Song of the Day #4,454: ‘Vincent’ – Don McLean

Don McLean’s 1971 album American Pie is best known for its epic title track, of course, but it spawned another hit single in ‘Vincent.’

This lovely song was inspired by the life and death of painter Vincent Van Gogh, who suffered from mental illness and committed suicide at just 37.

McLean had this to say about the inspiration for one of his most beloved songs:

“In the autumn of 1970 I had a job singing in the school system, playing my guitar in classrooms. I was sitting on the veranda one morning, reading a biography of Van Gogh, and suddenly I knew I had to write a song arguing that he wasn’t crazy. He had an illness and so did his brother Theo. This makes it different, in my mind, to the garden variety of ‘crazy’ – because he was rejected by a woman. So I sat down with a print of Starry Night and wrote the lyrics out on a paper bag.”

I found dozens of news stories from earlier this summer saying those handwritten lyrics were being auctioned with an asking price of $1.5 million. I couldn’t find any that said it actually happened (maybe the auction is scheduled for later this year).

Such a sale wouldn’t be unprecedented. McLean’s handwritten lyrics to ‘American Pie’ sold for $1.2 million in 2015 (a bargain on a cost-per-word basis compared to this one).

My other favorite tidbit about this song is that it was a favorite of late rapper Tupac Shakur, so much so that it was played for him on his deathbed.

[Verse 1]
Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and grey
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul
Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land

[Chorus]
Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

[Verse 2]
Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue
Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand

[Chorus]
Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

[Bridge]
For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night
You took your life, as lovers often do
But I could have told you, Vincent
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you

[Verse 3]
Starry, starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frameless heads on nameless walls
With eyes that watch the world and can’t forget
Like the strangers that you’ve met
The ragged men in ragged clothes
The silver thorn; a bloody rose
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow

[Outro]
Now I think I know
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will

2 thoughts on “Song of the Day #4,454: ‘Vincent’ – Don McLean

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    As always, great information about a classic, beautiful song.

  2. Andrea Katz says:

    I love the interplay of words, feeling and images. It’s heartwarming to see how much value this song holds for us. Describing the eye of an artist, inspired by and destroyed by life’s beauty and exquisite pain.

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