The Deeper Meaning Behind Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ Hit “Vincent”

In song, “Vincent” tells the story of one of the many people and places referenced within Don McLean’s seminal 1971 album, American Pie.

Videos by American Songwriter

Also known as “Starry Starry Night,” the song was an ode to the 19th century Dutch post-impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh but held a deeper meaning, something more universal, yet taboo at the time of its release.

[RELATED: 13 ‘American Pie’ Song References Revealed by Don McLean: the ‘King,’ ‘Girl Who Sang the Blues’ and More]

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
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

Confronting Mental Illness

“Vincent” revealed a truth about Van Gogh many may not have known or openly discussed when it was originally released as a single in 1972.

Now, I understand what you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

McLean’s lyrics address Van Gogh’s struggle with bipolar disorder. When “Vincent” came out, discussion of mental illness was nearly non-existence, even forbidden, McLean shared with American Songwriter in a 2022 interview.

“I was brought up in a day when absolutely nobody had therapy, and the only person who talked about therapy in the early ’60s was Woody Allen,” shared McLean. “There was a word people used: analysand.”

‘Starry Night’

Don McLean first came across Van Gogh’s story while working a gig playing guitar and singing in schools during the fall of 1970, and came across a biography of the reclusive artist. McLean was immediately pulled into Van Gogh’s life story, which inspired him to write a song in tribute to the misunderstood artist. 

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

“He had an illness and so did his brother Theo,” said McLean in a 2010 interview. “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 [Van Gogh painting] ‘Starry Night’ and wrote the lyrics out on a paper bag.”

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

Returning to “Vincent”

Following the success of McLean’s No. 1 hit “American Pie,” in 1972, “Vincent” reached No. 1 on the U.K. charts and peaked at No. 2 on the Adult Contemporary and No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

In collaboration with the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit in Los Angeles and the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, in 2022, McLean filmed a new video for “Vincent.” Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the release of “Vincent,” the new video was also released on Van Gogh’s birthday, March 30, which also marked World Bipolar Day.

[RELATED: Don McLean Says He Was Pushed Into Feud with Adele: “I Didn’t Slam Adele”]

“It’s part of my life, the song, and the history of the song,” McLean told American Songwriter of the classic song. “The effect the song has had on people, the effect the song has had on the world over the years. It’s grown and it continually brings young people to Van Gogh’s art and the art of all artists. It’s a circularity there that’s been going on for 50 years, story after story.”

Now, I think I know what you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will

Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images

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