This week RennyBA and I had a rare pleasure. An intimate acoustic based concert from Don McClean who is currently doing a series of such concerts in Europe. The scene was Rockefeller, an old bathhouse, turned music club with room for only about 500 concert-goers. Although he is now 65 years old he gave us a show which proved both his voice and his playing skills are still in fine form. As a matter of fact as luck would have it his band didn’t make the tour because of the recent volcanic activity in Iceland, so for the first time in many years McLean is doing a one man show, performing solo with just his guitar and banjo, a rare treat indeed. Performing all on his own he still had no problem filling the room with music and pleasing the crowd.
He started the evening by promising us “we are going to do a lot of singing tonight” and he held his word on that note. Singing concerts for over 40 years, he still approaches his audience with an authentic common man attitude, and an originality and interest which makes us feel part of the show. One really gets the impression he has done live shows for 40 years because he really enjoys it. He sang not only his favorites from his own songbook, but also played music from his own favorite artists such as Billy Holly, Elvis, Woody Guthrie and Roy Orbeson.
Naturally enough the audience eagerly awaited his classic hit, “American Pie”, a tribute to his idol, Buddy Holly and in memory of the plane crash which took the life of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritche Valence. He got even the somewhat reserved Norwegian audience involved and singing the well known refrain “Bye bye miss American pie, drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry.” The song is as well known here in Scandinavia as in the streets of his home state of New York. The couple we shared a table with told us that this song played non-stop all summer long in 1971. Stop by RennyBA’s Terella and watch his amateur video and read his thoughts and info about Don McLean.
Since Renny has chosen to focus on American Pie, I will look at the interpretation of ”Vincent”, which many also call Starry Starry Night. I like the tone and melody of this song as well as its imagery in the lyrics. McLean is known for his poetic imagery and I think it shows a whole different quality in song writing then is common today.
The song Vincent is a tribute to the famous painter, Vincent Van Gogh and the text represent the life, work and death of this Dutch Impressionist. A Starry Night is one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings and the line “paint your pallet blue and grey” refer to the prominent colors in this artwork. The reference to “ragged men in ragged clothes” and “how you tried to set them free” probably refer to Van Gogh’s humanitarian activities and love of the socially outcast. This is also present in his paintings and drawings. Further in the same verse “They would not listen/They did not know how” likely refers to Van Gogh’s family and some associates who were critical of his fascination of “the wretched.” As many well know Van Gogh is thought to have suffered from Schizophrenia, thus the line “how you suffered for your sanity”.
Don McLean himself tells the Daily Telegraph about how the song was written. In his typical story-teller form he recounts: “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. So I sat down with a print of Starry Night and wrote the lyrics out on a paper bag.”
This kind of authenticity and insight into human nature is exactly what I think makes Jon McLean’s music a rare jewel in American music history.