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Thursday, September 2, 2010

The "frightening clarity" of eyes that watch the world and can't forget.....

You can still catch it blasting over the airwaves nearly forty years after its release.  Our inimitable "American Pie" has never lost  its wondrous flavor.

Hypnotic melody and those oh-so perplexing lyrics.  One musicologist has a very intriguing analysis shedding much light on just what the hell is the meaning hidden in the threads of the song.

Yet in the enormous shadow of this epic is another Don McLean masterpiece with starkly different tones & colors, quite literally.
In 1971 the song writer had read a bio about Vincent Van Gough and was so moved he composed the song "Vincent."  It became a hit in 1972, the same year that "American Pie" dominated the music charts.
Throughout "Vincent" are references to those immortal landscape paintings as well as his self-portraits, the latter of which McLean thinks the troubled artist found solace.

A major aspect of this haunting ballad is the touching tribute to Van Gough himself, his rejections, and horrific personal torment brought on by severe mental illness, possibly bipolar and, later, schizophrenic depression.

According to one source:

"McLean pays tribute to van Gogh by reflecting on his lack of recognition: 'They would not listen / they did not know how / perhaps they'll listen now.' In the final chorus, McLean says 'They would not listen / They're not listening still / Perhaps they never will.' This is the story of van Gogh: unrecognised as an artist until after his death.

"The lyrics suggest that van Gogh was trying to 'set [people] free' with the message in his work. McLean feels that this message was made clear to him: 'And now I understand what you tried to say to me,' he sings. Perhaps it is this eventual understanding that inspired McLean to write the song.
"It is also thought that the song intends to portray van Gogh's tough relationship with his family. They were a wealthy family who did not accept him for his bipolar disorder ('for they could not love you') and never understood his will to help the poor. It is thought that van Gogh felt that in killing himself he would make the point to his parents. This is seen in the line 'Perhaps they'll listen now.'"

In 1890, wracked by his mental demons, Van Gough committed suicide by shooting himself.  It took him two days to die. With his brother Theo at his deathbed, his reported final words were "La tristesse durera toujours" (the sadness will last forever).  Van Gough was just 37 years of age.  It was only after his death that he would be recognized as one of history's greatest artists whose 2,000 paintings and drawings helped establish the foundations of modern art.

And yet he sold only one painting during his short life -- in his final year on earth:  "The Red Vineyard at Arles," bought by another impressionist painter, Anna Boch, for 400 Francs (equal to $1,600 today.)  In 1990, "Red Vineyard" was auctioned for the staggering sum of $82,500,000.

"I experience a period of frightening clarity," said Van Gough, "in those moments when nature is so beautiful.  I am no longer sure of myself, and the paintings appear as in a dream."

Dream indeed.  Dream deferred.

Thank you, Don McLean, for helping us remember the ragged genuis in ragged clothes behind all the colors. 


Soooz said...

A marvelous singer songwriter, his reflections linger long after the song has played.

I titled my own biography "Empty Chairs" the Don Mclean song resounded like an anthem in my head for many years.

He is a word warrior, and he holds his standard high.

Lovely post. A combination of art forms that hits the target beautifully.

Tom Kinsolving said...

McLean truly is a wondrous composer & singer. That interpretation of "American Pie" was fascinating, too. But the way he sings "Vincent," with such exquisite timing, really is a marvel.
Thanks, Sooz, for the kudos on the post. Labor of love, it was.