent.

It is about the latter I’d like to speak.

I recall watching a BBC documentary some 24 years ago in which Don McLean was interviewed about this very song. It focused on how certain artists acquired the mystique they did and which saw the value of their works skyrocket. It was suggested that Don McLean’s song, Vincent, had a major positive impact on the public’s view of Van Gogh’s work. Of course his work was already famous before then, but it became even more famous thereafter.

Sadly, I have been unable to track down that documentary.

However, I did find an informative interview with him by Helen Brown of the London Daily Telegraph, one of the world’s great newspapers. It casts an interesting light on this brilliant piece of song-writing.

This is the article:

The stop-start of McLean’s humble delivery pays homage to the stop-start brush strokes of its subject and captures the painting’s sense of spontaneity, building toward the moment of high, romantic drama – the strum – when the artist takes his own life.

It begins almost abruptly – as if McLean is responding to an unheard voice. There’s no instrumental introduction: the vocal and guitar begin simultaneously: “Starry starry night/ paint your palette blue and grey/ look out on a summer’s day/ with eyes that know the darkness in my soul.” When McLean sings of the dead painter seeing into the darkness of his own soul, he’s asserting a kinship of creativity, a shared sensitivity to life’s beauty and pain.

Van Gogh painted the swirling, hyper real Starry Night, after committing himself to an asylum in St Remy in 1889. He wrote to [his brother] Theo that he often felt the night to be “more richly coloured than the day”. He believed the souls of the dead dwelt in the heavens. “Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star.” But while in the asylum, he couldn’t get outside at night and so painted his Starry Night from memory.

Like so much of Van Gogh’s work, Starry Night maintains an electric tension between ecstasy and melancholy. “It makes you glad to be unhappy,” says McLean, who tried to convey the same mood with his song. “No matter how happy or hopeful I am, I always tend to drift back to that. It’s underneath all the music I’ve ever written… An artist is trying to tell you how he’s feeling. And if that accidentally becomes entertaining, it becomes a career.”

McLean reveals that when he wrote his tribute to Van Gogh: “I was in a bad marriage that was torturing me. I was tortured. I wasn’t as badly off as Vincent was, but I… I wasn’t thrilled, let’s put it that way.” He has described much of his early life as “unbearably blue”, following the death of his father when he was just 15.

Donald McLean Snr had lambasted his son over a bad school report earlier on the night he died and, after his collapse, young Don was sent to stay with friends, crunching through the “snowy linen land”. It was an icy clear and very starry night. And yet, McLean tells me that had his father lived he would not have become a musician – he could not have disappointed him. “Herman Melville was supposed to be an accountant. Van Gogh was meant to be an art dealer. I was meant to take the train into New York and work for a bank. To be an artist you have to say goodbye to your family.”
McLean took the career path less travelled, and on the American Pie album expressed all his disenchantment with a world in which rock ’n’ roll and JFK were dead, and hundreds were still dying in Vietnam. It’s a deeply cross-referential collection of songs. McLean tells me when listeners play the album’s love ballad Empty Chairs he means them to see Van Gogh’s painting of a chair. And in Vincent’s starry night, we catch an echo of the Stars and Stripes that had so thrilled and disappointed the singer.

Vincent spirals around the fact that Van Gogh’s work was not appreciated in his life time. That although he tried to set his audience free, “they did not listen, they did not know how”. Those who love Vincent have surely felt undervalued by the world. Perhaps even too fragile for it.

For that reason, McLean in turn became a muse. “He wrote as if he knew me/ in all my dark despair” wrote Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel in their 1971 song Killing Me Softly – which dramatised folk singer Lori Lieberman’s flushed response to a Don McLean concert. “He was strumming my pain with his fingers/ Singing my life with his words” they wrote. Roberta Flack made it a hit in 1973 as did the Fugees in 1996. It has since been recorded in 20 different languages. “I thought that was beautiful,” McLean says. “I was humbled by it. I’m glad that my music has helped other people as it’s helped me. It makes me glad that I did what I did with my life.”

What a humble hero – and a fine example of good journalism by Helen Brown.

Monday, February 4, 2013

This blog now on Kindle, iPad, etc

The new cover, designed by Douglas Bentley, who curiously turned the Beatles image on its side. 

The title page

I’ve finally done it.

This blog was originally intended to be a book – but it was always going to be too long and unwieldy for any publisher to be interested. So it became a blog instead.

But now I have started turning it into a book – albeit an e-book. And Part 1 is now available from

I have substantially revised and updated my original blog postings. There is a lot to read here - an estimated 692 pages. I invite you to read the preview. Just go here.

Thanks must again go to my son, Douglas, an IT student at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth. You may think publishing a book on Kindle is simple, but I watched him do this one and it really does require a substantial understanding of things like HTML and coding generally, which I know nothing about. Lashings of patience are also required.

In a bid to avoid copyright complications, I have restricted my use of images to the album covers, in the belief that these fall under the “fair use” category in so far as the small images are used simply to illustrate the text. For my main pictures I have done my own original drawings of the artists.

Anyway, here’s hoping there are people around the world interested in this book, which coincidently ties in with the documentary feature, Searching for Sugar Man, mentioned in my previous posting, in so far as the liberal white South African’s relationship with rock music was, in a way, far more intense than it perhaps was for young people growing up in the West.

We were a bit like young people behind the Iron Curtain. With a racist, puritanical party ruling and ruining the country, while keeping the lid firmly down on as many “subversive” Western influences as possible, it meant our association with rock music was very much part of our rebellion against the state and the apartheid establishment in general.

The Rodriguez phenomenon

WHEN the Oscar winners are announced at the 85th Academy Awards in Los Angeles on February 24, South Africans will have a very good reason to be interested in the Best Documentary Feature category.

Because a film which is among the five nominees  –  Searching for Sugar Man – is, from a South African perspective, one of the most powerful and poignant yet produced.

I was in my early teens in 1970 when an album called Cold Fact burst onto the music scene in South Africa. It was by someone called Rodriguez, who was shown sitting cross-legged, wearing shades, in a small bubble on the cover. We knew no more about him than that he sounded a bit like Bob Dylan, only more accessible, and that he wrote some powerful, crazy lyrics. Oh and he had a song with the line, “I wonder how many times you’ve had sex / And I wonder do you know who’ll be next ...”

This, remember, was apartheid South Africa. We were governed by a puritanical National Party which ran a racist dictatorship.

A key part of this film, which is a joint Swedish/British production, is the context of Rodriguez’s popularity in a country where a growing number of young white liberals were openly challenging the immorality of apartheid.

The anti-apartheid struggle by the victims of that system – black people – has been well documented. Less well known is how a large percentage of young whites in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, also supported the struggle. Something of that challenge to the state is revealed in clips from the 1970s of riot police breaking up anti-apartheid protests on the campus of the University of Cape Town.

While for me Sixto Rodriguez’s album was just one of a plethora of discs by brilliant anti-establishment artists from the era – think Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Jimi Hendrix and dozens more –  for many his lyrics in particular spurred on their antipathy for and activism against apartheid.

One such person was Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, who later would work in CD production in the 1990s and re-release those pivotal couple of Rodriguez albums. The only problem was, no-one could tell him who Rodriguez was, where he lived and whether he was still alive. So in his liner notes he asked rhetorically if anyone knew anything about Rodriguez.

It fell to Craig Bartholomew Strydom, a Joburg music writer, to take up the challenge of helping  him find this elusive genius.

So here we have two  South Africans desperate to discover the truth about a man who had simply disappeared after bursting on the scene with Cold Fact. Rumours abounded that he had committed suicide. Some even said he shot himself on stage. This was at a time when young rock star deaths were not unfamiliar. Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all died at the age of 27 around  1970.

What makes this story so incredible is  Rodriguez’s  humility. His albums had failed abysmally in the key US and UK markets, selling virtually no copies at all. He firmly believed he had failed, and went back to a life of hard labour, demolishing and restoring old buildings in Detroit.

Little did he know that for a time in the early 1970s his record, Cold Fact, had outsold virtually everything else in this country.

Once the SA men finally discover he is indeed still alive and well and living in Detroit, they set in motion a plan to bring him out to this country for a series of concerts.

So finally, in 1996, more than two decades after the youth, gatvol with the apartheid government, had elevated him to  icon status, this mixed-race man – his heritage includes Native American and Mexican – came out to this country and discovered that he was, in fact, a rock star; a living legend.

The film showcases all that is best about South Africans. The perseverance of the men who tracked him down is commendable, as is the hospitality shown to Rodriguez and his family. And his SA fans did not let him down either, turning out in their thousands at his concerts, where he was backed by SA musicians.

The fact that this film was made by outsiders, and not South Africans, gives it added impact. It is easy to blow one’s own trumpet, but when someone objectively does it for you, it is all the more satisfying.

In 1996, Rodriguez was unheard of in most of the Western world. Do a Youtube search today and you’ll discover he has, in recent years, been performing far and wide. Not bad for someone now pushing 70!

But had it not been for the curiosity of those two SA men, it is a moot point whether he would ever have enjoyed this moment in the spotlight he so richly deserves.

Roll on the Oscars. While I can’t comment on the other four films competing for glory in this category, I believe if Searching for Sugar Man wins it will be a huge boost for this country – there are lovely shots of Cape Town – not to mention what it will do for Rodriguez himself.

Finally his records might start selling in big numbers in the US and elsewhere around the world. They’ll only be about 40 years behind South Africa!

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