Sunday, July 31, 2011

Don McLean, Vincent and Karma


I was listening to ‘Vincent’ from Don McLean’s American Pie album again today. I probably listen to it at least once a month. All things considered – subject matter, mood, lyrics, music, and performance – I still regard it as probably the most perfectly crafted song that I have ever heard.  It still gives me goose bumps. 

Later, I again pondered the Don McLean mystery. One stupendously brilliant album, and very little else of note. Why? I turned to his Wikipedia bio, mining for insights.

At the end of that article, there is this curious tidbit: “McLean had a series of conflicts with Saturday Night Live writer Andy Breckman, starting when Breckman opened for McLean on tour in 1980. Breckman and McLean have penned competing renditions of the origins of this feud, both of which are available online.”

Here are those duelling articles:

While I’m not sure that McLean’s ten year late rebuttal does much to settle the score, or to set the record straight, if he truly was secretly paying Breckman out of his own pocket while touring, that does add a quite a head-scratching layer of irony to the tale.

McLean is still a frustrating, intriguing mystery to me, but at least now I can appreciate that there may be some karmic rhythm to it all. Could the man who crafted something as perfectly beautiful as ‘Vincent’ also be an insufferably obnoxious a-hole of legendary proportions?

Footnote #1: The page about ‘Vincent’ on McLean’s website,, is well worth reading.

Footnote #2: Every yin needs a yang. If McLean’s version is perfect, then the cover version of ‘Vincent’ by Josh Groban is perfectly vile. Some songs don’t lend themselves well to being covered, but Groban’s overwrought abomination desecrates a masterpiece. It’s like pissing on Michelango’s Pieta. The only good thing that I can say about it is that it nicely demonstrates by counter-example what I enjoy about McLean’s performance on the original version. McLean seems to knock it off in a matter-of-fact, workmanlike fashion, like it’s nothing, making it so approachable that when its power ultimately hits you, it stings all the more. It shares a characteristic of many of my favourite artworks. In some respects, they can appear deceptively simple.


Cris Guia said...

I think you lack some of the unusual perceptiveness that I believe most artists normally have, since you seem to believe someone who creates mean-spirited scripts for laughs rather than someone who creates beautiful, heartwarming songs, and from that flimsy, idiotic "feud" you base your "Karma" analysis. If that is all you can come up with, then you must believe that "Karma" is also what happened to Vincent Van Gogh's career while he was alive. Anyway, if you really want to understand what happened to Don McLean's career, then the answer, I believe, is in his remarkable songs, most of which are on YT. Those songs will tell you that he wrote what he wanted to, not what the record companies wanted him to--more American Pie-type songs. They insisted, he refused, hence his career. Still, I enjoyed reading half of your blog, so thank you.

Lumacraft Photography said...

Cris, thanks for your comments. I'm not sure that there is more merit in judging the truth of the dispute based on these two guys' career output than there is in analyzing their respective reminiscences. With so little to go on, all we can do is speculate and ask questions. If McLean is as vile as Breckman says, why has no one else told a similar story about McLean in four plus decades? After all, celebrity media reporters are generally not known for being shy or deferential. I don't believe that McLean's "refusal" to pattern his future albums on American Pie explains anything though. Neither McLean or anyone expected American Pie to be the commercial success that it was. He was just writing what he wanted to. And he continued to do just that afterward, as you said. So, that is the mystery of it, not an explanation! One time his approach yields gold, every other time salt. I wonder if there might be any enlightenment to be found by looking at other artists who contributed one or two great works, and then flared out for the better part of a lifetime: Harper Lee, Orson Welles, William Styron ..

Cris Guia said...

I understand your point, but I don't agree that Don McLean's career did not yield gold other than his American Pie album, because so many of his songs before and after that album are pure gold and other priceless gems we can think of. That's why we see ourselves as special because we recognize and appreciate Don McLean's rare talent without basing our opinions on the record charts and the media.