Starry, starry night

And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night,
You took your life, as lovers often do.
from ‘Vincent’ by Don McClean

I remember hearing the song the first time ever in my second year at high school, and wondered at those stars that bristled in the night sky of my imagination as I listened; the song had considerable air-play at the time and was one of the works that Don McLean had unleashed on a world that had, until then, turned a deaf ear to him.  Two years later I was referred to it again when a friend was ecstatically relating his readings of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother, Theo.  By this time I had already seen the works of Van Gogh, their thatching of colour, the comet-like glow of the stars and swirling cypresses and realised I’d never come even close to the subject of Don McClean’s song.  I didn’t have the LP, but it was a popular enough song to easily come across it on a station somewhere, if you did enough listening, and I waited for the chance to hear it again with my mind more open to its subject.

When next I heard it, I was able to relish the pathos of its ending that had Vincent, like a thwarted lover, taking his own life ‘..on that starry, starry night’ ; no doubt while the stars of his creations whirled in a shrill vortex of cold in the night sky.  How well, I felt, had the songwriter described the agonised climax of this passionate lover of the world, which only rejected the art he wished to praise it with.  The song was a miniature worked in frosty tears that painted the artist’s life to its tragic close, so it seemed to me, the songwriter reporting it in poignant voice, guitar and lyric.

Years dropped away like leaves, Vincent passing out of my eye, finally to be revisited with Paul Cox’s 1987 film ‘Vincent’, which relates the story of Vincent’s life through his correspondence with Theo.  I did not see the film until around 2009/2010, and it brought to mind Don McClean’s song as well, a song I had not heard for many years; I felt impelled to give it a listen again.  What I heard this time was the sheer artifice of the song; the writer had taken an image from the artist’s own work and set it as the scene of his suicide, which by all accounts in fact took place in an open field in the wind and light of the afternoon!  Could it be that the songwriter was unaware of the actual circumstances of Vincent’s life, or was what I thought of as ‘truth’ being sacrificed for another purpose?

It was in reading the works of the Greek writer and poet, Kazantzakis, that I discovered the answer, or at least an answer that smacked true for me.  Kazantzakis wrote of the seeming growing ‘autonomy’ of a work of art as it moves more and more away from the ‘authority’, the control of its maker in the process of creation.  At some point the work of art points out its own directions in which to develop which are governed by aesthetic necessities; the artist will amend the reality of the event, the object of their description in deference to the requirements of the completed work in as the much the artist determines that to be.

Looking, then, at ‘Vincent’ I saw the ending that McLean proposed as something governed or perhaps dictated by the aesthetic of the song overall.  The lyrics draw on various paintings by Van Gogh, and the painting ‘The Starry Night’ afforded a climactic beauty upon which the artist would, according to the force of his song’s narrative, end his life.  It is simply one of countless cases where the artist allows art to determine the form rather than life which serves as a rich material only, and is subject to the aesthetic compulsion of the work it contributes to.  McLean has created a vision, or rather, ‘version’ of the artist’s suicide that works perfectly as a curtain-fall to the narration of the passionate ‘lover-artist’ of man and nature.  Perhaps it is a choice Van Gogh himself would rather have made, to fall there in the space of his own magnificent radiances of star and flaming cypress.

I agree, therefore, to accept the reality of the artist’s work as just as true, or even as Kazantzakis argues, a ‘truer’ one than its reality.

For reference I post below the entire lyric and Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’.

Vincent by Don McLean

[Verse 1]
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
Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land

Now I understand 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 did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

[Verse 2]
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

Now I understand 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 did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left in sight
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

[Verse 3]
Starry, starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frameless heads on nameless walls
With eyes that watch the world and can’t forget
Like the strangers that you’ve met
The ragged men in the ragged clothes
The silver thorn of bloody rose
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow

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



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