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history and meaning of the song…

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history and meaning of the song…

October 24, 1971. It is the date on which a record destined to rewrite the history of American music (and beyond) comes out. It’s a matter of American Pie: 10 pieces signed by Don McLean which include – in addition to the famous title track – also Vincentsong by extraordinary beauty, as well as the hidden meaning.

It’s not clear why this song never comes up when talking about musical masterpieces. Yet quite a few illustrious people have indicated it as their favorite song. George Bestfor example, Manchester United’s first true number 7, who during his lifetime repeatedly highlighted Don McLean’s Vincent as one of his favorite songs, to the point that it was played at his funeral.

It was also the favorite song of Tupac Shakur, so much so that it was the last song heard by a living rapper. Transported to hospital in critical condition following the shooting that cost him his life, his girlfriend made him listen to Don McLean’s Vincent, to make sure that that wonderful melody was the last thing Tupac would hear in life.

But what is Don McLean’s Vincent about? Who is the song dedicated to? Why is it so magical? Welcome to a new episode of Inside the Song, fellow readers.

The Story of Vincent by Don McLean

The release of American Pie completely changed the life of Don McLean, who was able to leave his job as a music teacher at school to dedicate himself to the life of an artist, the real one. After all, the legendary title track – through eight minutes of love union between folk and rock – tells of the need to leave the past behind and move forward.

However, not everything in Don McLean’s life was rosy. The singer-songwriter lost his father at 15 – an event that would have a significant impact on his poetics – and in 1971, just as the album that would change his life was released, his marriage was going through one of its darkest periods.

McLean thus enters into a strong empathy with the art of Vincent Van Gogh, and on his personality. After all, there is this popular belief – still very widespread – according to which Van Gogh went mad after a disappointment in love. A sentimental wound that would later lead him to suicide.

In the fall of 1970, when he was still teaching school, McLean discovered that the reality was very different. The singer-songwriter had read a book by Theo Van Goghbrother of the famous painter, in which he explained that both he and Vincent were suffering from a psychological illness. She thus understands that – even in death – Van Gogh had never really been understood.

He then decides to write a song about it. A sort of letter to Vincent, in which Don McLean talks to him like an old friend. A tribute to his art, but also to his life.

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It must be said that Vincent is not the first song from American Pie to be dedicated to Van Gogh. Also Empty Chairs – sixth track of the album – contains references to the famous Empty Chairs by Vincent Van Gogh.

The Meaning of Vincent by Don McLean

To understand the meaning of Vincent by Don McLean it is necessary to read the song as a letter to Van Gogh. The singer-songwriter addresses the artist on a first-name basis, citing life events and the works of the Dutch painter. The result is a message of empathy and understanding, from artist to artist, from man to man.

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

The first two verses are a clear reference to Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, painting with a predominance of blues and greys. The third verse instead refers to the period in which the painter was admitted to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Here, unable to go out, he painted what he could see from his bedroom window. The specific reference could be to the painting The Courtyard of the Hospital of Arles.

Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land

Here we find many references to Van Gogh’s paintings: Viale dei Platani near the Arles station, Bowl with daffodils and Two peasant women digging in a snow-covered field at sunset.

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

In 19th century society there was certainly not the attention that there is today regarding mental health. At the time, a condition of depression or schizophrenia was enough to be branded as crazy. McLean, also taking up the pains of his life, empathizes with Van Gogh, and claims to “understand what you tried to tell me” through the works. “Now I understand how much you have suffered for your sanity”. It almost seems to say to him: “I understood that you are not crazy, you are just a human being experiencing pain”.

They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

They didn’t listen at the time, because mental health was still taboo. The phrase “maybe they will listen now” refers to the fact that Don McLean said he wrote Vincent precisely to tell the truth about Van Gogh, who is still branded a mad artist today. Moreover, the singer-songwriter himself will declare: “I had to write a song to explain that he wasn’t crazy. He had an illness, just like his brother Theo. This made him different, in my mind, from the ‘crazy’ nickname given to him.”

Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue

Always citing his paintings, McLean tries to paint Van Gogh’s personality in turn. In addition to the aforementioned Starry Night, the singer-songwriter pays homage to Sunflowers, Wheatfield with Cypresses and the numerous self-portraits characterized by the omnipresent blue ink color.

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand

Here too, two clear homages to the works of Vincent Van Gogh. The first to the Wheat Field with the flight of crows, an omen of death and darkness, and the second to the famous The Potato Eaters. The latter is described as “Faces marked by pain they subside under the loving hand of the artist“.

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 have told you, Vincent
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you

The most exciting part of the spectacular text written by Don McLean is certainly the bridge. Here the singer-songwriter recounts the artist’s tragic suicide. And he does it in an impressionistic way, just like Vincent’s paintings: “On that starry night you took your own life, as lovers often do”. And then: “The world was never made for someone as beautiful as you”. It is art that tells the story of art, the most sublime thing that can exist.

Starry, starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frameless heads on nameless walls
With eyes that watch the world and can’t forget

The portraits hang in empty halls. They are there, but no one looks at them. As if to underline that no one has ever truly understood the soul of Vincent Van Gogh. After all, even artistically, his works will be re-evaluated only after his death. Yet Van Gogh painted an impressive number of self-portraits, as if seeking a form of recognition in the world. A sort of cry of solitude put on canvas.

Like the strangers that you’ve met
The ragged men in ragged clothes
The silver thorn; a bloody rose
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow

In this last stanza Don McLean borrows an image from Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose. In the text the nightingale sacrifices his life when a thorn pierces his heart, so that the arid rose tree produces a single red rose. Similarly, Vincent first sacrificed his ear for an unrequited love, and then his very life, after trying to show and explain his pain to others. But, taking Don McLean’s text, “they didn’t want to listen, they didn’t know what to do.”

They would not listen, they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will

The last chorus closes the song with a touch of cosmic pessimism. McLean notes that even today the figure of Van Gogh has never been definitively understood. “They still don’t listen”, He says. Finally she comments with a “maybe they never will”

Cover and Italian versions

Don McLean’s Vincent has been honored by several songwriters. Among the most successful versions we highlight that of Ed Sheeran.

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The piano version of that little genius called is also very touching James Blake.

There are several versions translated into Italian. The first is that of Little Tony with the title Come Un Anno Fa (with translation by Francesco De Gregori). Today, however, we want to point out the version of Roberto Vecchioni (with the intro that seems to also present a very subtle homage to David Bowie’s Heroes).

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