Siobhán Kane recently spoke with Van Dyke Parks about his formative years, his career and what not to say to an Irish audience.
Van Dyke Parks is a real renaissance man, in both senses of what that phrase could mean; he could quite easily have been from that period where it seemed so many people got so much done in dire circumstances; Christopher Marlowe instantly comes to mind, a poet, playwright, translator and…spy, and Parks is cut very much from the same rich cloth. Though he is not from that period, he has taken many of the principles of the greatest artists from that time; being prolific, adventurous, fearless, and wildly collaborative, and carved out a career for himself that spans almost five decades, and more, if you count his time as a child actor, acting with everyone from Jackie Gleason (The Honeymooners) to Grace Kelly (The Swan).
Born in Mississipi in 1943 he was always musical, growing up in a household with a father who had been in the band The White Swan Serenaders as well as the Chief Examining Psychiatric Officer at the liberation of Dachau, and who had encouraged him from early on, as Parks says himself, they had “many jolly times through music”. He began on the clarinet, played guitar but then moved to piano, and it became his main instrument when he enrolled at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh in 1960. By this stage his older brother Carson (a musician in his own right, most well known for writing ‘Somethin’ Stupid’) was performing in Los Angeles, and he joined him to form The Steeltown Two, which would later morph into The Greenwood County Singers.
This move was probably quite pivotal in his gestation as a musician, because it led him to performance, and Los Angeles, and the exciting musical landscape that was emerging, and which would eventually evolve bands like The Byrds and The Beach Boys, bands who Parks would go on to have a relationship with. Something Parks is forever linked into is the legend of the recording of Smile. Introduced to Brian Wilson by producer Terry Melcher around 1965, the two shared a kinship of courage, and Wilson commissioned Parks to write some lyrics for Smile (he had by this stage already worked with The Byrds) but Mike Love in particular objected to the content, missing the point entirely of Wilson’s artistic impulse and Parks intention, as Parks has previously said, “everyone had the idea I was working for The Beach Boys, but I thought I was working for Brian Wilson“. This derailing of the process injured Wilson’s confidence, and so much more, as well as Parks’ faith, but in a lovely, satisfying twist, over thirty years later Wilson and Parks finally achieved what they had wanted to all that time before with Smile, and through recording the work and playing it live in 2004, a poetic kind of justice was reached (they had actually already worked together again on the 1995 record Orange Crate Art)
Though Parks often refers to himself as someone who facilitates others to reach their potential or fulfill their “vision”, he is also a prolific solo artist, from the seminal, influential and often dense Song Cycle (1968) which has drawn fans such as Grizzly Bear to bask in its individualism – perhaps because of its breadth of influences which range from ragtime to jazz,and blues to classical – it is probably the key to Parks’ soul; deeply melancholy, reflective, but also possessing a lust for the astonishing feat of simply being alive. There is a simple truth in the complex world of Song Cycle, yet Parks’ work is madly inventive, pioneering, and heroic, a document of someone who is not even sure how to wield their very numerous powers (yet).
In some ways he found where his true powers lay through his collaborative work with others, and you can see an even greater grasp of focus on his later solo work such as Jump! (1984) and Tokyo Rose (1989). In truth, even his solo work is collaborative in a way, since it communes with absolute cultural or historical ‘truths’, whether through Brer Rabbit (Jump!), or paying homage to calypso music of the West Indies (Discover America) or Japanese/American relations (Tokyo Rose), his work goes beyond concept, he is in thrall to a sense of striving for truth and real meaning. Perhaps this was also why the Smile period affected him so greatly, there was an injustice that kept swelling with the dispassionate march of the hands of time.
Parks’ own generosity is well documented, he is not simply a collaborator, he is a patron, and though he mournfully states that in the modern period there are no real patrons of the arts, he has become one by default and through creativity; working with a diverse crop of musicians that are often seen as difficult, or ‘outsider’ when in fact they are usually too brilliant or unusual to be understood by a mainstream kind of society that want to be led by the nose by awful, overblown pop stars. Parks has worked with everyone from the lovely Harry Nilsson to Frank Black, and Gordon Lightfoot to Danger Mouse, and has done everything from appearing in the inimitable Twin Peaks (as Leo Johnson’s lawyer) to arranging the orchestral parts of Joanna Newsom‘s second record Ys, to writing children’s books and continuing to collaborate with his kindred spirit – Wilson – their last project was Wilson’s 2008 record That Old Lucky Sun, proving that some things, as Daniel Johnston said, last a long time. Little wonder then, that he was asked to provide the foreword for 2010’s Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing, since he remains one of the craft’s greatest exponents, Siobhán Kane talks to him.
You have such an unusual name, do you know much about its history?
My first name is a last name and is common in the south of the United States and it was common at one time to name a son for a maternal line. My father’s mother’s family, the Van Dyke’s, were the first Dutch family to go from New York to Pennsylvania, they came from a boat called The Slaughtered Cow which brought them over from Rotterdam to New Amsterdam. They were farmers, and it was through that family I got the honourable name, but I have generally trashed it [laughs], I didn’t mean to, it wasn’t intentional. I am the last of four boys, and so I got a name that makes no sense at all. The week I was born, my father’s favourite cousin David Van Dyke, died over the English Channel, shot down by some Nazi’s, so my father wanted to keep the name alive, so that explains the name. It was sad for him, but I did all my best to amuse him.
I read that when you were being considered for admission for school in Andover, your father was asked if you were creative and he said no, but that you had “reactive abilities that are very useful” – do you think that has been the path of your life?
Well I picked up the phone when it rang [laughs], so I guess I haven’t lost that and I’m 68! I wish they would stop adding numbers, that’s very depressing, everyone says ‘happy birthday’, but it sounds to me like they are pushing me into the trench. I used to welcome it but now it seems kind of redundant.
Perhaps more than reactive abilities, it is your obvious openness to being curious.
Well I considered the alternative! At one time I was with a fellow, a comedic force – Kinky Friedman, and we were working together, he wanted to start a club and said he would make me a member, we were to be called The Undepressables, the only thing for induction was to make a vow – that you won’t become depressed, but you can go around and depress other people if you start to feel it coming on, and that generally cures it, but I think there is so much to celebrate, and I choose to do that and try and keep a positive aspect in all that I do.
You have said before that you didn’t really participate in the “forced jollity” of the sixties, which seems evident in some of your work from that period, particularly Song Cycle.
The sixties were not a romantic ideal, anyone who tries to romanticise it is foolish, because it was so turbulent. Someone once gave me some LSD without me knowing it, it was a terrible thing to do, but I favoured marijuana at the time. I still see no problem with it in moderation, it is no more pernicious than booze – both can lead to an early grave, all of those things can lead to perdition, but I see all that in Song Cycle, with despair as its undercurrent.I really wanted to make something that would be pleasing to the ear. I was doing it at Warner Brothers, and had seen enough cartoons, and had no problem with the cartoon consciousness in music, and music that was very anecdotal, and not necessarily with a convenient through line – as in boy meets girl, boy loses girl. It’s a famous story that when the Head of Warner Brothers heard Song Cycle, he turned to me and said ‘so where are the songs?’, and I got in a lot of trouble, and now I find in the present tense, now I am old and in the way [laughs], I am surrounded by a new generation of singer songwriters incredibly more adventuresome than I was at that time, and it makes me feel like the Rock of Gibraltar [laughs].
Grizzly Bear comes to mind in particular, they reference Song Cycle and you can really sense that from their Friends EP, that beautiful and sorrowful orchestration, seemingly inspired by your unique way of reimagining modern composition; you don’t neatly colour within the lines.
That’s very kind of you to say that, because I do believe that music should not be static or formulaic, it is so ho-hum when that happens, better that music be an arena for great imagining and reinvention. It wouldn’t be the case if it were the munitions industry, you can take a chemistry set into the attic and blow off the roof if you are a careless adolescent experimenter, and in the hands of adults, bombs do the same thing, you can make huge mistakes, but the mistakes you make in music are fairly modest. I don’t think people should be condemned for experimenting in music, I hold to that. At 24 I had run screaming in terror from ‘legitimate’ music, that is, I had been trained and there was this big focus on abstract music, with no sense of physicality in the music and so forth, I ran from that. Song Cycle showed some degree of idiomatic music, there was a tip of the hat to the Mexican population here with the use of the Indian harp, there were some balalaika’s also, and in all my music I have tried to show a fusion of worldly sensibility.
Today I must say that when I think of that sceptic isle and Ireland, it isn’t Richard Thompson playing Delta Blues that I think of, I’ve heard that, I’m from Mississippi! But people like Martin Carthy, that guy is the greatest, as is his lovely daughter Eliza. The late great Phil Oakes said ‘I would be in exile now, but everywhere’s the same, ticket home, I want a ticket home’, this is before mass consumption became a reality, now I go to Germany and see The Gap – it’s so annoying to see America’s power of export in the arts and music as well, and people are echoing those same refrains. I am still trying to get out of the box, and learn from others.
I don’t quite think you were ever in the ‘box’.
[Laughs] That’s quite true in a way, I wasn’t a good student, I didn’t fit into the sixties, or rock and roll, or classical music – and I now belong to a country that no longer exists! Still, maybe I am a monument to obsolences, and have a series of records that will remain a niche commodity, but there is a loyalty in my family which means I have been able to struggle ahead. I am not a man of property, I am recognised publicly by my reflected glory. When I played the Royal Festival Hall in London, the guy who booked me said that he was so worried no-one would come, but then rang me and said ‘we sold the aisles’, and they sold it out, but then it dawned on me that the reason those people came to the concert was because it was said that I knew Brian Wilson personally. So all of this has kept me modest enough to continue to serve.
There was also that previous experience you had with your first live concert in Ireland some years ago.
It was after I played the Royal Festival Hall actually, and I felt so delighted, and they asked me if I would like to go to Dublin, and I said of course, so I went and they had booked me in a place that was called The Hall of Fame at the time, but I quickly turned it into the Hall of Shame [laughs]. About a dozen people showed up, it was absolutely humiliating, and I played about four or five tunes, and then in walked Bono with his coterie, and thank God, because that doubled the audience. During the show I told the Irish people how much I admired Winston Churchill, and had his picture on my wall and after the show Bono told me, ‘you really stepped into it there’, but that was my first tryst with Ireland, I am embarrassed to say.
So much of your work has been about real kinship and creative cycles, for example, something like Smile, which was so tormented in terms of the process with Mike Love’s interference – but was then revisited by Brian Wilson and yourself, and now The Beach Boys are looking to put out the original recordings.
That my parents would not live to see this date. I had an onus only Job would understand. More than having one cent sent to me I would rather have a reasonable apology from Mike Love for what he did. You know, I have such an amazing desire to compensate for my limits and was a brunette for many years [laughs], and when I was a brunette I worked devotedly as an enabler, someone who would stay behind a curtain, do things in the studio, help people get their career started, or in order, and I worked so long, and all my friends and peers were going out on the road, people were clapping and asking for their lint, and there I was in anonymity, but working with great pleasure and was at least putting my kids through school. A couple of months ago, I was in a restaurant, and I was the oldest thing in the room, and the waitress, I was in love with her, she was so beautiful, and she wouldn’t give us any attention at all, everyone was eating but us, and finally my friend turned to her and said ‘hey lady, you don’t know who he used to be’ [laughs] With friends like these, right?
So my point is that there are cycles, I mean, last year I went on my first tour ever at 67! I headlined at Primavera, I went on tour with Clare and The Reasons, who is a very talented young lady, then I played with Gaby Moreno, and orchestrated forty-five minutes of Latin American tunes which I just loved, and threw in a little Spanglish so people would understand and made a case for immigration, another thing that is important to me. What is really important is a call for humanity and empathy and understanding, as well as for clear logic….so we did this show, and a fella came to me in Berlin and asked me to play Roskilde, and I said ‘but no-one will know my name there’ and he said ‘it doesn’t matter, we tell them what to listen to and they come gladly’, so I played in front of 17,500 people, it was just amazing! Then I went ahead touring with Clare and The Reasons, and played in front of less than forty people at the Grand Rapids Ladies Literary Society Clubhouse [laughs] and small venues, and for the first time in my life got to discover America like I never had.Someone challenged me and asked me when my next record was coming out, and I said ‘that’s like asking Moses to go back for the eleventh commandment before they have heard the first ten, I have never promoted anything, give me a break! Let me have some wind, may I inhale!’
So basically that’s what happened, and it encouraged me to continue. I am a self investing kind of a guy, the music business I knew has imploded, and I have no patron, so will keep my company among honest men, get my bootstraps up and put out some new sounds.
You seem to be constantly working on new material.
I am putting out some 45 records for fun, it is not a monumental attempt to change the world, but it is to get some new product available that shows people I am a changed man since 9/11. I have a changed perspective about the world, and I would like to be able to show that process, I feel there is a biographical responsibility.
Do you love the piano just as much now as when you began playing it?
Yes, I really enjoy it, I don’t just have a webbed hand, I do a lot of work! I work so darn hard, I surprise myself, that those long hours of blood, sweat and tears, I don’t mean to quote the wrong man, but all of that effort that I put into solitary confinement, learning how to play the piano when I was a child, it was a labour of love, I worked so hard, but now, thanks be to God, I can sit down on a bench and beat the hell out of the piano like very few people in this pop music field.
A lot of that was down to your encouraging parents, wasn’t it?
Oh yes, [sings] ‘While they play the White Swan Serenade, quarter struck, I watch them promenade, a comfort, got it made, got it done in Brad Street, vanity fair who’s been where, who wears what and who’s been where, well I really don’t care. I have missed you since we went down to Port au Prince, the wicked way you rubbed the tinsel off my independence day.‘ I wrote that song for my father.
Mississippi seemed like a hub for masses of music, from ragtime to psychedelic when you were growing up.
I can’t say that I was influenced in Mississippi by music except for the low church hymns, and hymns of the Wesley’s as well, they were such great musicians. I didn’t know Howlin’ Wolf when I was a kid, I had a very sheltered life, but at the age of 9, because of an impending death in the family I was sent away to boarding school where I studied music, so that was in 1952, and in 1953 I heard my first Les Paul and that changed my mind, as Spike Jones also did when I heard him in 1948, when I was five. So certain things have stood in my memory that jarred me on the periphery of my musical vision, jarred by this sudden novelty of recorded sound, and what really struck me was the recognition that recorded sound was different from that which could be heard in a room – live music, and that it had a potential for doing something entirely different. I would say that is just as influential as anything, that was a sea change for me, as well as Mary Ford when she sings and Les Paul plays ‘Lover’, and the guitar that he plays is something you might hear in an Eagles instrumental to ‘Hotel California’, and you think ‘how did he do it?’, well he did it on an 8 track machine, but he didn’t tell anyone how he did it.
When you were working for Warner Brothers, you were instrumental in pioneering so many interesting concepts, for example, protovideo, and better deals for artists, that seems almost unthinkable now, sadly – there are very few such genuinely ethical, creative people working in the music industry at this point, it also made so much sense that you were also an artist, working in the field.
That’s true, but there was also a social reason why I was first out of the gate. I saw so many kids sign contracts to record companies like Jimi Hendrix, I mean, I knew this people…Lowell George, Tim Buckley…so many of these kids were driven by the rigours of the road to drug overdoses, serving these record companies, it made Dickensian times look prefereable, all the contract abuses. What I wanted to do was to get a new income stream for these young artists, as a way for them to make money, I instituted a plan where we would do the music videos, and recoup the modest fees of these handsome productions – I set them at 18,500 dollars and at ten minutes or less, so that they could all fit in to neighbourhood theatres without an extra projectionist, I thought it all through. I avoided plastics because I knew they were were poisonous, the Minimata disease of the central nervous system was from a record company spilling mercury chloride to the bay of Minimata in Japan – that ecological disaster happened in 1969. Instead I thought about closed circuit subscription TV – MTV was what I thought it should be called, I’m not kidding! I set the profit at 25per cent for the artists of the net profit, whereas now artists get a fraction of a cent, and nothing for their videos, not one dime, so I’ve been googlied by the record company executives who continued their pattern of greed which ultimately destroyed a great industry.
You have also worked successfully in the hugely competitive field of film composing, which seems like another dense, complicated and frustrating field, because you are also working within the mammoth, sometimes toxic industry of film.
I think that it is a very harsh arena because there are so many people. I am called a film composer and just heard a fact that devastated me – that there are 25,000 registered film composers. Most of them are less than half my age and twice as talented! It is an oversubscribed field of great talent and very little employment, so what is the solution? There are so many people wanting to express themselves having heard of Bob Dylan, so they pick up a guitar and have a song to sing, everyone is driven to it, but there is something sadly missing, the patronage – there is no-one to pay for this music as there was before. In 1910 with the copyright enforcements, due to the lobbying of people like Mark Twain in front of the collected congress of the United States, a statutory approach to copyright was established, a song would sell, there was sheet music for ten cent, five would go to the composer, and five to the publisher, and a loaf of bread cost two cents at that time. Look at what has happened with inflation and the rise in the cost of living, and look what has happened to music – one song gets a fraction of a dollar.
As we look at the history of music we see there was a haven for artists, either through a royal patron or a publisher, someone would keep at bay the difficulties of hand to mouth living that artists would face, and a patron arrived to feed that artistic process, but that no longer exists.The arts is a celebration, not to watch the caged bird sing, but what really saddens me is that the craft of the process will diminish, because of the relaxed unethical attitude to pirating music, it is punishing the arts, and the end result of that is an age lacking illumination, because the arts are not a nicety, they are to inform and agitate and transmogrify and advance human understanding. You are talking to a fella who comes from a country that built the information age, but guess what, only 35 percent of the American electorate believe that Charles Darwin’s theory is correct, they call it a theory, and they question it….darling, we are in a dark age of religious fundamentalism, and that troubles me, and it troubles me that the arts are in peril.
Your views chime with so many of Philip Glass’s who constantly advocates the benefit of a musical education, that it illuminates different ways of seeing, thinking and creating.
I admire him so much, and it’s great to hear that he doesn’t think it’s uncool to be annoyed by something. I am looking at my ice box right now and on it, it says ‘Republicans try to abolish arts groups’ – they are attempting to abolish our public radio stations which are not bootlicking, and also the National Endowment for the Arts…the Republicans are holding that the arts are a nicety, and I disagree entirely, so that’s where I am. I guess I am like a grumpy old guy [laughs]. I have a motto, it falls under the heading of ‘which lie did I tell?’, and it is ‘the older I get, the better I was’, isn’t that good? Let’s tell Mike Love, and speed the plow by all means. I do reserve the right to be wrong – anyone of aesthetic desire should do that – learn from your mistakes. Recently someone said to me ‘yes, but those are first world problems’, I thought that was eloquent, because it describes the fodder of the lyrics of ‘normal’ rock and roll, and with the Grammy’s and all that entails, it has become a self-congratulatory exercise for the rich, which I find quite revolting. I find so much timidity in pop music and life.
Yes, you have never really kept company with people who are timid with their art, working with real thinkers of different periods, from Harry Nilsson through to Joanna Newsom.
I am not interested in anything other than music. In about two hours I am supposed to go up and write some lyrics for Ringo “Bingo” Starr, he’s a lovely guy, I wish he owned a pub so I could have a pint, but in fact I have to work with him. If he had asked me to do some work for him forty years ago, it would have made a big splash at the bank – now I fear it is just an honourable exercise, but it is the kind of thing I love to do, to have the opportunity to infuse music with good musical form and thoughts that inspire and somehow console. I use the term ‘composer’ very carefully and don’t apply it to myself except when I have to for reasons of governmental identification, but in fact , it could not have happened for me in another place or century, but I will tell you that I could make a remarkable elevation in my musical output with proper patronage, and so my heart goes out to those who have never received any whatsoever, I think I have had a fair shake.
You are almost socialist in your engagement with the political landscape, because of your real concern for the most vulnerable in society, and within music you have really identified more with the vulnerable, and the more frail or less powerful in society, music, wherever – the proletariat, which tends to hold up the entire fabric of society, and its structure.
In America we don’t live in a properly socialised state! Elderly people have to worry about their life support medication, I need the medications and have to pay for them, so just to stay alive I must work. I have to pay for my medication. There is no question of me having some retirement plan that will put me deckside at the pool, we have no pool here, but I do appreciate that we do live a beautiful life, and live next to a vast forest with birds and butterflies and plants, it is as Woody Guthrie said a ‘garden of Eden’. I can look up and see the constellations as there is little pollution, but every day I have to work. I do a lot of pro bono work that doesn’t pay a dime, because, well, I don’t play golf [laughs], do you know what G.O.L.F. means? Gentleman only, ladies forbidden!
You have said previously that you were “okay” with Jesus, because he was “a man acquainted with sorrow”, I thought that was quite a lovely description, something that describes you also.
Absolutely, that sold me on him. I also like Buddha because he is always smiling, but Christ seems to me someone who had powers that admonished, and he theorised about the cross, ‘the pain of the cross could not possibly equal the disregard of people’ and when he said that I knew what he meant, because I have spent a life with the flip disregard of merchandisers who thought maybe that I was trying to educate and inform rather than simply entertain – I don’t think so. I think they lowball expectations of social ability, even governmentally the US government sold the Egyptians down the river, and they triumphed regardless.