Don McLean is one of those musicians haunted by a moment of greatness that defined not only a career, but a country. American Pie was a genuine cultural behemoth on release in 1971, and its legend and legacy has grown in the years since release. What started as a song written as a tribute to the victims of a plane crash in 1959 which saw the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper (as well as pilot Roger Peterson) has since turned into a song of protest, and of pride.
A striking example of the songs importance to America was seen in May 2011, when the city of Grand Rapids, in protest at being described as a ‘dying city’, created this nine minute lip sync to the song which showcased the magnificence of their city. It’s a really superb piece of work.
However, there are a couple of very good reasons that this article isn’t about American Pie. The main reason is that it’s good to not just go for the obvious, and to let people who only know of American Pie that Don McLean was a pretty great singer-songwriter apart from that song. The second reason is the fact that Madonna’s cover of American Pie was one of the most dogshit things I have ever heard in my life, and has pretty much killed the song stone dead for me.
I was going to post the video, but nobody needs to hear that atrocity ever again. Instead, let’s focus our attention on the song I consider to be McLean’s best, and one of my favourite ever songs, that being Vincent. The song was written and released in 1971, reaching the top of the UK charts, and is written about the artist Vincent Van Gogh, specifically about the artist as a man, rather than as a creator of sorts.
It’s funny I wrote about my hatred of Madonna’s disgustingly bad cover of American Pie, because sometimes cover versions can be a good thing. Ryan Adams made Wonderwall his own, and gave people who weren’t massively into Oasis a new found appreciation of the song, while the Siouxsie and the Banshees version of Dear Prudence turned a good Beatles album track into a wonderfully dark hit.
The same can be said of the many covers of Vincent strengthening the original, including a cover, within a cover, as McLean re-sung his own tune with a little help from one of the finest guitarists of all time, Chet Atkins. A little bit better than Madonna and her HGH arms right?
Now, you could write down my knowledge of art in three words on a predominately sports themed blog, with those three words being ‘not very much’, but anybody with at least a modicum of knowledge knows a couple of things about Van Gogh. Those things might be limited to ‘he cut off his ear because he was depressed, he sold fuck all, and he painted something about sunflowers’, but that’s still more than most people know about the majority of other artists. I know Da Vinci apparently invented the helicopter, and Monet seemed to be fond of rivers, but that’s about it.
The first thing I found in my research of Van Gogh was his striking resemblance as a younger man to a youthful Don McLean.
I’m not trying to say that there is anything spooky going on in regards to this. Actually, I’m definitely not saying anything of the sort, because the older Van Gogh had an eerily similar look to tennis superstar Boris Becker, and I’m sure the German tennis star had no real feelings towards Van Gogh.
So let’s talk about the song itself. An acoustic ballad, Vincent is an ode to an artist who suffered immeasurable struggle and turmoil in his personal and private life. It’s an odd one reading up on his life, and his art. As clearly mentioned, I’m fairly ignorant in my understanding and appreciation of art, but one of his most famous works is The Starry Night, painted from the window of the outside of his sanatorium room window at the view outside, and referenced in the first line of Vincent.
Now, the art I really like and enjoy tends to be more accurate paintings. I like real life images drawn and sculpted with precision, the depiction of reality drawn with reality is something that appeals to me, so initially a painting like this wouldn’t be of my taste, but the more I read about the history of the painting, and of the man who wrote it, the emotions and the desperation really come out.
It’s clear from the song that McLean was in awe of Van Gogh. The subtle desperation in his voice really brings out the message and meaning of the song. One of the problems I have with a lot of singers these days is the needless vocal acrobatics that ruin a lot of songs for me. The apparent need to add vocal tricks and jumps to me is the sign of an insecure singer who probably couldn’t carry a tune as simple and delicate as this. When I listen back to singers of this era, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, even someone like Ray Davies, the clarity and truth of their voices pisses all over a lot of singers today who might have better ‘voices’, but in the same way that today’s footballers might be technically ‘better’, but lack the appeal of yesterday’s heroes.
As I’ve written – or rather not written about previously, I’ve never been a fan of dissecting lyrics, unless of course they’re misunderstood ones like MMMBop by Hanson which I covered in a previous ASADYMHF. I could never be a ‘critic’ as I think the best art is better left with a degree of ambiguity. I remember on one of my vary rare gallery visits, there was a display at the Tate Modern by Miroslaw Balka, entitled How It Is, which in basic terms (the only terms I truly understand) was just a massive black box that people walked into, covered by darkness. Have a look below at it, filmed by somebody at the very end of the box, filming people walking in.
Some people might think that the entire thing is a meaningless exercise in duping people that there is meaning in anything. Other people might think that the box was a “beautiful experience in feeling and seeing shapes of human bodies walking to the unknown.” My much laboured point here is that it doesn’t matter what it really means, as long as it makes you feel something. The same can be said for McLean’s lyrics here, they’re hardly dealing with esoteric themes, the simplicity is in the description, firstly of Van Gogh’s lack of appreciation in his lifetime, his mental woes, and then his sad end. Just reading them on paper isn’t enough though, and there is a reason why lyrics are lyrics and not poems. When you hear him singing those words, and how he ‘took his life as lovers often do’, you feel every moment of it, and you can feel it without feeling like you’re back in English GCSE at school trying to decipher Shakespeare’s motives.
In one of life’s massive coincidences, my dog is also called Vincent, although his name origins are unknown as he was a rescue job, and as bad luck would have it, if you’re the sort of person who is as much of a cunt to throw a dog away, with just a nametag on, you’re unlikely to pin on him a letter as to why you chose his name. Could he be named after Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction? WWE owner Vincent Kennedy McMahon? Or what if his previous owner was a massive fan of the Daniel Day-Lewis classic My Cousin Vinny?
I like to think he’s a bit more cultured than all of those though, and he certainly has some similarities to Vincent Van Gogh. For example, both are male. Both are sensitive – Van Gogh as mentioned before infamously cut off his ear during a particularly gruesome moment of madness, while my dog rarely barks. As you can see, the spooky likeliness are almost uncanny, but as a man of Science (a C in GCSE, an un-read copy of ‘The Origin of the Species’ on my shelf) I decided the only way to truly decipher the truth would be to conduct an experiment. And, like a true artist, I’ll end this article here, allowing you to watch my Vincent’s experience when put in touch with the other Vincent, via the wonder of the internet, and Don McLean’s excellent song. Feel free to share your thoughts on if my dog is the second coming of Van Gogh, or whether this has been the weirdest blog you’ve ever read. Remember, the beauty is in the ambiguity.