Mar 07

DON McLEAN – “Vincent”

FT + Popular73 comments • 9,744 views

#314, 17th June 1972

“They did not listen, they’re not listening still.”

Always a ‘they’, of course. Never a ‘we’.

“Vincent” is Don McLean’s second 1972 hit about untimely death. His first, “American Pie”, is a lot more famous, and – butt of subsequent jokes and groans though it is – a good deal better. “Pie” became the rock music version of Kit William’s Masquerade, but deep in the bones of the song is a smaller, good record about being a lonely kid with a paper round and a record collection and a frustrated crush on rock and roll. “American Pie” has lines which point to McLean’s love and understanding of rock, and moments which reveal his resentment of it, too. Someone else is kicking off their shoes and dancing in the gym – McLean casts himself as voyeur and embalmer (and then voyeur again, “hands clenched in fists of rage” watching Mick Jagger, who is enacting the difference between loving pop and living it) (and oh, Don, I can sympathise).

There’s life and grief and rage in “American Pie”, then – even if it’s a different grief from the one the record seems to be selling you: “Pie”‘s not really a story of what rock was becoming at all. In “Vincent”, on the other hand, I don’t hear any real grief or rage, and I do hear that story. The romantic cult of death – men set apart from others, too great for this world, suffering and dying to show us love or set us free – was becoming written into rock. Stories like Buddy Holly’s of bad snap decisions leading to worse luck, were giving way to tales of creative madness and awful destiny. By the 90s rock would be littered with Van Goghs.

Van Gogh himself, meanwhile, was doing just fine – as an idea, anyway. The fame which had started to come his way in his last year of life had turned posthumously into international renown and martyrology even before the First World War. By 1972, he was art’s saint: taking a side against the world that ignored Van Gogh is taking no side at all. It’s a cheap way of self-identifying as a sensitive yourself – Don isn’t like “them”, he understands, he’s let the artist open his eyes.

That’s not to say that it’s wrong to feel for Vincent Van Gogh, or to love his work, or to shudder at his illness: what’s wrong with this hollow record is that it makes such a point of that feeling, and implicitly denies it to the unenlightened, to the “them”. (Presumably some of those “them” had seen the light, as Van Gogh had become probably the most loved artist of the previous 100 years). As a performance, “Vincent” is pretty, more than competent, limpid and overlong perhaps but effective enough that I’m marking it down for putting its ideas across well, because I think its ideas (as I see them) are bad.

“Vincent” is a convenient scapegoat for one of the great inescapable traps in pop discourse. Construction of a “them” to react against is an act of creativity itself, that sometimes seems to jumpstart other creativity, and sometimes seems to clog it up and weigh it down. But picking up a constructed-them and adopting it, without questioning, without self-questioning, is lazy, and that’s what McLean’s doing. Doubly infuriating that he’s fitting Van Gogh, a great fierce poet of the everyday who painted flowers and friends and his bedroom window views, into this wretched system.

Of course I recognise McLeanish tendencies in myself – just look at (or don’t!) my “Why I Hate Indie Kids” essay, where there’s a whole history of identification and rejection and infatuation and compromise hidden behind the lame me-against-them stuff, though you might never know it. In “American Pie” you could hear McLean’s equivalent history, no matter how much Don tried to disguise it with wordgames and smugness. In “Vincent”, though, self-satisfaction beats art and beats life.




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  1. 61
    swanstep on 7 Jul 2012 #

    Oh, and headline in the Guardian today:
    ‘Bye-bye, Miss American Pie’ – then US helicopter appears to fire on Afghans.

  2. 63
    lonepilgrim on 16 Jul 2012 #

    Streaky, Streaky Night

    also, as this doesn’t appear to have been mentioned here – there was a theory floated around a few months ago that Van Gogh didn’t actually kill himself but was the victim of an accidental shooting


  3. 64
    Mark G on 17 Jul 2012 #

    Everyone’s saying Van Gogh, but it looks more a Bacon to me…

    (v soz)

  4. 65
    Erithian on 17 Jul 2012 #

    More like a Van Gaga… (equally soz)

  5. 66
    Patrick Mexico on 17 Dec 2013 #

    I do think you were a little harsh on this. Middle-of-the-road, but a heartfelt biopic of a great painter. You could even say after that ear incident, Van Gogh was strumming his pain with his fingers.

  6. 67
    Larry on 30 Oct 2014 #

    Lyrical smugness aside, even the folk music (slathered in strings) takes no chances. I agree with Tom’s 1 rating. McLean was a middling (at best) talent who rode “Pie”‘s freak success to his modest career. Rosie made an excellent point about McLean’s own depression.. but then he should’ve written a song about that, not a song about how people ignored Van Gogh.

  7. 68
    flahr on 1 Jan 2015 #

    This pretty little tune has been rolling over in my head the past couple of days. Musically and lyrically it is wonderful, sumptuous; Marcello and Erithian have already upthread detailed the beauty the arrangement and the words are swathed in. I feel like it could probably be a number one hit today as a cover, since (not mentioning any particular names) sensitive boy guitar seems to be bang on trend at the high end of the charts right now.

    But, er, I rather hope it isn’t, because – well, it seems odd that Tom objected to the sentiment based on the ‘they’ thing (Marcello’s “They Who Shall Never Understand is a key cornerstone of pop, so it doesn’t bother me in this context” is my opinion too) when there seems to be a far more objectionable sentiment lurking here that Rosie points out at #35 – it’s not going to be soundtracking any #ItGetsBetter campaigns any time soon, is it? He “takes his life as lovers often do” and that means “perhaps they’ll listen now”, and in any case “this world was never meant for one as beautiful as [him]” – romanticisation of suicide is hardly unique to this song in art and all but “Vincent” seems to tip over the dangerous line into endorsement, which gives me chills.

    It’s still not a 1 though :P

  8. 69
    23 Daves on 7 Apr 2015 #

    It’s an anecdote that’s probably not worth bumping this thread for, but I was out leafleting for the election yesterday afternoon. On almost every delivery round you end up at a very unkempt house which is clearly inhabited by someone rather interesting, and on this occasion the front garden was in such absolute disarray that I almost didn’t see that there was anywhere to deliver to. At first, it looked like an extension of the garden next door. It was barely visible behind overgrown trees, vines and shrubs and towering piles of abandoned planks of wood, boxes and crates.

    I took the winding path towards this person’s front door and as I got closer I could see that they had a light hanging over the doorframe, but it wasn’t a twee lantern but a reinforced industrial light with a metal cage around it. Then I heard “Vincent”, blaring really loudly inside.


    The combination of that tune and the surrounding environment really gave me the creeps. I posted the leaflet quickly and got back down the path again at double-pace. I don’t think I’ll be able to hear this song without thinking about that now.

  9. 70
    lonepilgrim on 2 Sep 2018 #

    I like the sound of this record more than the lyrics – although they are more palatable as a vessel to communicate the singer’s own depression as Rosie suggests. Van Gogh was the first artist whose work I was aware of a kid from reproductions in worthy educational comics ‘Tell Me Why’ and ‘World of. Wonder’. His pictures seemed very cheerful to me then so this song was a little bit of a revelation to me at the time even though subsequent knowledge of VG makes the insights shallow at best.

  10. 71
    23 Daves on 10 Jan 2019 #

    This video just went live on YouTube today – https://youtu.be/eTGcyuEU6Wo – and McLean seems to be very much of the “Artists Need Pain” school of thought. A bit disappointing, really, I’d hoped he would have had something more interesting to say than that.

  11. 72
    Albert on 11 Mar 2021 #

    Best version of this was by Freddie Starr.

    ‘Sketch the trees and sketch the trees and sketch the tress and (tape chews up).’

  12. 73
    Gareth Parker on 30 Apr 2021 #

    Not for me at all. A real mood killer this one. I find it to be a dirge and rather hard to listen to in its entirety. 2/10.

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