Mar 07

DON McLEAN – “Vincent”

FT + Popular69 comments • 7,425 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. 51
    Matthew on 17 Jan 2009 #

    I like this, and I like this better than American Pie. I don’t know who the “they” of the lyric refers to – I *love* the theory that one commenter above advanced that it’s the things in the world that Van Gogh painted – but even if it refers to “people who don’t get art”, I don’t think it’s a superiority thing, just a sadness and frustration at *not being able to get through*.

    And it’s totally applicable to rock’n’roll, just as much as American Pie. Kurt Cobain, Richey Edwards, Elliott Smith, whichever rock casualty you like, in no case can we haul the public into the dock, point the finger and say YOU, you in your crassness and stupidity and pig-headed refusal to GET IT brought this tortured artist low; but in every case I hope we can shed a tear that they couldn’t find a way to communicate, to open a two-way channel to the world before the loneliness and self-disgust became too much to bear.

    If you like sad, sentimental, wallowy songs as much as I do, Vincent is arguably a pretty perfect contribution to the genre. The population, in general, seems to prefer sunshiny FUN! to sitting in a dark room moping, so when a song like this takes #1 against the odds it’s usually because there’s something extra-special going on there. By no means a 1.

  2. 52
    garax on 11 Feb 2010 #

    This really is a terrible girly cock drip of a record.

  3. 53
    Ed on 10 Mar 2011 #

    What hit me about American Pie, coming back to it after a few years away, is how punk rock it is, in it’s ferocious delineation of an Us and Them. (Them are also They, of course.) He really loathes all that Sixties hippy crap. And that urge to sweep away all the musical ambition of the Sixties is a key ingredient of punk. (And remained a big part of it in that side of punk that split away from all the experimental post-punk stuff.) The Fifties revivalism peddled by Maclaren and Westwood is surely no coincidence.

    Which makes the song a genuine guilty pleasure. In general, I think the idea of being guilty about your pleasures is ridiculous. But the song makes such a strong argument, and I disagree with the argument so profoundly, that I do feel guilty (hypocritical, embarrassed) about how much I enjoy it. As the piano and drums build and build, and you are sprayed with that unique cocktail of saccharine and vitriol, resistance becomes futile.

  4. 54
    punctum on 10 Mar 2011 #

    Not for me, it doesn’t. I think this is all projection. What “AP” actually sounds like is a pissed-off Godhead who doesn’t like this terrible new music that has no tunes (“Fire is the Devil’s only friend” indeed!). Pat Boone could have recorded it. “Rock ‘N’ Roll Part 2” – best rebuff to “American Pie” and best song title ever – couldn’t come too soon IMO.

  5. 55
    Mark G on 10 Mar 2011 #

    Pat Boone recorded enough of this new music to suggest he didn’t think it terrible.

    Vincent, though – Who were these people who would not ‘listen’? I think it *is* projection inasmuch as McLean trying to see/understand why he committed suicide but in the end gets confused and decides that his mind was railing against the injustices perpretrated in the name of man. Or something.

    I think that Dr Who episode got the closest to why, which was “um, dunno. You can’t help some people I guess…”

  6. 56
    Ed on 12 Mar 2011 #

    @54 Great call on ‘RnR Pt2’. Seeing the Human League perform it on TV (was it really on ‘Holiday ’80?) was one of the most amazing musical revelations of my teenage years. It is still pretty great today:


    But most of what made the song so fantastic was already there in the original.

    Someone else who agrees with McLean on the thesis of ‘American Pie’ is (or was) Tony Parsons. I once read an early Parsons novel (forgive me: I was very young at the time), set in the Sixties, in which the ultimate signifier that our hero’s friend has passed over into irredeemable studenty wankerdom, and their friendship is at an end, is that he starts listening to the Byrds.

    I realise this point is not going to help win over many McLean sceptics.

  7. 58
    Ed on 5 Sep 2011 #

    @53, 54. I was pleased to see Simon Reynolds picked up this point about McLean’s quasi-punk spirit on p290 of Retromania. So it must be true….

    A couple of pages later, he hails ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Pt 2′, too.

  8. 59
    punctum on 5 Sep 2011 #

    i.e. he’s ripped me off again.

  9. 60
    swanstep on 7 Jul 2012 #

    Listening to this now for the first (3) time(s)….it all seems strangely disconnected from van Gogh. I don’t ‘hear’ plaintive acoustic noodling when I think of v.G (indeed I find v.G. is so overwhelming and intensely visual that he almost uniquely seems to resist musical accompaniment now I think about it; experience the Sunflower at the Philadephia Museum of Art and you’re blown away alright; it’s exactly as though every sensory channel has been simultaneously overloaded). And the key lines: ‘suffering for his sanity’, ‘tried to set them free’ seem wrong to me. Surely van Gogh’s mental illness was the thing he suffered from and what ultimately robbed him of living long enough to be acclaimed, etc.? And van Gogh was a late starter to painting (just from 30 until his death at 37 I believe), *after* he’d done his bunk on social activism for the poor and trying to set people free. His painting feels like a retreat from all that stuff into himself (and away from wife and kids) to focus on work and self and the family he had for which he nonetheless wouldn’t be ultimately responsible (brother Theo and his children etc.). And, at least for me (admittedly a non-painter), v.G.’s work feels so singular and self-expressive and self-contained that it doesn’t have quite the liberating effect that, say, Picasso and Matisse and Duchamp do (they’re all restless intellects who open lots of doors that others then can and do rush through).

    Some of the specific imagery seems wrong too: ‘The ragged men in ragged clothes/The silver thorn of bloody rose/Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow’ The last two lines seem to me like kitsch and to be quite alien to v.G.. Moreover, Here are all of v.G’s snow paintings. I can’t find anything there that answers to McLean’s description.

    I guess all of this is to say that I agree with those above who think of McLean as principally projecting his own relation to ’60s music developments onto v.G., and that this in turn makes the song’s evident ernestness rankle a little (that is, I think I can hear/understand what’s making Tom’s blood boil; that together with lack of the specific musicality that the Buckleys and Simons and McCartneys of the world seem to be able to conjure to get themselves out of comparable jams). Still, I’d give Vincent a 3 or a 4 (it’s probably only a Paul Simon polish away from being at least a 5, but I also understand those whom it makes feel ill!).

  10. 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.

  11. 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


  12. 64
    Mark G on 17 Jul 2012 #

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

    (v soz)

  13. 65
    Erithian on 17 Jul 2012 #

    More like a Van Gaga… (equally soz)

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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

  17. 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.

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