“What’s your favorite song?” Many have asked me that question at one time or another. It’s a simple question that I’ve always been able to avoid answering. It’s a fair question…so why not answer? Why did I always sidestep giving an answer?
Oh, I can give the usual lame excuses: “I don’t have just one favorite”…”I have favorites in many genres”…”It depends on my mood”…”What decade are you talking about?”… etc, etc. Throughout the years, most have accepted those answers and let me off the hook. But how do I answer the question for myself?
Any introvert like me is all too familiar with that truism “what you say about another says more about you than the other”. For an introvert, revealing something like a favorite song is akin to opening my soul for others to see. My definition of “favorite song” is the song that stirs my innermost soul the most when I hear it and most impacts my total being.
Well, it’s time to take a stand. “Vincent” by Don McLean is my favorite song. There…I’ve let the cat out of the bag.
Picking that ONE song was even tougher than I thought. At my age I have quite a few personal decades of great music to draw upon and it is not getting any easier with age. But over my many years, I have noticed that this particular song has consistently moved me each and every time I’ve heard it. Why is that? Well, it turns out that’s been an interesting question for me to explore. I wanted to “hear” the answer myself. And this time to move beyond my normal introverted self; I’ll share my thoughts with readers along the way. Another personal journey – let’s see where it takes me.
The bottom line up front: “Vincent” represents the “complete package” to me. I view it as more than a song…it’s a piece of art in the complete sense of the word. And what’s the definition of “art”? For me, it’s a creative work that transcends the senses beyond its mere physical makeup. Sure, it stimulates my senses…but goes far beyond and touches something deep inside that is not defined by our five senses. It conjures up the mystical and awakens the spiritual. In short – It touches my soul. “Vincent” does all that for me better than any other mainstream popular “song”.
You see, “Vincent” manages to fuse it all together. The usual is there: words and phrasings that rate as poetry, the simple but perfect guitar & strings make it pleasing for anyone to hear, and the human voice (the sacred harp) that is completely convincing in its sincerity as the writer bears his own soul to us. The magical ingredient is the inseparable joining of another artist and art form completely independent of the audible. By including both the life and work of Van Gogh, the music and lyrics take on purpose, meaning, and creates a visible realm to add an unparalleled fullness for the song. And for the final part that forces me to bare my own soul if I am to remain faithful to the truth I see, the complete life and work of the main character of Van Gogh is subtly woven to form a spiritual analogy that creates for me an everlasting sense of wonder and reverence.
Please bear with me as I walk though my thoughts on each facet of the work.
The music. I must admit, I liked the song from the very first time I heard it. It stood out as something completely different for the ‘seventies’ with a reverent quality that begged me to listen more closely. It was easy for me to imagine McLean “painting” the song through his musical brushstrokes. I loved the simple guitar work and how it literally pulled me into the song.
The words. Right out of the box, I cannot think of any three opening words of a song that is so deeply ingrained into my memory…”Starry, Starry Night”. So powerful are these opening words, that the song itself is sometimes known by that three-word title. The perfect blend of guitar with those words right away creates a one-of-a-kind fingerprint for the song…unique for all time. Don McLean is so poetic in his songwriting…and I think much underrated. I must admit, I liked the song before I even understood that it referred to the Van Gogh painting.
The painting (Starry Night). Wow! What an iconic work to build into a song. This image is one of the most viewed and recognizable pieces of art in the world. Now, whenever I see the painting I think of the song, and when I hear the song I think of the painting. It’s open to multiple interpretations, including spiritual or religious overtones. It contains a mysterious combination of dark and light, punctuated with the image of a church & steeple front and center in the painting.
The artist Vincent Van Gogh. Clearly misunderstood in his own lifetime. It’s reported that he sold only one painting in his lifetime. His fame spread only after his death.
The spiritual dimension. The spiritual aspect of the song creates the most important takeaway for me. I know that many may convincingly argue there is no spiritual story to the song, but I see it differently. And for you who know me well, you may conclude this is just another case of me adding spiritual connotations where there are none. But this topic is worthy of discussion. Doing so will reveal many of my core beliefs…and that is the sensitive part.
The historical context. In my opinion, I think McLean uses the image of Starry Night and the life of Van Gogh to paint a clear analogy to the mysteries of the spiritual world, and more specifically the life and work of Christ. I recognize that’s a pretty bold reach, but consider the life and times in which McLean wrote the song and when it rose to popularity. McLean wrote the song in 1971 at age 26. This was smack in the middle of my generation’s most impressionable period. We had seen our President and other moral leaders shot, we had rebelled against the establishment, many experimented with drugs, witnessed the civil rights struggle & violence, suffered through Vietnam, and finally saw the hope of coming together in peace at Woodstock through music. Music was the moral voice of the day. Lyrics of that day often carried a deeper underlying meaning. And it seemed our generation had turned itself to the pursuit of the true meaning of life…the spiritual. The “Jesus Movement” was at its peak and many were also exploring the Eastern religions to fill their spiritual void. Many songs of that period carried spiritual connotations (e.g. Let It Be-Beatles, Bridge Over Troubled Waters-Simon & Garfunkel, Spirit in the Sky-Norman Greenbaum, Fire & Rain-James Taylor, My Sweet Lord-George Harrison, I Don’t Know How to Love Him/JC Superstar-Helen Reddy, Put Your Hand in the Hand-Ocean/Anne Murray, Woodstock-Joni Mitchell, There is Love-Paul Stookey, Day By Day-Godspell, Morning Has Broken-Cat Stevens and even a traditional hymn in the Top 10 with Judy Collin’s version of all things – Amazing Grace. Within that day, Jesus was sometimes portrayed as the true “Revolutionary” as in the best-selling Jesus Revolutionary poster and even in a Broadway play – Jesus Christ Superstar! After all, Jesus had ‘called out’ the establishment of his day, attracted a loyal band of followers, and taught a message of love and peace rejected during his lifetime. He started a movement that literally changed the world (after his death). So, I think “Vincent” was written with intended religious overtones as well.
Musical artists of McLean’s day. Artists rarely create a work that is specifically definable in simple black and white terms. Rather, a good piece of art opens itself up for many interpretations perhaps not noticeable at first glance. It often becomes a reflection of the one viewing the work. So whether if we’re talking about Vincent Van Gogh, Don McLean, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Harry Chapin, John Denver, John Lennon, Carol King, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, etc, etc – you’re talking about artists who created “stories” we are still interpreting and appreciating today. My point…I find it very conceivable and believable that Don McLean wrote his poetry/lyrics with that same awareness and intent. (Think Mumford & Sons today!)
Now for the nitty-gritty, soul bearing part – my interpretation of the song.
Vincent (Starry Starry Night)
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
McLean sets the hook here by introducing Van Gogh & his work. McLean let’s you know that Van Gogh has already ‘exposed his soul’…”with eyes that know the darkness of my soul”. The painting is a story full of wonder…the moon and stars filled with light, the swirling motion of the clouds, the spiritual aspect with the church steeple front and center. But yet there is that dark shadow that overpowers and obstructs this view of wonder. It reminds me of life itself. Yes wondrous, but full of contrast and mystery in the light and the dark, good & evil, and the dark shadow of our soul (sin) that obscures the light.
Now I understand what you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity How you tried to set them free
They would not listen they did not know how, perhaps they’ll listen now
Notice how personally & directly McLean speaks – “Now I” and “to me”. And now today I can say the same for the artist McLean’s work. It speaks so directly to me in a very heart-felt way. To me, this verse really brings in the analogy to the life of Jesus. How he “suffered while trying to set them free”. The people of his day did not understand, but maybe people will listen now. Just as the writer (McLean) has come to ‘now understand’ what Van Gogh was saying, we now have the possibility of understanding what Jesus tried to say. There is still hope.
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
The artist has seen and understands life firsthand. Through his eyes we are able to see the suffering of others (weathered faces lined in pain). Yet, he can help (are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand). Again, here are more commonalities to Jesus – perhaps the ‘artist’ of the universe.
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
The analogy to Christ continues. When his love was rejected, he took/gave his own life. Perhaps McLean understands that a love so beautiful cannot co-exist in a world of darkness. To me, this represents the contrast of the perfect one offering true love within an imperfect world. It would be quite easy for me to insert a reference to John 3:16 here. And of course the chorus is the meat of the song, repeated for added effect.
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 stranger that you’ve met, the ragged man in ragged clothes
The silver thorn of bloody rose, lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow
For me, this verse for some reason conjures up the imagery of old stone church buildings (like the cathedrals in Europe) now mostly empty, but with their paintings/images of the saints lining the walls, almost like museums. Their eyes “watch the world and can’t forget” to give us a historical link to those who have gone before. “The ragged men in ragged clothes” remind me of the homeless or all whose lives are ‘rough and damaged’. The contrast of the bloody rose on the virgin snow takes my thoughts to the biblical “though your sins are as scarlet they shall be washed white as snow” concept of redemption.
Now I think I know what you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity How you tried to set them free
They would not listen they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will.
McLean repeats a previous verse but adds a zinger in the closing…”They would not listen, they’re not listening still, perhaps they never will.” I think this just captures the reality of life. No matter how loving, how talented, how much you may have served others, how much you bare your soul – others may never really understand or accept you. In fact, they may totally reject you and your message. This choice in the spiritual realm represents the ‘free will’ concept of belief. Each person is empowered to accept, reject, or believe as they choose. As we each are ‘spiritual artists’ in our own unique ways, all we can do is to paint and expose the truth as we see it. It is totally up to the observer of the art to accept or reject what they see. Like an artist, God does not force His work on anyone. His “art” may lie dormant for a generation (much like Van Gogh’s) before being ‘discovered’ as something quite remarkable and valued.
So, to wrap this up with my own thought – “Vincent” is a masterful work of art in a second generational sense as McLean wisely builds upon the shoulders of Van Gogh. In a very small way, I hope my writing adds now a third generational aspect for you as well. Please excuse me for piggy-backing on Van Gogh and Don McLean to reveal more about myself to you. I have painted my story with amateur but sincere brushstrokes. It will be up to you to ‘listen’ and interpret as you choose. And like I said at the beginning, what I said about Vincent probably says more about me than Vincent. And that’s OK…especially if at some point in your life you can say “Now I understand what you tried to say to me”.
Footnote: I originally wrote this in personal form as a ‘letter’ to my children in 2009 in hopes that someday they will also “understand what I’ve tried to say”.
As I post this, today’s date is March 30th – the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh!