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.

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