From the glorious, life-affirming swagger of ‘Metal Guru’… to one of the saddest #1 singles ever recorded.
Vincent, by Don McLean (his 1st of two #1s)
2 weeks, from 11th – 25th June 1972
The ‘Vincent’ in question is the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, who lived and painted in the late 19th century, to little recognition and with failing mental health until severe poverty and depression led to him shooting himself. Not the cheeriest of topics to start with, even before we get to the song itself, and certainly not the usual territory of pop singles.
It’s also one of the most articulate and descriptive chart-topping singles yet. Don McLean takes Van Gogh’s most famous works and turns them into lyrics: 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…
It’s just a voice, an acoustic guitar, and some light, light backing touches. The gist of the song is that the singer sympathises with Vincent, that he recognises something of himself in the artist’s struggle (this was written before McLean hit the big time with ‘American Pie’), and that perhaps Vincent was the sane one after all. If people know one thing about Vincent Van Gogh, it’s that he cut off his ear and sent it to his brother. But that’s not all that he was. Now I understand, What you tried to say to me, And how you suffered for your sanity… It works also in the voice of Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, who was entwined in Vincent’s life, and who suffered equally under his brother’s illness. It’s strong stuff.
I love the idea that Van Gogh was too pure, too good for this ordinary world. It comes to a height midway through, as McLean describes the day Van Gogh committed suicide: 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… Some artistic license there, as he shot himself in a wheat field during the day, but it’s a powerful image – that he could have died on a night like the one in his most famous painting. But I could have told you Vincent, That this world was never built for one as beautiful as you… There’s also an urban legend that ‘Vincent’ was played to rapper Tupac on his death-bed, after he had suffered the same fate as Van Gogh. It was, apparently, his favourite song.
It ends on a gut-punch. Each previous verse has ended on the hope that: They did not listen, They did not know how… Perhaps they’ll listen now…. On the final note, however, this changes to: They were not listening, They’re not listening still, Perhaps they never will… The idiots will always outnumber us. We’re all doomed…
Acoustic singer-songwriter type music is far from being my favourite genre. It’s all too easy to sound clever and profound as long as you sing softly enough and don’t plug your guitar in. Especially in the past few years, every male solo artist to hit the charts seems to have a beard, a beanie hat and observations to make. (I blame Ed Sheeran, personally, but then I’d happily blame all the world’s problems on Sheeran.) However, when a song is written and performed as beautifully as this, with a genuine message and genuine emotion, it’s very powerful. Don McLean had made his name just a few months before with ‘American Pie’, another song built around the death of a cultural icon. You have to wonder if ‘Vincent’ would have been such a big hit had ‘American Pie’ not come along first (it had reached #2 in the UK), especially as this sounds so out of place in a chart dominated by glam and bubblegum, though you’d hope it would have.
Last winter, in those final, blissful pre-coronavirus days, I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. If you have the chance to go one day, do! It displays his pictures in chronological order, and gives the background to his circumstances and mental state at the time of painting. When you get to the end, and see his very last works, it’s genuinely affecting. Maybe this song wouldn’t be hitting me so hard, had I not been there? Who knows. Under the museum is buried a time-capsule containing Vincent’s paintbrushes, and the sheet music to this song. Tens of thousands walk above it every year, to see the work of a once-ignored painter. People did listen, eventually.