“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.