Mar 07

DON McLEAN – “Vincent”

FT + Popular73 comments • 9,540 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. 1
    Rosie on 28 Mar 2007 #

    Oh come now Tom, it’s not all that bad! I have been known to sing this myself in public – not a pretty sight I must admit! A 6 or perhaps even a 7 from me.

    Not as good as American Pie but within the sub-genre of British number ones based on the lives of famous painters, it wipes the floor with the rest of the field…

  2. 2
    Kat on 28 Mar 2007 #

    Is it any better than Pablo Picasso by Jonathan Richman? That didn’t get to number one though…

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    Tom on 28 Mar 2007 #

    I seem to have written myself into liking “American Pie”. :0

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    Rosie on 28 Mar 2007 #

    Oh yes, and this goes with me sitting my A-Levels. And as there were ten days betwen my last exam and having to report back to school for the last time, going bumming around Germany with a friend.

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    Mark M on 28 Mar 2007 #

    Not only is it not as good as Pablo Picasso by Jonathan Richman, it’s also considerably inferior to Vincent Van Gogh by Jonathan Richman, which cuts through the biog-as-art criticism/doomed artist to point out “He loved color and he let it show”.

  6. 6


    i shall say no more as there is a fatwah on popular anticipation

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    Waldo on 28 Mar 2007 #

    Sorry, Tom but I cannnot for the life of me think why you have marked this down so low. And as for calling American Pie “smug”… For crying out loud!!

    …”Crying”? Geddit?

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    Tom on 28 Mar 2007 #

    Yr right about “smug” – poor word, I try not to use it ever but I slipped this time (I also broke my personal rule of not discussing the mark within the review). I do think the original “American Pie” loses its way and becomes a bit too pleased with itself around the point where the Madonna version cuts it off, but ending it there would mean you lose the weird Jagger verse. So I don’t know.

    I knew this would get a low mark, but it was only thinking about it in the run up to the review that I decided it was a 1.

    I had forgotten Brian and Michael! Has anyone been to see the expedition of Lowry’s matchstalk pr0n? (caution: may have mis-skimmed Grauniad article on this topic).

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    Marcello Carlin on 29 Mar 2007 #

    “American Pie” and its consequent success and ramifications I consider one of the biggest disasters in the history of pop music, on a par with the introduction of Autotune, side one of Sgt Pepper and the continuing successful career of Nick Hornby. In fact “Pie” probably laid the ground for the latter, setting the scene for the Q/IMac “it was all over by ’68” mandate and curdled even more odiously by what sounds like a nascent Godhead tendency with his “fire is the devil’s only friend” and similar. When the full version is introduced on Radio 2 – as it is several hundred times throughout an average week – the chill of death (to paraphrase an infinitely superior piece of music from 1972) becomes the hand (or claw?) on pop’s shoulder in the recividist marketplace at corporate Samarra.

    “Vincent” is a smaller, hushed canvas, and maybe McLean should have had the courage to call it “Rothko” (who indeed had taken his life as lovers often don’t only a few months earlier) but I like it – musically it has that warm marimba which characterises a very specific type of musical nostalgia for me (see also “Just My Imagination,” “And I Love Her So” – another McLean song – and so on) and I think of Laura, in her last few months, listening to the song quietly on CD as I came home from work. Sentimental, yes (it needs the bloody redness of Kirk Douglas’ “I’m Van GOOOOOO GodDAMMIT!” beard) but I don’t know that the “they” is different in essence or nature from the “they” of, say, “I Got You Babe” – They Who Shall Never Understand is a key cornerstone of pop, so it doesn’t bother me in this context. Can’t knock it, and don’t want to knock it either.

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    Tom on 29 Mar 2007 #

    The difference IMO is between constructing a They and taking sides against someone else’s They – in this case, 80 years after the fact and with the “they” already comprehensively beaten! The former is dynamic, the second lazy.

    “AP”s success is actually really odd, given that the “they” McLean is constructing in it seems to include most stuff after FIFTY-EIGHT! Most of the people who think of it as a rock classic presumably also think of the Stones’ late-sixties stuff as a rock classic. Anyway I have now decided I like it because it’s a powerful articulation of a resentment of rock which I struggle against meself (not always successfully).

    Good spot on Rothko – I was going to try and work Nick Drake, whose Pink Moon came out in May 72, into the piece but decided it didn’t fit, also the wrath of p^nk s is not lightly courted.

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    Erithian on 29 Mar 2007 #

    Hmm, I see now why you said this comments thread could get interesting when I nominated “Vincent” as one of my top ten number 1’s!!

    Fascinating read as usual Tom, and of course everybody recognises your right to award marks as you see fit, but it does look like you’re marking this down according to your own theory on the lyric rather than the quality of the song or the record. And indeed you’re being especially harsh on a trait you admit to seeing in yourself – which itself is a common trait (the mote and beam theory)!

    Maybe I’m being lazy myself, but I always understood the “they” to mean the contemporaries of Van Gogh who didn’t buy his paintings, those who drove him to his fate, rather than “the great unenlightened” from whom Don is distancing himself. (Shades of Elton sitting in the 22nd row in the original “Candle in the Wind”). Then again, who are “we” to say which “they” Don had in mind?

    For me the beauty of the song is in the empathy, the elegant tune and in particular the skill displayed in the lyrics – the last line of each verse, “in colours on the snowy linen land”, “reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue”, “are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand”, “lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow” all perfect iambic pentameters, the whole being a survey of details from Vincent’s paintings, and without a hint of being forced for the sake of rhyme or metre. A truly beautiful song we’ll have to agree to differ on!

    Spoiler alert: having praised the poetry in this song, it’s ironic that my other favourite Number 1 of this year is by a band who couldn’t even think of a word that rhymed…

  12. 12
    Tom on 29 Mar 2007 #

    it does look like you’re marking this down according to your own theory on the lyric rather than the quality of the song or the record. And indeed you’re being especially harsh on a trait you admit to seeing in yourself – which itself is a common trait (the mote and beam theory)!

    Yes – I admit both these in the review! If it had been a foreign language song with the same tune it would probably have done quite well.

    Key line for me is: “they’re not listening still, perhaps they never will” – I think this is when the “they” in the song shifts and broadens. Even if it’s purely the old “they” I still think McLean’s empathy and self-positioning is basically too EASY.

  13. 13
    Tom on 29 Mar 2007 #

    By the way, what do you think of “American Pie”, Erithian?

  14. 14
    Marcello Carlin on 29 Mar 2007 #

    Well there is the tag of “they’re not listening still – perhaps they never will” which would clearly be wrong in the context of van Gogh as his reputation stood in ’72 but then perhaps he’s referring to artists of his time who didn’t get their due recognition (but note the recent speeding up of the curve – it took Rothko’s legacy only 25 years or so to mutate into Starbuckism).

    Thinking a bit more about sentimentality, I’m inclined to believe (from my own experiences, and maybe also Mark’s) that as far as reactions to art of any kind are concerned (including film, music, literature etc.) sentimentality is a perfectly valid quality when you’re very, very young; then when you get to 11 or 12 you start dismissing it and putting it in an embarrassing pile at the back of the aesthetic airing cupboard; then when you get to forty or thereabouts sentimentality gradually starts to touch you again and you welcome it back.

    The alternative viewpoint is Constant Lambert telling Arthur Hutchings that “You enjoy your Faure slop as much as I do but you fail to recognise it for what it is – inessential,” but then that didn’t really do CL much good…

  15. 15
    intothefireuk on 29 Mar 2007 #

    As a youngster this was my first glimpse into the life of Van Gogh (my 2nd would be via Kirk). I suspect the vast majority of people who bought this and propelled it to number one didn’t consider it anything other than a sentimental tribute to an artist. However Maclean does state that he ‘understands’ Van Gogh while ‘they’ didn’t and finally ‘never will’. I’m not convinced that the ‘they’ he mentions refer to anyone other than Van Goghs immediate circle and contemporary critics. In this reading Maclean is just illustrating the fact that Van Gogh’s work was poorly received in his lifetime and that there were still some who remained unconvinced by his art. Macleans musical delivery is very effective and I would look at this as more of a 6. 1 is very harsh.

    For some bizzare reason I always think of Tony Hancock’s ‘The Rebel’ when I hear this – I have no idea why.

  16. 16
    Marcello Carlin on 29 Mar 2007 #

    Somehow I don’t think “Starry, starry night/Stone me, Aphrodite At The Waterhole” would have had quite the same commercial appeal…

  17. 17
    Erithian on 29 Mar 2007 #

    what do you think of “American Pie”, Erithian?

    For what it’s worth, I love it even more than “Vincent”. I can see your point about it losing its way halfway through, but to me that’s the point where it takes off from the touching story about the kid with the newspaper round and takes on a more widescreen scope, becoming a chronology of the history of rock’n’roll up to that point. I was too young at the time to appreciate the “day the music died” aspect, but think of the crop of casualties evoked in the last verse – Janis, Jimi, Jim – all of whom had passed since Altamont, and the bleakness of the scene as surveyed by a rock fan with the viewpoint of the narrator of the song is apparent.

    And “American Pie” has other cosmic qualities – during my student hitch-hiking days, whenever I was stuck in some godforsaken spot somewhere in mid-Europe (or even the Highlands), a rendition of this song as a last resort before, say, taking the train, worked more often than not. Thanks Don.

  18. 18
    Jon on 29 Mar 2007 #

    This is the worst review I have ever read. You are focusing on one aspect of the song .i.e. the subject matter. I agree with a lot of what you say about the subject matter, but to ignore a very strong melody, sung with feeling and a good arrangement is idiocy. You give metal guru (which is a tuneless dirge that escapes all problems of subject, by not having any subject at all) 10 and this 1, it makes your whole project pointless. Also, you are doing exactly what you accuse McLean of doing, You are attacking a ‘them’ (McLean) that no one cares about. You choose to review songs, so why ignore the musical aspect, if you totally ignore the melody of a song you may as well review books or films or something. This isn’t a Great song but it is better than a lot of the horseshite you have given 8+.

  19. 19
    Tom on 29 Mar 2007 #

    Probably worth pointing out that when I write a review I focus on whatever aspect of the record seems most interesting to write about. In this case the lyrical content (which does seem fair as McLean obviously worked as hard on it as any other element!).

    Anyway, I don’t ignore the performance, I call it limpid, pretty, more than competent and perhaps overlong.

    Plenty more horseshite to come, though.

  20. 20
    Erithian on 29 Mar 2007 #

    Good to see your “Just Be Polite” message got home Tom!!

  21. 21
    Tom on 29 Mar 2007 #

    The “be polite” thing applies to personal attacks between other posters: if someone wants to slag my review off who am I to stop them?

  22. 22
    jeff w on 29 Mar 2007 #

    Never heard this at the time. The first time I heard it was when some hairy rocker (Ian Gillan, I think) played it on the radio during a guest DJ spot on Radio 1, circa 1980. I was surprised to discover much later that it had been a #1 hit.

    Marcello is right to highlight the arrangement of “Vincent”. I recently re-acquired the American Pie album on CD, and it’s full of subtle gestures like the marimba here. The LP as a whole is patchy, but the impression I get is that McLean was experimenting madly with subjects and styles, trying to discover what worked for him and what didn’t. I appreciate that searching instinct. The success of the two hit singles has since overshadowed other parts of the LP, but “Sister Fatima” and “Empty Chairs” are easily the equal of “Vincent” in terms of their musical warmth.

  23. 23
    Marcello Carlin on 29 Mar 2007 #

    Wait ’til you get to Pink Floyd, Tom; that’ll open the random trolling floodgates!

  24. 24
    Daniel_Rf on 29 Mar 2007 #

    I don’t know this song (though I did own the Don McLean record with it on it at one point, never listened tho), but I just want to say this is a really great review as far as the Larger Point is concerned. Very interesting take on “American Pie”, too – Dave Marsh once said that he hated it because it’s such a folkie’s take on Rock music, so clearly written by someone who thought Rock was just a fad (he likes the Madonna version tho.) I think that’s taking it a bit too far (McLean clearly a folk-rocker, invested in the Importance and Legacy of Rock), but similairly to your take it points out that the singer in “American Pie” is an *outsider* to Rock history, and yeah that does turn the song a lot more poignant. Still, you know, the Big Bopper as the Holy Ghost, wtf.

    On the pop about painters tip, have you heard Jimmy Webb’s “Paul Gauguin In The South Seas”? It does pretty much everything you accuse “Vincent” of doing (unsurprisingly, coming from an album called “Twilight Of The Renegades” and all that), but I do love it unreservedly – I suppose its naffness is its saving grace.

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    Tom on 29 Mar 2007 #

    The Big Bopper shd have been God!!

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    Marcello Carlin on 29 Mar 2007 #

    I do know that Webb song; it sounds to me like a Lion King number battling with systematic radio signal interference from latterday Scott Walker. No bad thing.

  27. 27
    Lena on 29 Mar 2007 #

    I just googled the lyrics as this song isn’t played on the oldies shows I listen to – not rollicking enough, unlike “American Pie” – and the ‘them’ I get mostly are the subjects of his paintings themselves which he is trying to (according to McLean) ‘set free.’ So I guess this means that Van Gogh’s own vision of the world (which sees into the darkness of the narrator’s soul) is to create beauty out of the ordinary or even ugly. This is not a new idea in art, to say the least…now, but in Van Gogh’s time, it was the new thing.

    For me, inevitably, the literary equivalent in a way is Plath – a not-unknown-to-poetry-circles person in her life, and only after her death did her great fame (and greatest works) get their due, alongside a great deal of understandable sentiment, which could get melodramatic at times, to say the least. Somehow, for me anyway, the sentiment is justified by the greatness of the work because it is sad to see great talent die young, whatever the medium…and “Perhaps, they never will…” can either mean “There will always be people who think the Mona Lisa is the best painting ever and everything after that is just messing around” or “There will always be people who buy a print of ‘Sunflowers’ and put it up on the wall in their house because it ‘goes’ with their decor who don’t know the slightest thing about Van Gogh besides he seemed to like the color yellow, so maybe they should get something else by him.”

  28. 28
    Izzy on 29 Mar 2007 #

    I’ve never heard this song, but that’s a fantastic review.

  29. 29
    Tim on 29 Mar 2007 #

    It seems to me that the limpidity of the performance makes the problems Tom’s talking about worse. The record sounds sane and balanced.

    Setting up a ludicrous “them” in a context which feels like a wild cry for help or attention (or whatever) is a very different matter from setting up a bad “them” in a song which feels like it’s tellling a tale with a clear point or (worse) a clear moral.

  30. 30
    wwolfe on 29 Mar 2007 #

    This review expresses why I’ve always disliked this song. It made me think of the following by Robert Christgau:

    “Evan Dando is a good-looking guy with more luck than talent and more talent than brains who conceals his narcissism beneath an unassuming suburban drawl. Twenty years ago he would have affected an acoustic guitar and acted sincere; now he affects a slacker-pop band and acts vulnerable. His songs don’t bite, they sidle over and nibble your ear when you’re not looking, and if you throw him a withering glance, no problem–he’ll just move on to someone else.”

    I actually was disappointed there wasn’t a “Too high” choice for this song. Clearly, there’s something about McLean’s attitude and strategy you’ve described that pushes my buttons. That says as much about me as it does about the song, of course, but it doesn’t make what you’ve said any less true.

    I love the backing track of “American Pie.” It’s especially enjoyable to hear the drummer’s determination to never repeat a fill over the seven minutes of the song, and Paul Griffin’s sped-up piano-roll fills.

    Here’s an aspect of “Pie” that I’d never thought of before now that’s both startling and all-too-familiar: the “all is lost” view of pop and rock circa 1971-72 is based solely and completely on music made by white artists. Other than the early mention of the Book of Love, there’s not a single black artist referenced anywhere in the song. As ever, that’s a disturbing and infuriating view of popular music in the 1960s and ’70s. But, even if we buy his argument that white music was beyond redemption by this time, a roll call of the black acts who were having huge hits with great music at exactly the moment Mclean was recording “Pie” make his argument look plain silly.

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