Released on the classic 1971 album American Pie, Vincent became a No1 hit in the UK in 1972 and has gone on to influence an extraordinary range of musicians, covered by everyone from metal punks NOFX to Dame Julie Andrews to Rick Astley.
It begins almost abruptly – as if Mc Lean is responding to an unheard voice.
There’s no instrumental introduction: the vocal and guitar begin simultaneously: “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.” When Mc Lean sings of the dead painter seeing into the darkness of his own soul, he’s asserting a kinship of creativity, a shared sensitivity to life’s beauty and pain.
Van Gogh painted the swirling, hyper real Starry Night, after committing himself to an asylum in St Remy in 1889.
In the soil beneath Amsterdam’s Van Gogh museum waits a time capsule containing a set of the artist’s brushes – and the sheet music for Don Mc Lean’s Vincent (Starry Starry Night).
Museum staff play the song for visitors every day, although there’s no danger of it being forgotten.
Indeed, it is likely to be the American singer’s powerful portrait of misunderstood genius that brought them there in the first place.The same is surely true for the thousands who are currently flocking to see the Royal Academy’s hugely popular exhibition The Real Van Gogh – The Artist and his Letters, which is shaping up to be one of the shows of the year.“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. 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.” With its bittersweet palette of major and minor chords, Vincent’s soothing melody is one of high emotion recollected in tranquillity.The lyrical list of colours – the “swirling clouds in violet haze”, the eyes of “China blue” the “snowy linen land” – evoke a mental slide show of the artist’s work.The stop-start of Mc Lean’s humble delivery pays homage to the stop-start brush strokes of its subject and capture the paintings’ sense of spontaneity, building toward the moment of high, romantic drama – the strum – when the artist takes his own life.