“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.”
Those words came to Don McLean as he looked at Vincent Van Gogh’s 1889 painting “The Starry Night.” Soon, he had a masterpiece of his own: “Vincent,” a 1972 hit that he released right on the heels of his defining epic “American Pie.”
Like Van Gogh’s painting, “Vincent” has touched a wide range of creative spirits over the last 50 years — even Tupac Shakur, who once told the Los Angeles Times, “The lyric on that song is so touching. That’s how I want to make my songs feel.”
In a conversation with Bart Herbison of Nashville Songwriters Association International, McLean told the story behind “Vincent.”
Bart Herbison: Don McLean, one of the greatest that ever wrote in any language or put a finger on an instrument. Let me tell you how great this song is, as if you don’t already know.
I remember the first time I ever heard those words, “Starry, starry night.” It came through a little AM radio speaker: WHBQ Memphis. My brother and I were listening to it and we both just looked at each other because we had never heard anything like it. Take us back to the writing of the song, “Vincent.”
Don McLean: That’s exactly the way I felt when I heard “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956. I guess I was 11. We used to gather around and play the new record with a group of kids, listening to the new album by somebody they liked. It was an excuse to get together and have a soda or something. Someone would have one of those futuristic, plastic radios you could take to the beach and we would think, “Whoa, what a big deal, to have a radio this small compared to the house radio.” This was a freedom, a beginning of this modern, teenage — which was a new word at the time.
I remember that night, they were outside, hearing Elvis Presley, so for you to tell me that, it gives me a wonderful feeling inside.
BH: It literally feels like it was yesterday. Jon’s across the room by the sliding glass doors and we both just look up and look at the radio (surprised). We knew. We knew.
DM: It was back to that “American Pie,” album, which didn’t have “American Pie” (the song) at the time because I hadn’t written it. I was in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I had just come out with the first record and I was broke. No money. I was singing in the Stockbridge school system, like those people who play in the class. I would play banjo for the kids in kindergarten and sing to the high school students or for the community college. I was very versatile.
BH: Just so people realize, you’re still working a day job, and that job is performing at schools.
DM: I had this book on Van Gogh and it was written by his brother, Theo. It was about how both of them had the same illness. I always thought he was the usual cliche.
BH: I think you’ve described it as “garden variety crazy,” but that’s not what was happening with him or Theo.
DM: He lost his mind over a woman, and of course he was high strung, because he was an artist. I understand. That’s not what it was — and the brother had it, too. So, I thought maybe I would write a song about this and set the record straight. I had always known his work and I had books on him, even when I had no money. I just felt something from him. Everybody does.
BH: Can I interrupt? I feel like you are writing as much about yourself, sometimes, in that song, in parts of that song, as you were writing about Van Gogh.
DM: Always. There is always something about me and what I can understand. I’ve had a lot of pain — everybody does — but a lot of emotional things, and I am a very emotional person.
BH: We are gonna go back to Stockbridge. You are inspired. You are reading a book about Vincent Van Gogh, and you’ve gotta have another song on the “American Pie” album, and boom!
DM: I would carry these papers with me, green paper, that I found in the garbage in New York. I threw it in my car because I thought they would be great to write songs on. If you see the “American Pie” lyrics that sold, they are on green paper, kind of brown around the edges now.
So I had that stuff in the house and I jotted an idea or two down on a piece of paper somewhere, and I started to work on this. I was singing into the tape recorder and looking at the “Starry Night” painting (by Van Gogh) and it was telling me what to say. I got the wind and the circularity and the breeze and Ed Freeman, the producer, brought the strings, like wind coming in and riffling the curtains. It was very subtle. I’m not so subtle sometimes, but he was, and it was very nice. Anyway, we got the song written because I was there for a week or something, a long time it seemed like to me. I was singing for a bunch of high school students that night to pick up $50. Maybe it was $100. It was a prom or something, I don’t remember. I sang this new song and they weren’t paying much attention. I sang the song and they all stopped. They looked at me.
BH: So some disengaged teenagers, not really there to see you, not paying attention and this song comes on?
DM: When that happened, I said to myself, “Wow, this is something nice, and I’m really happy with this.” I started working on it. When you hear the record, it’s just me and the guitar. It’s just one take.
DM: Yeah, I always did things in one take. “Crying” was one take. “American Pie” wasn’t. “American Pie” had edits because it was so long, but “Crying” was one performance with the Jordanaires. … I wanted to be like Bing Crosby. I wanted to have it all together and sing it right the first time. That was my approach.
BH: I cannot imagine the people that have come to you to say how much that song touched them. I think there’s no better illustration, but it was Tupac’s favorite song. His girlfriend took it into the hospital room as he lay between life and death so if the worst happened, he would be listening to this song. And it’s what Tupac left this world hearing, “Vincent.”
DM: That’s the thing. His mother insisted that (song) be in his documentary. I was so proud because we spend so much time being divided by the politicians. To be in a pandemic when people are really helping each other, to do this thing where you are trying to separate people, I don’t think is right. We are not separated. We are much closer than people realize. To somehow send the message out that it’s 1964 again, is just not true, because I was there.