Empty Chairs: Fusion of Van Gogh and McLean

Me singing "Empty Chairs" to an empty chair early in the morning.

          I love music and painting.  I am especially struck when both of these loves cross in ways that the artists may not have intended.

          Don McLean, one of my favorite singers wrote and sang the eternally popular "Vincent", an obvious reference to the tragic life and works of one of my favorite painters, Vincent Van Gogh.

          McLean has another, less popular but equally melodic and sorrowful song -- "Empty Chairs".  Although not another direct reference to Van Gogh, it nevertheless leads me back toVincent.

          I have always connected the song's theme of sorrow and its title to two of Van Gogh's paintings -- "Vincent's Chair with His Pipe" and "At Eternity's Gate".  I can't look at these paintings without associating them with the song nor listen to the song without picturing the paintings in my mind.

Vincent's Chair and Pipe.  Background and interpretation of this painting and another chair painting (Gauguin's Chair) can be read at www.vggallery.com

There's a short, informative article on this emotionally powerful painting at Wikipedia.

          McLean's songs, especially "Vincent" and "Empty Chairs" are "high art" in themselves.  They are works of art that complement the equally high art of painting.  They should be, if it were only possible,  captured, framed and hung in a museum too.

          "Empty Chairs" expresses, in melody and lyrics, the painful feeling of loneliness and regret.  As in every regretful experience the heaviness and sorrow comes crashing when the moment has already passed -- when we already lost what we didn't think we'd lose.

          McLean starts with soft words and music, using his trademark gifts as a melody maker and lyricist (earning him immortality as the subject of the song "Killing Me Softly with His Song"):

I feel the trembling tingle of a sleepless night 
Creep through my fingers and the moon is bright 

Beams of blue come flickering through my window pane 
Like gypsy moths that dance around the candle flame 

          Then he continues to establish the mood and theme by gently recollecting the simple joys of what he now does not have.  What other object in nature competes with the profound emotions that moonlight evokes?

Moonlight used to bathe the contours of your face 
While chestnut hair fell all around the pillow case 
And the fragrance of your flowers rest beneath my head 
A sympathy bouquet left with the love that's dead 

          The chorus sorrowfully expresses in four lines the heart of regret -- the failure to heed signs and words until the eventual loss of that which one has neglected or refused to act on:

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 

          Then the next four lines will employ the power of repetition and vocal emotion emphasizing obstinate refusal to heed what the other has been expressing all along until it's too late:

Never thought the words you said were true 
Never thought you said just what you meant 
Never knew how much I needed you 
Never thought you'd leave, until you went

          "Never thought", "never thought", "never knew", " never thought" -- anaphora resembling the "if only's" and "I should haves" in life; different expressions and situations but always ending with the same feelings and results.

          The third stanza resumes his daily lament and tails the song with the first mention of the title itself:

Morning comes and morning goes with no regret 
And evening brings the memories I can't forget 
Empty rooms that echo as I climb the stairs 
And empty clothes that drape and fall on empty chairs 

          McLean ends the song  with the chorus, leading us back to the repetitious sorrowful feeling of regret...

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 

          One of the saddest themes in life is regret: when we let go of what we already have or what we could have had simply because we fail to realize its value at that point in time.  This also happens when we are not courageous and bold enough to reach out and act on a dream or a goal.

         In Don McLean's "Empty Chairs" regret is expressed in the context of romantic love.   Here he describes losing a woman with a beautifully contoured face and chestnut hair due to his failure to recognize and listen to what she already told him she would do... "that although you said you'd go until you did I never thought you would..."

           How many times has something similar happened to me and to you?

           In Van Gogh's two paintings "Vincent's Chair with His Pipe" and "At Eternity's Gate" he explored and captured a little over a hundred years ago the same theme of sorrow and regret.  I believe he expressed the themes of romantic (Vincent himself has had a few deeply sorrowful romances), personal and spiritual regret.  These, I believe are three of the top themes of life, whether we acknowledge it or not -- our innate longing to love and be loved by a fellow human being whom we can physically touch and the perfect love of a Supreme Being.

          The first, romantic love and regret is clear enough for most of us but the second, the longing and regret in the spiritual realm, may be debatable or uninteresting to some.  However, if you care to indulge, I believe that for all the writings and speculations we have on Vincent Van Gogh we cannot completely understand "What he tried to say to me" as McLean puts it in his song "Vincent", if we simply choose to brush this aside.

          This post cannot deal in detail with this second theme so in the meantime may I refer you to Katherine Powers Erickson's (at religion.online.org) thoughts on Van Gogh's religious beliefs EVEN AFTER HE DISTANCED himself from organized religion.

          Vincent's spiritual journey was very sad.  He was a minister's son.  He became a former art dealer, and had a religious and missionary zeal that was rejected by both Protestant and Catholic leaders and parisioners in spite of, or perhaps because of, a strong and fervent desire to serve God and his fellow human beings.

          I know so many books have been written and so many post mortem psychological analyses have been done on Vincent but I believe his spiritual longings and regret should be understood in order to finally get what the artist "tried to say" with "his loving (but misunderstood) hands".

          The empty chair expresses loneliness in any of its forms.  The old man sitting on his chair with both hands propping his head desperately contemplating on eternity as he nears the end of his life expresses the deep anguish of his unmet or unfulfilled spiritual longings.

Copied from Dr. Gachet's portrait of Vincent on his deathbed.  I drew this in my journal after reading one of Van Gogh's biographies.  Copied from Dr. Gachet's portrait of Vincent on his deathbed.

          Both Van Gogh and McLean perfectly expressed sorrow through an empty chair -- one through paintings and the other through songs.

          May we learn to embrace sorrow because it is part of our voyage in life.  When processed correctly it can help us live more meaningful lives, fulfilling relationships and peace with our Eternal Creator.  Hopefully, we don't end our lives sitting in front of an empty chair nor sit on one, desperately knocking at Eternity's Gate.


More on my personal thoughts on Van Gogh and painting at the Yellow House.


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