VINCENT (STARRY STARRY NIGHT)”

Starry Starry night

McLean opens this history of Packers football (and tribute to the great Vince Lombardi) by invoking a name that represents the golden era of the Green Bay franchise: Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr (Note that while most Packers games were played on Sunday afternoon, the contests would often stretch into evening, particularly if there had been a lot of passing).

Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul
Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
On colors in the snowy linen land

The rest of the verse refers to the Ice Bowl, played between Green Bay and the “Blue and Gray” Dallas Cowboys on December 31, 1967. Many consider it to be the greatest football game in NFL history. The “darkness in my soul” is surely McLean’s despair following Dan Reeves’s touchdown strike to Lance Rentzel, which put Dallas up by three at the start of the fourth quarter. Ultimately, Starr would win the game (and the NFL Championship) on a quarterback sneak from the one-yard line with 13 seconds remaining.

The “trees and daffodils” are an impressionistic portrait of the Packers’ classic green and yellow uniforms, but the mention of “summer” has long baffled McLean scholars, who observe that the wind chill on New Year’s Eve was minus 46 degrees. It could be a clue that this narrative is a reminiscence, penned in summer, or he could have meant the line to be ironic. In any event, the lack of consensus on this point should be recognized.

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

Here, songwriter Don McLean cleverly substitutes his first-person persona for Green Bay head coach Ray “Scooter” McLean, Lombardi’s immediate predecessor, who resigned in disgrace after leading the Pack to a franchise-worst 1-10-1 record. The song turns prescient in this chorus as the post-Lombardi Packers refuse to “listen” to the coach’s insistence that “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” In fact, Green Bay never once made the playoffs between 1972 and 1982.

Starry Starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of China blue

There are two schools of thought regarding this verse, known widely as the “Trash Talk Stanza.” The traditional interpretation holds that “flaming flowers that brightly blaze” is McLean’s challenge to the manhood of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle (see Paul Hornung below). Others claim the insertion of “violet haze” in the next line directs the barb toward Fran Tarkenton, the girlish quarterback of Green Bay’s rival Minnesota Vikings. A closer listening, however, reveals that the second of these is most likely a misheard or erroneously-transcribed lyric. What McLean is actually singing here is “violent haze,” referring to Lombardi’s special love for the physicality of the game. “Dancing is a contact sport,” Lombardi once said. “Football is a collision sport.”

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand

“Morning fields of amber grain” may also be read as a pun — “mourning fields of amber grain” — and reflects McLean’s sadness in 1963 at the sudden departure of the Golden Boy, Paul Hornung, who was suspended by Rozelle for one season in the wake of a gambling scandal. More patent is the line, “Weathered faces lined in pain,” a touching salute to defensive stalwarts like linebacker Ray Nitschke, who toiled and prospered under “the artist” Lombardi’s “loving hand.”

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

“They may not love you at the time, but they will later,” Lombardi once mused, and here McLean observes how “true” that prediction turned out to be. The last five lines of the verse draw a striking parallel between the mythical Hyacinth, beloved of Apollo, who illustrated the fleeting nature of youth and beauty when he was accidentally struck by Apollo’s discus and felled on the field of competition, and Lombardi, whom the gods killed with cancer at the age of 57.

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 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 did not listen, they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will

Although proving himself an expert storyteller to this point, McLean unfortunately loses focus in the final verse. The “frameless heads” are probably busts of Packer Hall of Famers in Canton, Ohio; the “silver thorn” could be a Super Bowl Trophy; and the “bloody rose… crushed and broken on the virgin snow” is possibly a reference to Al Rose, who played end for the Pack in the 1930’s. The rest of this is just babbling.

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COMING SOON: “Everybody Loves Me Baby,” in which McLean predicts the deaths of Jim Croce and Harry Chapin, then gleefully details the horrible tearing of their flesh at the hands of Satan’s agents