McLean wrote “Vincent,” also known as “Starry, Starry Night,” in the fall of 1970, while he was working for the Berkshire School District. He was living in the Sedgwick House, a beautiful Federal style house in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The Sedgwick family included Edie Sedgwick, a colorful figure whom Andy Warhol had filmed in the 1960s. McLean wrote “Vincent” in his apartment full of antiques. The inspiration came to him one morning while he was sitting on the veranda looking at a book about Vincent Van Gogh. As he studied a print of Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night,” he realized that a song could be written about the artist through the painting.
“The more I thought about it, the more interesting and challenging the idea became. I put down the book and picked up my guitar, which was never far away, and started fiddling around, trying to get a handle on this idea, while the print of “Starry Night” stared up at me. Looking at the picture, I realized that the essence of the artist’s life is his art. And so, I let the painting write the song for me. Everyone is familiar with that painting.”
Van Gogh painted “Starry Night” during one of the most difficult periods of his life, while he was locked up in an asylum at Saint Remy. He had to paint the scene from memory, not outdoors as he preferred. Van Gogh mentioned “Starry Night” only twice in his letters to his brother, Theo. It is therefore one of the more mysterious and intriguing Van Gogh compositions.
The tremendous increase in value of Van Gogh’s works during the Seventies and Eighties may not have been caused by McLean’s song, but “Vincent” has become a permanent part of the Van Gogh legend.
Vincent was a bigger international hit than American Pie. In 1972, it reached number 1 in the UK and number 12 in the USA.
In recent years, the song has become even more well known thanks in part to Josh Groban’s successful version and to the song being sung by contestants on high profile shows such as American Idol and as a tribute to football legend George Best (making the UK top 3 in the process).
According to the movie “Tupac, the Resurrection,” Tupac Shakur was influenced by Don McLean, and his favorite song was “Vincent.” “Vincent”, along with “American Pie,” “And I Love You So,” and “Castles in the Air”, has been played over three million times on American radio.
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
Now I understand what you tried to say to me
How you suffered for you sanity
How you tried to set them free
They would not listen they did not know how, perhaps they’ll listen now
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
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
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
Now I think I know what you tried to say to me
How you suffered for you sanity How you tried to set them free
They would not listen they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will.