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. 31
    DV on 29 Mar 2007 #

    OMG, “Masquerade”! I though me and my sister were the only people in the world who knew about this! Thanks for supplying the key details required to find out more about it on the Interweb.

  2. 32
    Tom on 29 Mar 2007 #

    Vicar if you listen to the Lollards Of Pop Week 3 you will find a lengthy bit on Masquerade by me! I nicked it all off Wikipedia mind you so you might as well look there.

    It sold a grillion copies so I can’t imagine it’s been forgotten!

  3. 33
    Alan on 29 Mar 2007 #

    i still have my copy

  4. 34
    Marcello Carlin on 30 Mar 2007 #

    Apropos “Pie” and blacks, Hendrix is routinely assumed to be one of the “three” he admired the most.

  5. 35
    Rosie on 30 Mar 2007 #

    When I hear ‘Vincent’ I don’t here a lecture in elementary art history. I hear a song about mental illlness, about depression in this case. It’s a cousin of Without You and somehow I’ve always linked the two in my mind. If I were a psychiatrist I’d be much more concerned about Don’s gentle melancholy than Harry’s raging despair. Harry will get over it; Don is far more likely to slash his wrists quietly in a hot bath with an empty bottle of absinthe and a severed ear beside him.

    True, there’s a ‘they’ in there. But isn’t there always, in the rhetoric of the depressive? For me, the key line is with eyes that know the darkness in my soul – that’s the one that first comes to my mind. That’s the only ‘my’ in the song and it hits harder for that. “I’m lonely, and nobody understands me, just like they didn’t understand you. While everybody else is out grooving to Bolan, I find a kindred spirit looking at your paintings, but they don’t understand that.’

    Self-indulgent? Yes, of course it is, and in spades. But that’s what depression is all about.

  6. 36
    Erithian on 30 Mar 2007 #

    DV, try and get hold of a copy of Bamber Gascoigne’s “Quest for the Golden Hare”, which details the history of “Masquerade” and includes very entertaining accounts of how some Masqueraders went about solving the puzzle. One bloke had a conspiracy theory – “it has to involve the Queen…” and when Gascoigne explained to him precisely how the puzzle worked, he replied, “Codswallop”.

  7. 37
    Marcello Carlin on 30 Mar 2007 #

    Rosie absolutely OTM there.

  8. 38
    Tom on 30 Mar 2007 #

    Yes, Rosie’s is the most convincing counter-argument so far. I guess my specific response would be that I don’t see darkness in most of Van Gogh’s paintings, but that’s not to say McLean didn’t or couldn’t of course.

  9. 39
    Rosie on 30 Mar 2007 #

    It’s true that I can’t see much darkness in the morning fields of amber grain but I do see darkness in the self-portraits, eg http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/gogh/self/gogh.self-whitney.jpg

    Weathered faces lined with pain indeed.

  10. 40
    Mark Grout on 30 Mar 2007 #

    I agree completely with the review.

    However, 1 point is way too harsh.

    Does this put it lower than “All around the world” ?

  11. 41
    Marcello Carlin on 31 Mar 2007 #

    Now Mark, you know that would be telling.

    Also don’t forget there are two “All Around The World”s coming up…

  12. 42
    Tommy Mack on 1 Apr 2007 #

    I think the thing that’s always bothered me most – not really this particular song as it was a childhood favourite (my mother’s original 70s tape with the orange label which had been played so often bits of it were silent where the tape had snapped and my mum had sellotaped it back together) but 70s folk-rock singer-songwriter drippiness and much Serious’n’Sensitive music in general – is that I suspect that most of the ‘they’ who ignored Van Gogh’s revolutionary, visceral genius would be exactly the sorts to lap up Don and his peers’ (very pretty, skilled) musical conservatism and self-consciously bruised, sensitive (white male middle-class heterosexual denim jacket) misunderstood outsider folksman world view, giving themselves a big pat on the back for doing so. What I mean is that the very people who were buying and listening to this song and thinking ‘gosh, how awful Vincent Van Gogh was so misunderstood by all those narrow-minded fools, not like us’ were probably unaware or dismissive of the revolutionary things going on around them at that very time. But then that’s me lazily siding against Steven Wells’ constructed ‘them’!

  13. 43
    Tommy Mack on 2 Apr 2007 #

    Also, McLean seems to see Van Gogh’s works as extension of his tortured soul, whereas Jonathan Richman (in Vincent Van Gogh) sees his mental illness as the awful price to be paid for his genius. I don’t get the impression either Don or Jojo have it half as bad as Van Gogh, but then Richman doesn’t subtly and slyly pretend to and his song is all the more affecting for not letting teenage pomposity spoil its sentiment.

  14. 44
    Waldo on 5 Apr 2007 #

    If Rosie wants depression, bring on “Seasons in the Sun”…

  15. 45
    Rosie on 5 Apr 2007 #

    Waldo, I will have lots of things to say about Seasons in the Sun when we get there. Not many of them complimentary.

    (I do hope Tom will have acquainted himself with Jacques Brel’s Le Moribond before we do. A grasp of colloquial French might help too)

  16. 46
    Waldo on 6 Apr 2007 #

    That’s actually a good call, Rosie. I’m sure Terry Jacks would be flattered, but “Seasons” was indeed rather Brelesque in its outlook, if for nothing else. The B-side, a song about Terry’s dog getting hit by a car was not so much Jacques Brel than Tommy Cooper. Wonderful. Roll on 1974.

  17. 47
    Rosie on 6 Apr 2007 #

    Well, Waldo, let’s wait until we get there, shall we?

  18. 48
    Waldo on 6 Apr 2007 #

    Yes, Rosie. Absolutely. Come on, Tom. Let’s crack on!

  19. 49
    koganbot on 11 Apr 2007 #

    I run in terror whenever near this song, so I am not one to comment on it; but in general, even when setting up a “they” as a foil is totally justified, calling them “they” isn’t very good writing. They who use the word “they” should really try something more evocative: e.g., “the members of the requisition and procurement committee did not understand Jacques Derrida and they never will.”

    Fwiw, from 1968 to 1972 pretty much all my rock heroes and faves were getting worse, including the ones who then overdosed. Dylan was the most obvious, but also Lou Reed, the Kinks, the Airplane, the Stones, the Beatles, the Who (though “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” were a lot more touching than “American Pie” as laments of the condition), the Byrds and on and on. Would’ve helped if I hadn’t underrated Zeppelin and Deep Purple and Sabbath and had been paying more than cursory attention to the Temptations and Funkadelic and Kool & the Gang, etc. and if I’d heard the Stooges and Slade and the MC5 and T. Rex (not to mention the Beginning Of The End and Chakachas and Manu Dibangu and U. Roy, assuming I’d have known enough to appreciate them, which is questionable). But the great Sixties rockers did seem to be crapping out en masse, to be replaced by godawful soft rock and country rock (which turned out to have a few performers who weren’t so godawful, but that was mostly a later judgment on my part – though I was prescient among my social set in not hating the Carpenters). Of course this death of rock cleared the way for other interesting rock, but I knew how McLean felt in “American Pie,” even if his labored metaphors were worth a lot of guffaws.

  20. 50
    wichita lineman on 25 Jul 2008 #

    The marimbas should be enough to raise this a notch above I See The Moon and My Old Man’s A Dustman, lyrical discourse aside!

    As it goes, I’m with Rosie in bracketing this in my mind with Without You, and when I found the album in a Purley jumble sale circa 1980 I loved it almost unconditionally. There is a warm, thundercloud of reverb all over it, giving Sister Fatima and Til Tomorrow an oppressive beauty that reminds me of the atmosphere of Scott 3. An unusual and quite adventurous sound for ’72 when you set it against the dead, carpeted sound of Tapestry or Heart Of Gold.

    The flip of Vincent was the divine Castles In The Air, with cowardly hick Don leaving his high-class girl but asking someone else to deliver the message: “I know I’m weak, but I can’t face that girl again”. Tom, I know the quality of a flip doesn’t alter the score but give it a try, “pur-leeease” (as the Stargazers said on their very own single-pointer).

  21. 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.

  22. 52
    garax on 11 Feb 2010 #

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

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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…”

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 59
    punctum on 5 Sep 2011 #

    i.e. he’s ripped me off again.

  29. 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!).

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