June 07, 2015

An Interview with Van Dyke Parks

As he concluded the second show of a two-night stand billed as “The Lost Weekend: Last Piano/Vocal Performances” last month at Largo at the Coronet in Los Angeles, seventy-two-year-old Van Dyke Parks bowed and bid farewell to arguably the most conventional aspect of his otherwise unconventional, visionary career. 

For almost half a century, in fact, Parks has achieved singular distinction as a composer, arranger, lyricist, producer, actor, and all-around maverick icon, yet it wasn’t until relatively recent that he inured his chops to the concert stage. “I started touring at the age of sixty-eight for the first time after over forty years in the music business,” Parks told this writer in February 2012, by which point he had begun logging a fair share of live appearances and was gearing up for a fresh batch of new ones across the country. 

For a man who’d earned his living and likewise his legend mostly behind the scenes — his credits include works by the likes of Randy Newman, U2, Fiona Apple, Bruce Springsteen, and Harry Nilsson, not to mention Brian Wilson’s salvaged classic, SMiLE, and his own inimitable solo albums, including Song Cycle and Orange Crate Art — Parks acknowledged the irony in his ambitions.   

“I had never had the opportunity to perform any of the works that I’d done, really, over those years,” he said. “I felt that I should be able to have that opportunity, because it’s a special pleasure that so many of my peers have had. They’ve built lives. They’ve become well-known. I basically have reached an age of anonymity that I wanted when I was young and now it’s part of my stamp, my branding: an anonymous player.” 

At the time of this extensive and wide-ranging conversation, which until now has remained unpublished, Parks had just overseen the release of the retrospective compilation, Arrangements, Volume One, and was in the throes of composing the now out-of-print vinyl collection, 7” Singles Series, the songs from which would surface on his allusively titled studio LP, Songs Cycled, the following year.

Are the audiences that come to your performances now enjoying the new material?

Well, I don’t do too much of the new material. I prefer to explore what it is that I’ve done, but I’m starting to introduce some [new] songs into the set and will continue to do that through this year. I’m going to do some more. I’m going to be an itinerant musician this year. I’m going to hit the road, Jack. I will be putting some new songs in those performances, but I like ranging freely and just regarding what it is that I have done. 

My wife says that a Southern gentleman learns to say two things. The first is, “Yes, Ma’am.” And the second thing is, “Whatever was I thinking?” I kind of feel like that when I investigate work that I did many years ago, but I think it’s worth exploration and I’d like to think that I’m capable of durable goods that stand the test of time. That’s the way I work, every song. Every song is that important. Now I’m working on what I of course consider my best song. 

So, I’m very pleased about the process. I’ll continue to record and I will up until April, then hit the road here in the red states, in the mid states, in this politically vital year, going out and hoping that “
the song will emphasize the humanities and help us find a peaceable, political future for the next four years. 

I live in Florida, which is always a highly politicized environment.

I have many relatives who are Republicans of Florida, but I avoid political conversations with them at the dinner table because my politics are decidedly green. For example, I was just in Jacksonville at a theatre — I did a co-bill with Billy Joe Shaver — to benefit the St. Johns River restoration. I’m very happy that I could even be included in such an event because, as my song lyrics suggest, my politics are green. I think about the integrity of our process, the amount of oil we use, the world we’re leaving behind. Florida with a white python, who’d of thought? What an awful sport to play on an environment. So, we must think about the world we leave behind, and in the end game of my life — in which I am, by the way — I want to do the right thing. So my lyrics, you see… Although I have, I think, a reputation for being of light heart, my songs have become darker, in a way, as I find inevitably that I have to focus on things that matter. Such as my feelings about oil are reflected in a song I did in my series called “The Black Hole.” 

And also “Wall Street.”

“Wall Street” is another song that has to do with another problem and that is the tectonics between Islam and Christianity. In fact, I think “Wall Street” is motivated by concerns about how the First World is being viewed by those who have less. Neil Young, a famous songwriter, he decided to belch the title song, “Let’s Roll,” after 9/11, as somewhat retaliatory. I have no such kind of machismo or bravado. My questions are greater than the answers that I found. That is, why did it happen? How can we prevent it from happening again? What can we do to bring peace to this world without surrendering a damn thing and without creating trillions of dollars of war debt in wars that are misdirected? All of that stuff, you see, those social pressures, those social concerns, are all a challenge to wrap up in a short form like a record without hitting the casual observer in the face, without insulting, without having a heavy hand. They become a nuanced ingredient in everything I do. I think the best world that I can paint is one of an informed optimism, but it must be informed

You have to be grounded in the world you live in.

Well, I believe so. There’s an expression for it which is quite beautiful: “Bloom where you’re planted.” So I look at the world from this position I’m in, and I work harder and harder. All of this stuff has to do with the fact that I find myself — in my seventieth year — totally obsessed with the song form. I love it. I always have. … There’s nothing really precious or inaccessible about the 45 [RPM] records I’m doing. I allow that they are on the Internet. You can download them, but that is in digital form. The world that I love is the vinyl world because of the quality of sound. It’s hi-fi, high fidelity, lost on those who have surrendered to just the torpor, that digital ditch, that place that they all sit. There is better sound and so I’m making it and I’m going out with a big oink. 

It’s ironic that people will invest thousands of dollars on home theater systems to watch movies yet they listen to music on cheap little ear buds.

It’s phenomenal what people will tolerate if they’re told. They say in Japan, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” I kind of find that I am still sticking out — this rusty old nail — and highly individual in my pursuits, I think, but I don’t think that it is less than encouraging to other people to see a maverick behavior. I find more and more that I’m listening to a new generation of songwriters who make me look like the Rock of Gibraltar. They have such wild ideas. The song form has taken new dimension in works by people like Rufus Wainwright and Joanna Newsom, for whom I’ve worked, but [also] so many others. So I’m looking ahead. I’m looking through the windshield, but I also have a rearview capability, and the work that I listen to of others that I like best somehow combines both those perspectives. 

As an arranger, as a composer, is your loyalty to the song at hand or, if you’re collaborating with another artist, to that artist and his/her aesthetic?

Truly, with both Rufus and Joanna, there was no collaboration, that is if you consider a collaboration a knock-down, drag-out, face-to-face [endeavor]. The jobs in both those cases are semi-overlapping, still contiguous, still punching each other, but they are overlapping so that their work is done when I receive the challenge of arranging, if you speak certainly of arranging. So arranging, to me, is anything but collaborative. It has to just be absolutely monastic. It has to be alone, and it has to be quite dutiful and obedient in many cases to everything that’s already there in place. Collaboration, to me, is something that songwriters can do together, for example. Collaboration, to me, is extemporaneous music in a studio. I love it. I love what’s off-the-cuff and off-the-page. I love that as much... It’s a thrill. Those are two different processes. But in terms of arranging, the thing that got my kids, three of our sprouts, through colleges — the thing that paid those tuitions — was arranging, and that was monastic. That’s basically what happened.

So we have a Volume One of arrangements I’ve done; we’re coming out with a Volume Two of arrangements I’ve done. This is not for any reason of self-reference. It’s just that I think that I might be able to offer something by showing the arc of my achievement such as it is, to reveal what it is that I learned and what somebody might learn again and maybe not have to make so many mistakes as I did. 

I’ve been listening a lot to the George Washington Brown track (“Donovan’s Colours”) on Volume One

You see, it’s a do-re-mi song. “Donovan’s Colours” is do-re-me. That’s what they call them in Trinidad. It’s diatonic and a very simple song and it’s so classically Celtic that I decided to take it on, and also to give an affectionate nod to this fellow who was trying to do folk music that was authored such as what Donovan wrote with “Colours.” I enjoyed the song and I got to work on a three-track machine. I went three to three, and then the four-track came out, so I put it in four. Then I had two four-tracks, and I put that all together. Very interesting, isn’t it? It was an interesting process. 

You hear marimbas in there. I played them. They move right along, but I must confess that I recorded them at half speed. By recording the marimbas at half speed I recorded it from 7 ½ IPS to 15 inches-per-second, I discovered by doubling the tape speed that I had reached an octave, and that absolutely fascinated me because no one told me that. Les Paul didn’t tell me that; I’m sure he’d found it out in 1953. People had found out about it, but you had to learn when I started recording, when I started doing singles. “Donovan’s Colours,” I would think, was when I was probably twenty two years old. It’s also a study — a short study — in variations on a theme all within a single [format]. In fact, “Donovan’s Colours” really established me with an artist contract at Warner Brothers. I did not want to be an artist. I just wanted to learn something in the studio. I wasn’t interested in fame, or I didn’t even think about that I might someday need some rent money. It had nothing to do with money or recognition, but to learn. 

I think that that is why some of that work is still a matter of curiosity. You can tell stuff is happening. People are learning something. There’s a residue of a process of discovery, of discovering a lot of stuff. That was in the golden age of analog, you see, certainly from 1964 when I got my first contract at MGM to 1974, in that decade that they called the Sixties. Music recording reached incredible heights and evolved so beautifully to the point of automatic mixing, for example; knobs stopped turning and bars started floating up and down automatically in a mix. It’s all very interesting, every bit of it, even the Moog synthesizer work I did in 1967, stepping up to a synthesizer where there was no noise. We had no keyboards. We had, simply, a phalanx of phone cords sticking in a great patch bay with what sounded like a hurricane passing, what’s called white noise. 

It shows a lot of resourcefulness.

Oh, it was a very difficult discipline. It’s just kind of like I’ve reached a point now... I realize that all of the works that I’m talking about, the arrangements I’ve done, these works are all in the vaults. They have three record companies, and now they’re trying to turn it into two. So much music is in the vaults ignominiously, unavailable. I just argued; that just made me mad as hell. I don’t care what happens after I’m dead. They can’t snuff me out quickly, graveside, but while I’m here my work should be available for study and enjoyment and consolation and agitation and everything that it was intended to be. That’s why I decided to turn to this cottage industry. That’s why I decided to finally get out and be able to discover America, for example. It’s a wonderful, novel opportunity.

When you have a chance to reflect upon such things, are you ever intrigued or struck curious by the level or artistry you brought to music at such a young age?

There are two things: Society has instructed me, in the insults that I’ve received for my explorations, to just generally emphasize that thing that the Southern gentleman is supposed to learn how to say to a lady, “Whatever was I thinking?” That happens to me and I look back in horror, but at the same time, secretly, I’m very satisfied with the level of craft that’s in the work. I mean that, really. I worked so hard, and I know that. If I were a great musician, which I’m not, I might be less easy with it, but the fact that I know that I did my best and I worked so hard to get there, it just gives me feelings of great, great comfort.

There’s a lot of wherewithal that is evident in your work, but to have done it in your twenties and thirties and to have it still resonate so profoundly all these years later must be gratifying. 

My heart is in the work, and I think that that — I hope — is some benefit to somebody else. I didn’t make that expression up, by the way. That was the motto of Andrew Carnegie: “My heart is in the work.” Although for many years, for most of his life, he was recognized as the man he was, a robber and a son of a bitch. In the final hours of his life he gave it all away. I’d like to do that while I’m alive. I want to give it all away. I’m giving it up. I always have done that. I’ve always had an overriding concern that everything that I’m going to do, when I tackle a musical job, is a life-defining opportunity no matter how small. Even if it is built to, as it were, pad the gun shocks and horse hooves, being felt and not heard, even in a movie score, learning how to stay out of the way musically; or make two lovers look like they want to kiss when, in fact, they don’t—stuff like that. 

All of these aspects of music are interesting to me, but of them all the most epic, the most defining for me — the one that I’m pursuing as I bop ‘til I drop, the one that I’m pursuing now — is the song. And you’ve caught me midstream. You’ve caught me in the middle of that. 

Because of your craftsmanship — and knowhow and experience — have you ever felt compelled to write music exclusively for commercial success? Did you ever feel compelled to go in that direction for a minute?

No, I didn’t. I’ve never done that, and I should have. When I wanted to go commercial, I did a commercial. I mean, that’s why I got involved with Moog synthesizers. I proved that I could be “commercial.” But in terms of a song? Never, never, never, never. It takes time to do a song, it takes work. As Ted Turner says, “It only looks easy.” It takes work. Irving Berlin wrote a song called “Always” — it took him a year to come up with “not for just a day, not for just an hour, but always.” It took him a year to come up with his coda. It takes time to do a song and in that time two things happen: the songwriter stays in his or her own ball garden, isolated dreamscape and, also, has moments coming back in the harsh light of day after a late night or waking up in the morning and finding sixteen bars that have to be destroyed. I mean, it happens. I think always there is the desire to communicate something. I have that. So it’s not to say that I’m just a take-it-or-leave-it type of guy. I try to accommodate the casual observer. All my work as an arranger is drawn into that effort, by the way. 

While you’re arranging you have an audience in mind?

Always. I always want to appeal to… I wouldn’t think of it as necessarily a human being, but an observer, to make something beautiful, to bring beauty to life. It’s called “cosmetics,” to make the cosmos most beautiful. That’s what I try to do in my music, is to try somehow in some peculiar way to leave a more beautiful world than the one I stepped into through my own effort. Cool?

For more information, please visit Van Dyke Parks online at Bananastan.com