Legendary singer-songwriter Don McLean, 76, has released an intimate recorded performance of his song “Vincent,” shot at the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit in Los Angeles. Recorded on Feb. 28, McLean played the guitar-plucked rendition to honor of the 50th anniversary of his enduring album American Pie (which includes hits including “American Pie” and “Vincent”), the song’s namesake Vincent Van Gogh, and the International Society for Bipolar Disorders (ISBD).
Released to the public Wednesday (March 30) on the Immersive Van Gogh website, the drop coincides both with Van Gogh’s birthday (born 1853) and World Bipolar Day. Viewers are encouraged by the exhibitors to make donations to the ISBD in its honor.
Just after his performance, McLean told Billboard he was inspired to write “Vincent” after reading a book on the painter more than 50 years ago. “But after I read that, I just looked at the Starry Night painting and I thought, ‘I’m just going to let the painting tell me what to write.'” For the songwriter, he felt writing about Van Gogh was an “accessible” subject. “Growing up, everyone hears the story of Van Gogh,” he said. “It was almost like a child’s story, a fable,” and thus, a perfect subject for a biographical folk song.
Many speculate that Van Gogh — who struggled with mental illness throughout his life and made many of his greatest works while in an asylum — had bipolar disorder. Left untreated and misunderstood, Van Gogh took his own life in 1890. In “Vincent,” McLean treats the artist’s suffering with great tenderness, singing, “When no hope was left inside 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.”
“I’ve always tried to write something no one else has written before,” McLean continued. “There was only one other song about a painter I knew about, one about a master painter from the 1950s, and I wanted to write something very different.”
The resulting work became one of his greatest hits of his career. Peaking at No. 12 on Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the Adult Contemporary charts 50 years ago, in March 1972, the song has since been covered countless times by artists including James Blake, Josh Groban, Ellie Goulding, and Lianne La Havas. The album American Pie spent seven weeks atop the Billboard 200, and 48 weeks on the chart overall.
Reflecting on the lasting impact of his work, so many years later, McLean concluded, “I’ve been given a gift [as a songwriter], which has taken me through all these years, and I knew, even then, that ‘Vincent’ was going to last. I knew that American Pie was going to last.”