While browsing through the archive the other day, I realized it’s been awhile since we’ve had a contributor here on T-Sides. So, I put out a call to some trusted associates, asking if there was anyone who’d like to take a turn at it. Fellow Popdose associate Dw. Dunphy answered the call with this alluring write-up of a tune and artist yours truly had never heard until now. Ah, and thus, the whole point of having different voices here. So, without further delay…
This is nothing new, really. Don MacLean had a fairly big hit with his maudlin folkie, “Vincent,” in case you don’t recall, but even though Vincent Van Gogh is also the protagonist of the song “Skin” from VOL (1995) by Vigilantes Of Love, the similarities end there. First off, lead vigilante Bill Mallonee is one of the most insidious songwriters I’ve ever come across. He will take a character, historical figure or event and start the song from there, then sneakliy shift focus. It was about this, but it’s really about that.
Vigilantes Of Love: “Skin” (download)
The same holds true here. The line, “Your princess, she don’t want to know you / Your princess, she don’t want to hear / So Vincent, he picked up the blade / And he put it to his ear,” goes far enough into framing Van Gogh’s instability. But after that, the song recasts itself into something many songwriters dread and far fewer navigate gracefully: The pep talk tune. They dread it because it is almost impossible to write one convincingly, and because it’s even harder not to drown in the murk of inspirational cliches and Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling montage scores. “If you’re gonna come around here and say those sorts of things / You’re gonna take a few on the chin / Talkin’ ’bout love and all that stuff? / You better put on your thickest skin.” Nowhere is the listener being discouraged from being an openhearted proponent in an artistic setting. On the contrary, it’s being encouraged, but with the implicit proviso that a cynical world may not react kindly to it.
The chorus is sewn up with this less than triumphant sentiment: “Sometimes you can’t please everyone / Sometimes you can’t please anyone at all / So you sew your heart on to your sleeve / And wait for the axe to fall.” I suspect what songwriter Mallonee is trying to say is that it is Van Gogh’s peaceful scenes that we remember most (the starry night, the fields of corn that, disturbingly, he would go to in a suicide attempt). Other painters may have made their bones on angst and torment, but Vincent’s work, while ornate, had a naivete that gave off a second life, a third and a fourth. If I say Picasso’s Guernica, do you automatically see it in your mind? If I say Van Gogh’s Starry Night, how about that? I rest my case.
It is Mallonee’s ability to extract universality out of unlikely sources that make the most powerful statements. If you gamble looking for love, you may find it as much as you may fail and crash. If you seek peace versus violence, you might get a punch in the face. If you stand for right, even when the power you speak truth to would rather you joined them or should just shut up, you could die. The nobility of love, peace and the just remain undiminished, and that’s where immortaility truly lies.
A parting thought, though: In today’s climate of prescription heart-menders, pain smoothies and mood lifters, could an artist like Vincent Van Gogh even exist?
If you have something you think might be great for T-Sides, let us know!