In 1971, Lori Lieberman, an up-and-coming ballad singer, went to see Don McLean at the Troubadour nightclub in Hollywood.
During the course of the performance, especially when Empty Chairs was sung, Lieberman felt that McLean was holding up a mirror to her soul: “I felt exposed – as though he were singing about me and my life”, she later described.
She was moved so intensely that she began to write a poem about her feelings right there in the nightclub. Her emotions were soon translated into the hit song, Killing Me Softly With His Song.
That’s right, it was Lieberman who “felt he’d found my letters and read each one out loud”, not Roberta Flack or Lauryn Hill.
I tell this story because I too know what it feels like to be moved, and slightly haunted, by Don McLean’s music.
Magic FM was my favourite station as a child and they would very frequently play Vincent, McLean’s elegy for Vincent van Gogh. Vincent is to me what Empty Chairs was to Lieberman.
In both songs the melancholia of the melodies is complimented and enhanced by the motif of misunderstanding and loss created by the lyrics. Take the choruses:
And I wonder if you know
That I never understood
That although you said you’d go
Until you did, I never thought you would.
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.
For both speakers, understanding dawns when it is too late, when the misunderstood is already gone.
The songs are also similar in the powerful images they create. The scenes of heartache and grief are vivid, from Empty Chair’s “empty rooms that echo as I climb the stairs/And empty clothes that drape and fall on empty chairs” to Vincent’s “portraits hung in empty halls/Frameless heads on nameless walls”.
As a child, I enjoyed listening to Vincent for the elegant, rolling melody and the gentleness of McLean’s voice but I always knew there was a weight, a particular kind of sadness in the song that I only began to understand as I grew older.
Like van Gogh, who did much of his work whilst in asylums, painting scenes from memory because he was locked away from the natural world, McLean was no stranger to dark thoughts and mental struggles.
Vincent is like an outstretched hand from a poet to a painter in the midst of what was to both of them a lonely world: “but I could have told you Vincent/this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”.
I write this article on Don McLean’s 75th birthday. Although he will almost definitely never read it, I am grateful for the outstretched hand I have found in his music.
He has shown me that words can be used to reflect all the shades and contours of the mind and that a song can bind kindred spirits separated by geographies, generations and even death.