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Vincent

by

Don McLean



Songfacts®:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

The words and imagery of this song represent the life, work, and death of Vincent Van Gogh. A Starry Night is one of the Dutch impressionist's most famous paintings.

The lyrics, "Paint your palette blue and gray" reflect the prominent colors of the painting, and are probably a reference to Vincent's habit of sucking on or biting his paintbrushes while he worked. The "ragged men in ragged clothes" and "how you tried to set them free" refer to Van Gogh's humanitarian activities and love of the socially outcast as also reflected in his paintings and drawings. "They would not listen/They did not know how" refers to Van Gogh's family and some associates who were critical of his kindness to "the wretched."

"How you suffered for your sanity" refers to the schizophrenic disorder from which Van Gogh suffered. (thanks, Bruce - West Columbia, SC)
McLean told The Daily Telegraph February 24, 2010 the story of this song: "In the autumn of 1970 I had a job singing in the school system, playing my guitar in classrooms. I was sitting on the veranda one morning, reading a biography of Van Gogh, and suddenly I knew I had to write a song arguing that he wasn't crazy. He had an illness and so did his brother Theo. This makes it different, in my mind, to the garden variety of 'crazy' – because he was rejected by a woman [as was commonly thought]. So I sat down with a print of Starry Night and wrote the lyrics out on a paper bag."
McLean was going through a dark period when he wrote this song. He explained to The Daily Telegraph: "I was in a bad marriage that was torturing me. I was tortured. I wasn't as badly off as Vincent was, but I wasn't thrilled, let's put it that way."
This song, and Van Gogh's painting, reflect what it's like to be misunderstood. Van Gogh painted "Starry Night" after committing himself to an asylum in 1889. He wrote that night was "more richly colored than the day," but he couldn't go outside to see the stars when he was committed, so he painted the night sky from memory.
Talking about the song on the UK show Songbook, McLean said: "It was inspired by a book. And it said that it was written by Vincent's brother, Theo. And Theo also had this illness, the same one Van Gogh had. So what caused the idea to percolate in my head was, first of all, what a beautiful idea for a piece of music. Secondly, I could set the record straight, basically, he wasn't crazy. But then I thought, well, how do you do this? Again, I wanted to have each thing be different.

I'm looking through the book and fiddling around and I saw the painting. I said, Wow, just tell the story using the color, the imagery, the movement, everything that's in the painting. Because that's him more than he is him.

One thing I want to say is that music is like poetry in so many ways. You have wit and drama and humor and pathos and anger and all of these things create the subtle tools that an artist, a stage artist, a good one, uses. Sadly, this has really gone out of music completely. So it makes someone like me a relic, because I am doing things and people like me are doing things that utilize all the classic means of emotional expression."
There could be some religious meaning in this song. McLean is a practicing Catholic, and has written songs like "Jerusalem" and "Sister Fatima" that deal with his faith. The "Starry Night" could mean creation, with many of the other lyrics referring to Jesus. (thanks, kj stephen - loganville, GA)
Josh Groban covered this on his first album, which was released in 2001 when he was 20. (thanks, Uncle - Philly, PA)
The British electronic artist Vincent Frank aka Frankmusik (check out "Better Off as Two") was named after this song.
Irish singer Brian Kennedy sang this song at footballer George Best's funeral.
According to the movie Tupac, the Resurrection, Gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur was influenced by Don McLean, and this was his favorite song. When he was fatally wounded in a drive-by shooting in 1996, his girlfriend put this tune into a player next to his hospital bed to ensure it was the last thing he heard.
Underneath the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, there is a time capsule that contains the sheet music to this song along with some of the artist's brushes. This song is often played at the museum.
This soundtracked the moment on the "'Scuse Me While I Miss the Sky" episode of The Simpsons when Lisa becomes interested in astronomy.
Don McLean
Don McLean Artistfacts
More Don McLean songs
More songs with boys' names in the title
More songs inspired by paintings or drawings
More songs covered by Josh Groban
More songs used on The Simpsons

Comments (55):

VINCENT is from the same 1971 album American Pie. Other songs on that album are Babylon, Sister Fatima and The Grave. Are you getting the tone ?

VINCENT parallels the song American Pie in that it is also an allusion. The song is NOT about Van Gogh, but Van Gogh is the allusion. Likewise, American Pie is NOT about Buddy Holly, rather dedicated to him. Buddy Holly is an allusion (not illusion, but allusion).

The name Vincent translates "the conqueror" from the Roman name Vincentius, which was from Latin vincere "to conquer". Revelation 6:2

I ask you, whose "eyes that know the darkness in my soul" ? Van Gogh ? Or He who sees a man's heart ? 1 Samuel 16:7

And when no hope was left in sight on that starry starry night . . . Mark 4:36 By the way, Van Gogh was shot by someone during broad daylight. It was not a suicide. He knew who did it but would not tell, likely an accident.

"You took your life as lovers often do" . . . John 5:13

"Like the stranger that you've met, the ragged man in ragged clothes" Matthew 25:38

Once you know what American Pie is about, you know who Vincent is .

So where did I get all this?
I just bought the book "American Pie Apocalypse", 411 pages and it deciphers the song line for line. At the end of the book it also reveals VINCENT .

Pie in Latin means mercy/charity/love . . . do you "miss American pie" ? ? ?
So where's the Kwan ? No, now it's just "show me the money".

"When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know PEACE". Jimi Hendrix
- EBEN, LAPLACE, LA
Bruce - west columbia - I think you're mistaken about your first fact- the palette sung about here is not the palate of his mouth, spelled -ette it's both the small wooden board an artist uses to mix paints together and also refers to the general range of colours an artist uses in his work. He might have chewed his brushes but i don't think that Don Mclean means his mouth had paint in it.
- mike Hill, birkenhead, United Kingdom
yes patrick , van gogh can be compared to hitler...100 million eyes have been opened by the work of vincent, and on the other hand ....100 million eyes have been perminently and brutally closed by adolph
- robert, shreveport la, LA
I always think about Adolf Hitler when I hear this song. A beautiful and misunderstood soul who's genius is sadly overshadowed by an event that occured in his time.
- Patrick, Brantford, ON
- Sylvia, New York, NY
sereously, what in the world is up with you, how the HELL could you tell he had terpintine poisoning!? Ungroanded conjecture is highly frowned upon
- Heimdallr, lakeland, Sweden
Vincent is one of my all time favorite songs. Don is an artist with words and music while Vincent was an artist with paints and colors. Both had/have such beautiful vision.
I also love Art Garfunkel's "Bright Eyes", another sad song that is very beautiful too.
- Janetlee, Panama City, FL
This is the most moving tribute in popular music. It captures tragedy like few songs ever have.
- Mike, Santa Barbara, CA
Beautiful Vincent, beautiful song, makes me cry.
- Teresa, Mechelen, Belgium
Kate,NC------i agree. pure poetry set to music. Perhaps the song McLean's most revered for. such a great song.
- Sam, Hipsville, CA
This is one of the most stunning songs ever written.I love this song.Its beautiful and haunting and simply brilliant.
- Mary, Largs, United Kingdom
Vincent Van Gogh did suffer from severe TURPENTINE poisoning which induced most of his health problems including neurological diseases such as tinnitus and chemically induced bi-polar disorders.
A popular drink during that era was a liquer known as "ABSINTHE" which also had a turpentine base (now banned).
He was probably addicted to opium which was a widely used "relaxant" and also used for a variety of ailments. Belladonna or laudanum (opium) could be readily purchased at the local pharmacy in those days.
Medically speaking, Van Gogh did "suffer" for his art during his lifetime but his bequest to us all was his unique drug induced vision of the world.
Sylvia
- Sylvia, New York, NY
Daan, I don't know the answer the question you directed to Madison, but I do know that Van Gogh had bipolar disorder, which is like very high highs and very low depression and violent swings between. Beethoven had ADD (I'm pretty sure)
- Runnawaygrrl, Sydney, Australia
The words,life was never meant for anyone as beautiful as you,make tears come from my eyes.My eyes are too tearfilled to add.
- john, Brisbane, United States
this song is about vince vaughn
- Joe, gallipolis, OH
I have been a fan of Don McLean since he recorded my all-time favorite song American Pie and he followed it up with a great example of descriptive songwriting in his tribute to the artist Vincent Van Gogh. His visual descrptions are outstanding.
- Howard, St. Louis Park, MN
Madison, is this the same condition Ludwig von Beethoven suffered from?
- Daan, Tegelen, Netherlands
Jay from New York, the condition that he had was Meniere's Disease. I know because I have it, too. I have periods of constant ringing in my ears, dizziness, confusion, severe vertigo and I see things in a dreamlike state (everything is too bright, all sounds are too loud, etc..). I also have a problem understanding simple directions sometimes. This is because my brain is working so hard to keep me balanced that it can't concentrate on doing other things. You can have Meniere's with or without depression. I am guessing Van Gogh had the more severe version. It comes from having fluid in your inner ear that never goes away and it knocks your equillibrium off balance. There is no cure, you just have to deal with the symptoms.
- Madison, Norway, ME
A gorgeous rendition of Vincent is with Don McLean performing with Chet Aktins. It's stunning. It can be found on YouTube, etc.
- Maria, SLC, UT
Don McClean must have a beuatiful soul to understand and empathize with poor Vincent Van Goghs,poor tortured soul
- Chris, Chicago, IL
When I was 4 or 5, my mom caught me crying because I couldn't draw a heart very well. I kept trying and trying, but I couldn't make it curlicue like the other girls. Mom took me over to a Starry Night print she had hanging in our living room and explained to me that the man who painted it couldn't see very well (she later told me he had cataracts (?)) and that people made fun of the way he painted. But because he painted from the heart, he later became known as a great artist. It's a sappy story, but one I've always remembered everytime I didn't "fit in" while growing up. Thank you Mom.
- Claire, Warner Robins, GA
I never really listened to anything other than American Pie by Mclean but I heard this on the radio not too long ago and was blown away... I can not agree more with Valerie (the very first comment)... This song is so beautiful I am in awe
- Colton Cerny, Minneapolis , MN
This song shows Don McLean to be a lyrical genius. And he's not bad with a melody, either.
- Mark, McHenry, IL
GREETINGS! MacLean had so many incredble songs, it took me buying a CD for AMERICAN PIE to discover they were HIS all this time! LOL ;-) "VINCENT" is, indeed, a lovely, lonely, eerie, thought-provoking, contemplative poem put to music and one I enjoy with great relish. It is also a song my best friend asked me about 15 years ago to witness on paper that it be played at his funeral ceremony - or ash-spreading ceremony - as he, too, is an artist, and has suffered for many years with depression, sanity, and his art. IMHO, Van Gogh had too many personal demons to deal with, and while they ultimately tore his soul and mind apart, they also left us with windows into his mind and helped forge the great talent that he was. As a daughter of an artist (my father), I saw HIM struggle on the edge of insanity - and often fall on the other side of it -while drowning his demons in alcohol. Such a sadness, that so many of histories' great artists - and those to come - will also have to find their way in a world that is often too difficult for them to comprehend.... - Connie, Boston, MA
- Connie, BOSTON, MA
Oops... I mean I was about 10 or 12 years old. Haha. Typos, typos.
- Mandy, Calgary
I first heard this song when I was only about 7 or 8 years old. I was in Elementary school and we were making clay versions of Vincent Van Gogh's painting, by smearing and blending the clay onto cardboard. Our teacher played it for us.

But that's not what matters, lol. I was incredibly enchanted by the song. I couldn't get it out of my head and sang it for days, but I didn't know what it was called. It has been years since I last heard that song, and today when I was searching up another song I saw the title and decided to click on it. I couldn't BELIEVE that I finally found what the song was. It literally HAS been years. I am so thrilled that I FINALLY know what this song is! It's so beautiful, and I can't wait to listen to it over and over again!
- Mandy, Calgary
The first time I heard this song was when my english teacher played it for us and told us to interpret the lyrics. I actually thought of Jesus before I thought of Van Gogh simply because I knew Don McLean was so religious. But the lyrics just fit so well.
- Kyle, Huntington, NY
Next time you listen to the song make the comparison of Jesus and Vincent in the song.
It blew me away.
- kj stephen, loganville , GA
i feel love and merriment when i hear this song
- pete, nowra, Australia
"Starry Starry Night" is one of the most famous opening lines of any song in history
- Dave, Cardiff, Wales
I heard this song the first time when I was a little girl in the mid-70's. Now when I listen to it, it makes me really think of Vincent as a great artist with brilliant mind and a tortured soul who wants to be loved and understood.
-Keigh, San Fo, Ca
- Keigh, San Francisco, CA
Van Gogh was a most prolific artist with over 2000 works of art to his credit. During his lifetime he sold 1 painting.
- David, Springfield, MO
In 1976 I put together a slide presentation to go with this song.
I picked the "Vincent" painting that I thought most closely represented each Phase or line in the song. It has been used by several vocalist in their concerts and music programs. Both of my Daughters have performed this song, with acostical guitar accompnament, while showing the slide presentation behind them. My youngest daught, Renee age 30 is perfroming it again Apr. 28 on her Graduate Vocal Performance graduate Master recital.
It is really beautiful and I would love to know what Don would think of it. And if I came close to the painting that his lyrics represent.
- arni, oklahoma city, OK
when i hear this song i listen in respect to every tortured soul sho couldnt take it anymore. Rest in peace guys
- Matthew, Penrith in syndey, Australia
My girlfriends family played this for her brother when he passed away. i listened to it and thought it refers to Van gogh, it is about a messed up soul that no one had time for because in those times people who were crazy werent very well payed attetion to. all Nathan (my gf's brother) needed was to be listened to and told things would be ok and no one had time. most beautiful of songs ever for the most tragic of tributes. im crying now listening to it.
- Matthew, Penrith in syndey, Australia
This is really a gorgeous song. In my opinion it's McLean's best.
- Kate, Charlotte, NC
i am always moved by this song.it reminds me of my father since he always sings this for me when he was still alive.this song mirrors van gogh's longing,hidden misery and lonely life.it reminds me that life is really beautiful!
- aneeka, davao, India
"Starry night" is truly an amazing song. A perfect tribute to the legend who saw what we can't see.
- vivek, bangalore, India
i feel both peace and Passion when hear this song
- ViVac, WuHan, China
This is an amazing song. I immidiately knew what it was about the first time I heard it.
- Stefanie, Rock Hill, SC
This song is available in Julio Iglesias album
" Starry night " . He covered " Vincent " and you feel like he is captured Vincent Van Gogh's soul . Very tender , warm , like a whisper ... For those who are interested there is a book about Vincent written by Henry Perruchot " The life of Van Gogh " which is really nice . The author tell the story of Vincent's life . Love , passion , talent , innocence , kindness , loneliness , darkness , splendid colours , light... All is there , in the heart and life of Vincent . Here is some quotes by Vincent Van Gogh : " One may have a blazing heart in one's soul and yet no one ever comes to sit by it.Passersby see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on the way . I wish they would only take me as i am .I dream my painting , and then i paint my dream ."
- Clementina, Sofia
I cried when I first heard this song
- Stephanie, Denver, CO
Yes, Kathy of England, it was only one of many unrewarding relationships that Van Gogh got himself mixed up in with regards to the streetwalker who received the gift of ear. BTW, Kirk Douglas was Oscar nominated for his 1956 portayal of VVG in the Vincente Minnelli directed "Lust For Life." There's a great scene in the film between Anthony Quinn, who won Best Supporting Actor for his Paul Gauguin role, and Douglas that reflects upon - as does McLean's hit song - our demented yet sensitive painter. GAUGUIN: All I see when I look at your paintings is just that you paint too fast. VAN GOGH: You look too fast!
- Leya Qwest, Anchorage, AK
I read somewhere that Van Gogh cut off (well, sliced in half) his ear, put it in an envelope and took it to the lover that had spurned him, a prostitute in a brothel.
- Kathy, N-U-L, England
Is it possible that he could have suffered from a bad tinitus? (a very disturbing, monotone sound that comes from the inner ear all the time and makes you go insane)
- Benjamin, Heidelberg, Germany
This is one of my favorite songs. When I heard this song sometime ago I was moved by its melancholic melody. It was the kind of melody that made me feel so deeply and it disturbed me. Sometime later I've known the title of the song, its artist and the story behind the song. It vividly tells the short life story of Vincent van Gogh indeed and I was more drawn to the song from then on. Don McLean delivers the song incomparably. With a perfect melody, singer and lyrics the song is simply beautiful. (I came from the Philippines not Indonesia but my country was not included in the list of countries to choose from when I register as a requirement to post a comment. I hope it will be included next time).God bless everyone!
- Maureen, bali, Indonesia
I have heard that Van Gogh may have suffered from inner ear problems. (I do not remember the name of the condition.) He cut his ear off in a futile attempt to cure himself and killed himself when the pain was too much to take. Inner ear problems could explain the peculiar distortions in many of his paintings. No matter what the cause of Van Gogh's difficulties, I think we can all agree that this is a truly beautiful song and that it captures the wonder of his paintings.
- Jay, New York, NY
Daan, i really think thats interesting, im doing a presentation for health class and WOULD like to know more about that stuff...sans_rien@hotmail.com
- katty, saskatoon, Canada
<<"How you suffered for your sanity" refers to the schizophrenic disorder from which Van Gogh suffered.>> It is also thought that his mental illness may have resulted from lead poisoning. Van Gogh used lead-based paints and had a habit of biting his brushes while he was working.
- Nessie, Sapporo, Japan
This was one of Tupac Shakur's favorite songs.
- Adam, Poplar Bluff, MO
Absinth, as mentioned in Tina's comment, is a drink that used to be popular in van Gogh's time and was indeed said to have some mind clouding side-effects, which was also contributing to its popularity. Absinth is made out of several herbs, anice and some other stuff. The drink contains 45 to 80% (!) alcohol. Recently, so I believe, the drink has been re-legalised in the Netherlands or Belgium. Van Gogh was aid to be a fanatic addict to the drink, regarding the strange side-effects and the high alcohol percentage.
Another famous user of absinth is Ocsac Wilde, he once said:

"After the first glass you see things as you'd wish they were...
After the second you see things as they are not.
After the third you see things as they really are and that is the most horrible thing in the world."

No wonder van Gogh committed suicide.
If you need any more information on absinth (although off-topic)I will gladly offer it to you.
- Daan, Tegelen, Netherlands
I read somewhere that Van Gogh enjoyed the effects of absinth(sp?), which in it's third stage is supposed to make you hallucinate. Which, could definately explain alot of the techniques in his Paintings, such as Starry Night.Being Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists, the first time i heard the song(I was about..12..) i know immediatly what it was about.
- Tina, Barnegat, NJ
The fact is, people aren't sure whether Van Gogh suffered clinical depression, or clinical schizophenia, or what. There were no real 'clinics' or even real 'psychiatrists'. No MRIs that could have told us whether his condition was 'organic'or not. He was a gifted and dedicated artist, though.
They say that Van Gogh wasn't insane but was epleptic and the medication he took for it,foxglove, has the knwn side effect of eventually causing blurring of the eyes. So the swirly stars he painted may be just the way he actually saw them!
- loretta, albany, NY
Almost every line on the song can be related to painitng of Van Gogh, aside from the obvious Starry Night.
- Sandra, Tel Aviv, Israel
This song can really make a person think. Some say Vincent Van Gogh was insane, but Don McLean presented us with his opinion, which is, above all, beautiful.
- Valerie, Boise, ID
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