Vincent Van Gogh was crazy talented…though probably more crazy. He’s best known as a painter, particularly of the odd, beautiful Starry Night. Later in his life, he had long bouts of madness, that has always made me think of him in a sort of Edgar Allan Poe barmy genius light. Eventually, he committed suicide. However, until this year, I didn’t know the story of Vincent’s younger brother, Theo.
Theodorus “Theo” Van Gogh was one of the few people who understood Vincent and his love and support urged him to keep painting regardless of his nonexistent reputation. Vincent only ever sold one painting in his life, but most the brothers' extensive correspondence consisted of Theo encouraging his brother and praising his art. Theo kept nearly all the letters Vincent sent him, around six hundred, while most of Theo’s letters were discarded.
Vincent shot himself in 1890, and Theo, brokenhearted, died six months later.
I love cryptic songs. If I can figure out what it means first time through, it probably won’t be a favorite. I also love poetry, the use of words to create a vivid picture, to convey an entire experience with just a few syllables. Both of those elements combined in the music of Matthew Perryman Jones, particularly his 2011 album, Land of the Living. After listening to it several times, my dad pointed out one of the songs.
“That song…I think it’s about Theo Van Gogh.”
“Who?” I said. And that’s how I first heard the story of Vincent and Theo.
O Theo is a hauntingly beautiful song, written from Vincent’s perspective. It mixes cryptic lyrics and amazing poetry with a lovely tune. It’s been three or four months, but I’m still not over it. Matthew imbues the lyrics with a sadness that perfectly captures the image of a broken, desperately alone Vincent. Theo was his life-line, in many ways, and he gave him what love he had, though in the end, it wasn’t enough to save him.
"So I set fires of starlight/ to burn up against the despair/ I was caught in the tangles of midnight/ long unanswered prayer/ are you there?"