US singer-songwriter Don McLean is best known for American Pie, his folk-rock epic that referenced the plane crash that killed some of the brightest stars of the 50s. However, his first UK number 1 was its follow-up, the ode to Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, Vincent.
Donald McLean III was born 2 October 1945 in New Rochelle, New York, with roots on his father’s side to Scotland. His mother was Italian. The young McLean suffered severe asthma and was forced to miss long periods of school, so he took solace in folk music, particularly The Weavers.
When McLean was 15, his father died and he immersed himself in music once more, buying his first guitar and starting to make contacts in the industry, including befriending Fred Hellerman from The Weavers. He graduated from preparatory school in 1963 and dropped out of Villanova University after four months and became a part-time student so he could devote himself to folk music. He became a regular at venues in New York and Los Angeles.
1968 was a pivotal year for McLean, where he finally chose music over education. He turned down a scholarship in Colombia and later on received a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts to expand his live performances. He took advice from folk legend Pete Seeger and supported him in 1969.
While the Berkeley student riots went on around him in California, McLean recorded his debut album Tapestry. The album was rejected 72 times, until the small label Mediarts released it in 1970. McLean may well have remained unknown, had the company not been bought out by United Artists Records. With a much bigger budget behind him, he recorded his follow-up American Pie.
As the world knows, the title track, released in late 1971 after the album, was the biggest song of McLean’s career. This sprawling epic, inspired by the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in 1959, popularised the term ‘the day the music died’ after the plane crash that killed them. It also charted his youth and developments in youth culture – at least, that’s the theory, as McLean has never explained. American Pie reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, but stalled at number two in the UK. It took Madonna to make it a number 1, in 2000.
Track three on the LP, Vincent, was inspired by McLean looking through a book about Van Gogh one morning. One of the artworks he came across was The Starry Night. This oil on canvas, pained in June 1889, depicted Van Gogh’s view from the east-facing window of his asylum room at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence psychiatric hospital. Van Gogh was prone to psychotic episodes and delusions, and had famously cut off part of his left ear during an argument with Paul Gaugin. Van Gogh had entered this hospital a month prior to his painting, and a year later he was dead from a self-inflicted shot to the chest.
The Starry Night is a beautiful painting, and the opening to Vincent is too.
‘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’
Unfortunately, it’s downhill from there. I must admit Vincent has never interested me beyond that intro and upon further research, I’m put off even less. The lyrics are rather patronising – McLean gives the impression that he understands the fate of Van Gogh because he too is some kind of tortured genius, and that we mere normal people will never understand it. Maybe so, but this isn’t a work of genius, it’s average, and I have to confess I’ve always found American Pie somewhat overrated too. So yes, McLean, to paraphrase, I would not listen, I’m not listening still, and perhaps I never will. I can live with that.
It would be eight years before McLean’s next number 1, a cover of Roy Orbison’s Crying.
Written by: Don McLean
Producer: Ed Freeman
Weeks at number 1: 2 (17-30 June)
18 June: British European Airways Flight 548 crashed near Staines in Surrey. 116 of the 118 people on board were dead by the time ambulances arrived, and the two survivors died before reaching hospital. It was the worst UK disaster for 16 years, until the Lockerbie bombing. An inquiry later revealed the pilot had a heart condition and an argument with crew may have caused the plane to have a deep stall.
23 June: Chancellor of the Exchequer Anthony Barber announced a decision to float the pound as a temporary measure. It has floated ever since.