Love is probably the deepest emotion one can experience as a human being. It makes us both vulnerable and not often, lost… and desperate.
This was how Don McLean was able to empathize with the sad fate that the 19th century Dutch post-impressionist painter, Vincent Van Gogh suffered. He shares this to us in his popular folk classic, Vincent.
Vincent is obviously McLean’s personal tribute to Van Gogh.
The song’s opening line immediately transports our mind’s to Van Gogh’s iconic masterpiece, Starry Night:
“Starry, starry night,
Paint your palette blue and gray.”
McLean then describes Vincent as looking out on a summer’s day “with eyes that know the darkness in my soul.” This was empathy.
This empathy is reinforced by the song’s refrain,
“Now I understand (think I know) what you tried to say to me.”
McLean’s use of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person pronouns give us an idea who he is referring to in the song: 1st person pronouns, me and my, apply to himself; 2nd person, you and your, to Van Gogh; and 3rd person, they and them, to the people both in Van Gogh’s time who “would not listen” and ours who “are not listening still”.
There are references to other works of Van Gogh embedded in the song, it’s not entirely about the Starry Night. He mentions “trees and the daffodils” and “the snowy linen land”, “morning fields of amber grain” and “weathered faces lined in pain” none of which were in the Starry Night landscape.
However, McLean knew that Starry Night conveyed a message — he saw it not just as mere paint. Its themes conveyed Van Gogh’s world view — a convergence of his theology, his aspirations, hopes, and desperation.
McLean summarized Van Gogh’s desperation in these poignant lines:
“And when no hope was
On that starry, starry night,
You took your life as lovers often do.”
Don McLean, like Van Gogh, was a romantic who expressed his world view in his art, his songs.
In his hit song And I Love You So, he writes,
“The book of life is
And once a page is read,
All but love is dead —
That is my belief.”
That is my belief, McLean says: All is dead, but love. Nothing has meaning, except that thing that “yearns within to grow beyond infatuation” (lyrics from McLean’s song If We Try).
Don McLean experienced love, and deeply felt it. So did Van Gogh.