A ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
- REFLECTIONS ON THE CAREER OF VAN DYKE PARKS
Idiosyncratic. Eccentric. Innovative. Reclusive. Legendary. They're all adjectives frequently used by those attempting to describe Van Dyke Parks. Reminiscent of the story of the blind men and the elephant, each designation may characterize a certain facet of the man or his work. However, Parks is a great deal more than the sum of his parts.
He was never your run-of-the-mill garden variety Mississippi country faire. Born in Hattiesburg on January 3, 1943, a distant relative of the inventor of the Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls and of the poet James Whitcomb Riley; Van Dyke was the youngest of the four sons of Dr. and Mrs. Richard Hill Parks III. Mrs. Parks was a religious scholar and the granddaughter of a Circuit Rider (today, one of Van Dyke's brothers is a Methodist minister). Dr. Parks, a physician practicing the dual specialties of neurology and psychiatry (and the first to admit African-American patients to a white southern hospital) had been a member of John Philip Sousa's Sixty Silver Trumpets, and paid his way through medical school with profits earned leading his dance band, Dick Parks and the White Swan Serenaders (listen carefully to the lyrics of "Come to the Sunshine" for an allusion to this.) Coming from such an extraordinary background, it's small wonder that Van Dyke was studying clarinet by the age of four. His musical journey has progressed since then, virtually without pause. It wouldn't be unrealistic to state that practically everyone, practically everywhere, has been touched by the work of this forty-plus year career...whether through his collaborations with other artists, session work, producing, arranging, scoring for film and theatre, or by the impressive and eclectic body of his solo work. The music of Van Dyke Parks has contributed immeasurably to the soundtracks of our lives.
While boarding at the American Boychoir School in Princeton, NJ, Van Dyke studied voice and piano. A coloratura singer ("I had a wider range than Yma Sumac"). he sang under the conducting of Arturo Toscanini, Sir Thomas Beecham, and Eugene Ormandy--demonstrably three of the finest maestros of the century. Singing and acting in New York City enabled the young Parks to pay his own tuition. He headlined with Eli Wallach and Maureen Stapleton in S. N. Berman's The Cold Wind on Broadway, and appeared on television's Playhouse 90, Mr. Peepers, Studio One, and The Honeymooners. Parks also performed the title role in both New York City and Philadelphia Opera companies' Amahl and the Night Visitors.
At Christmas, 1952, while caroling in Princeton, the young Van Dyke was privileged to meet Albert Einstein, who favored him with an obligato on his violin while Parks sang "Silent Night."
"He went into the house during my singing and recovered his violin and came out and accompanied me...the pinnacle of my career." (VDP, e-mail to the author, 3.27.97)
After touring all forty-eight states with the Boychoir, Van Dyke moved to California in 1955 and pursued an acting career. While at MGM, he received feature billing, portraying the character of George in The Swan with Grace Kelly (her final film), Louis Jourdan and Alec Guinness. He performed in Fanny with the Los Angeles and San Francisco Civic Light Operas in 1957, and traveled to Munich, Germany to act in an RKO film based on Heidi. More recently, in the 1980s, he portrayed attorney Jack Racine on television's Twin Peaks.
Returning east, he studied piano and composition at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; his courses in their Fine Arts program lasting nearly three years. Leaving Academia amid sixty-two, he returned to California and acquired a position playing clarinet in the studio band of the housewife-friendly Art Linkletter's House Party on CBS-TV.
1962 found Parks and his older brother, Carson, playing guitar, raquinto and Indian harp in various California coffee houses. (He became proficient enough on raquinto to subsequently perform with Los Tres Ases at the Mexican Pavilion at the 1964-65 World's Fair in New York.)
"I was playing boleros--Mexican love songs from the '30s and '40s. All the girls looked like Rickie Lee Jones. They wore fishnet stockings. We were discussing Marx and the Industrial Revolution." (VDP, e-mail to the author, 3.27.97)
The brothers Parks were also members of a folk group, The Greenwood County Singers, formed by Carson and named after a favorite childhood vacation spot in North Carolina. The Singers released at least two albums between 1963 and 1965 on the Kapp label. A successful composer and musician in his own right (and a member of the legendary Terry Gilkyson's Easy Riders folk group in the 60s), Carson Parks soon went on to compose Something Stupid, which was Frank Sinatra's first million-selling single (recorded in 1967 with daughter Nancy). -- more recently covered by country megagroup The Mavericks and Trisha Yearwood. Van Dyke, too, played briefly with the Easy Riders, and toured New England with the Brandywine Singers.
While performing with Carson at the Prison of Socrates coffee house in Newport Beach, California, Van Dyke heard radiating from the Rendezvous ballroom down the street
"...the screams of an adoring crowd of teen-age girls listening to this electric music of the Beach Boys... I was frightened to death by the enormous popularity of this surf music. I knew the writing was on the wall." (Atlanta Journal-Constitution 11.20.95)
This chance encounter with the music of Brian Wilson would hardly be his last.
Van Dyke's first studio position was in 1963, playing on the Jungle Book soundtrack for Disney (he can be heard on The Bare Necessities). He credits his late colleague, the legendary Terry Gilkyson of the Easy Riders (Cry of the Wild Goose, Memories are Made of This), for his entree into the Los Angeles music business. [Years later, Parks and Gilkyson would combine forces on the lyrics to Home, found on Parks' 1984 release, JUMP!]. After Jungle Book, Van Dyke worked as a session player on other Disney movie soundtracks, including Savage Sam and The Moonspinners.
"In 1963 I could often be found in the bar of the Troubadour jamming with people like Taj Mahal...depending on my extemporaneous skills to toss things off. I don't do that anymore. I don't go jam with the guys." (VDP, e-mail to the author, 3.27.97)
Continuing to play sessions throughout the early 1960s, Parks noted that many musicians appeared to be gravitating toward guitar as their primary instrument of choice. Pragmatically sensing a possible future void of musicians proficient in other areas, he focused his efforts on building a reputation as a keyboard artist. Playing on projects for record producer Terry Melcher afforded him the chance to work with such popular performers of the era as Biff Rose and Paul Revere and the Raiders. He was also featured on albums by the Byrds (his keyboard work on their seminal album, 5D "(Fifth Dimension)" was called "iridescent" by Billboard Magazine's Timothy White), Judy Collins (piano on the lovely "Someday Soon" and electric piano on "Pretty Polly") and the Grateful Dead (a very pleasant surprise to his teenage daughter, when she noted her dad's name on the album by chance!).
It was at a party at Melcher's home in late 1965 that Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson, Beach Boys founder and producer, were introduced. Wilson, who was in the process of concluding work on his masterpiece, PET SOUNDS, was already anticipating his next projects. He asked Van Dyke to replace the original Tony Asher lyrics to "Good Vibrations", which he refused to do. "No sense walking into someone else's problem." He said. (B. Wilson, 1991) Almost always preferring to work with a lyricist, Brian invited Van Dyke to join him as collaborator on a new endeavor, commencing an alliance that would forge some of the most enduring, as well as some of the least understood, popular music of our time.
Wilson's new enterprise, tentatively titled DUMB ANGEL, and later rechristened SMILE, would never be released. The general consensus is that this was in no small measure due to the inability on the part of Mike Love (who had previously dismissed "Good Vibrations" as "avant-garde shit") and the other boys to understand or accept the more esoteric nature of these new songs. Unwilling or unable to evolve with the music and the times, the boys apathetically advocated a return to the proven, predictable, and profitable formula of cars, girls, and surf. After much debate and debacle, the project would be acrimoniously abandoned after more than a year in the studio, with Parks leaving the project in March of 1967.
Van Dyke on working with Brian Wilson during the Smile sessions: ..."Brian was considered a nut because he was an iconoclast, and like they say in Japan, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down...He also had this tremendous sense of modesty, and was always willing to admit that he didn't know something, which only added to his genius. Although, of course, everybody would play what he dictated. He was completely in control." (London Guardian, 12.10.99)
Brian Wilson on working with Van Dyke during the Smile sessions: "It was always heavy working with Van Dyke - scared the hell out of me. He was a genius. I was so scared the whole thing turkeyed on me. I wasn't able to handle it so I kind of checked out."..."Whenever you meet Van Dyke you know there's something going on. I knew from the onset it was something special. It had such an originality about it. It was kind of a new way to make music. We got into something."..."When you meet a guy like Van Dyke it's Waterloo time. I thought I was really something, and then he comes along, and everything that can possibly be done he did. He's my musical superior...Van Dyke got it all out of me, he pulled it all right out of my soul" (London Guardian, 12.10.99)
Van Dyke on Mike Love: "Leonard Bernstein had just said that Surf's Up was one of the greatest songs ever written, and Brian had made this moral decision to work with me - not that I'm a particularly moral person, but he was questioning the morality of back seats in fast cars as a staple, and he wanted a companion in that new enquiry. What drove Mike Love into the back seat of fast cars in the first place was that it was the only thing he knew." (London Guardian, 12.10.99)
Van Dyke on the demise of SMILE: "I had assumed that all we had done would be clarified in the following weeks, but before that had a chance to happen Brian had a nervous collapse. What broke his heart was Sergeant Pepper. The year before, the Beatles had gone to LA to listen to the eight-track Smile sessions, and what they were looking for is revealed on that album. It was improper for the Beatles to take the musique concrete approach that Brian had started, and it was grievous because they were so obviously better than that. (London Guardian, 12.10.99)
Van Dyke on a possible future release of Smile: "I don't know. But I would like Brian to address this particular dilemma of his own life. If Brian would want to work on it, then I would be involved in that. But I don't want to be paid to go to the embalming room. It was his baby." (London Guardian, 12.10.99)
The Parks/Wilson collaboration would have to wait a while longer before coming to fruition. By virtue of being shelved, SMILE has acquired the near mythical status of popular music's holy grail. Nevertheless, over the course of the next few years, many of the songs from the SMILE sessions (most notably Heroes & Villains and Surf's Up) ultimately found their way onto other Beach Boys albums. Although the music was released in a slightly altered form, Parks' lyrics remain unchanged, unfinished, and unparalleled, ushering in some of the most elegant and creative work in the professional life of the Beach Boys.
"Most of the music I'm interested in transports me beyond my own experience and that's why I like it--because it has that power...I'm seeking the unfamiliar because I want to bring that into my own experience." (VDP, e-mail to the author, 3.27.97)
By the mid-60s, Parks' singular musical identity had evolved. "The work I do takes on a tremendously individual tone, nonclassifiable as it is, because of my interest in things of no great popular interest." His non-hierarchical musical philosophy with its kaleidoscope of tonality and texture, melodies and quotations drew inevitable comparisons to the work of other innovatory artists such as Charles Ives and Carl Stalling, as well as one reviewer branding Parks "a psychedelic [Edgar] Varese".
"I get both compliments and criticism for these undefeated impulses of mine, to quote from the public domain. These are by now old habits and hard to break". (VDP, e-mail to the author, 3.27.97)
Parks' use of lyrics has been likened to experimental jazz, in that the vocalization of words as sounds elevates the listening experience.
Brian Wilson on Heroes and Villains: "It's a real pretty record...astonishingly pretty. The words were written by a fellow named Van Dyke Parks, chosen by him for their sounds the way a mosaicist chooses stones for color and shape and relation to each other and magical resonance and then puts them together and they make a story, a picture. 'I've been in this town so long that back in the city I've been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long long time...' This is not mediocre poetry. Even if it weren't surrounded by such wonderful music, it'd be exquisite". (B. Wilson, 1991)
Brian's perspective some twenty-five years after the demise of SMILE:"...I made peace with the production and what might have been had SMILE turned out, but I never got used to the way the haunting lyrics [of "Surf's Up'], written years before, forecast my deterioration"
To a song dissolved in the dawn
The music hall is a costly bow
The music all is lost for now
To a muted trumpeter's swan
Columnated ruins domino
(B. Wilson, 1991)
Van Dyke on songwriting: "I live with something for a while, each piece, because of course it doesn't matter if songwriting is pursued as a discipline, which I do now, or is a collision of forces in transit somewhere. The job is only to remember what was discovered in a single moment. Most melodies come when I'm in no way and nowhere near being able to write them down--in a car, or in the shower, or something like that. I think a good song is generally an unconscious affair." (VDP, e-mail to the author, 3.27.97)
1967 found Parks contributing two songs, Come to the Sunshine and High Coin (which was also recorded by Bobby Vee, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, and the Charlatans) to the popular Warner Brothers group, Harpers Bizarre. Playing on their album FEELIN' GROOVY and playing as well as producing ANYTHING GOES, Parks' style is readily identifiable in both songs: in the clever lyrics (note the reference to Carolina in Sunshine) and in his exquisitely evocative piano work on both High Coin and on the group's version of the Cole Porter classic, Anything Goes.
After answering a Hollywood trade ad for "4 insane boys" for a rock and roll TV pilot which attracted 500 hopefuls (including a young Stephen Stills, Harry Nilsson, and Danny Hutton), and failing to make a Monkee out of himself; Van Dyke's professional life took off in earnest.
In 1966, under the pseudonym George Washington Brown, he recorded a single, Donovan's Colours. After receiving good reviews in the Village Voice, Parks received a $12,500 advance to develop a solo album, to be titled "LOONY TUNES". He drove out to Palm Desert in a Volvo purchased by Brian Wilson during the SMILE era to write. What ensued was nonpareil--his first solo album, the legendary SONG CYCLE. Also present on Parks' debut album was the "definitive cover" of Randy Newman's Vine Street (Newman plays piano on the cut). One of Newman's most engaging works, Vine Street is an extremely complex piece of music, fraught with unexpected key changes, multiform bridges and unanticipated fade-outs. Interestingly and effectively, Parks replaced Newman's original intro to the piece with a 50-second sample of a Parks/Steve Young recording of the bluegrass standard, Black Jack Davy (Young, of course, is the subject of the acclaimed The All Golden on SONG CYCLE). One of the album's better known cuts, Palm Desert has recently become the subject of an eponymously titled photoessay by Rudy Vanderlans... and who else would have had the audacity to follow a track called Van Dyke Parks, credited to Public Domain with a track called Public Domain, credited to Van Dyke Parks?
1968's SONG CYCLE was a sensory ramble unlike anything else a generation benumbed by songs of love gone wrong, drag racing and fun fun fun had ever experienced. Replete with Joycean wordplay like "dreams are still born (stillborn?) in Hollywood" and laden with musical puns, the album made little impact at the time...Regard the following liner notes from Warner Brothers 1969 Warner/Reprise Songbook LP:
"Van Dyke Parks, with his album SONG CYCLE, has achieved more critical acclaim and less commercial success than [any other WB artist on this record]. The critical acclaim we can understand. Especially the kind from critic Richard Goldstein, who wrote in the New York Times: 'Not since Gershwin has someone so completely involved in the pop holocaust emerged with such a transcendent concept of what American music really means. SONG CYCLE is that album we have all been waiting for; an auspicious debut, a stunning work of pop art, a vital piece of Americana, and a damned good record to boot.'"
Constant commentary by the wayside, the timeless SONG CYCLE is as important a remnant of psychedelia as is SERGEANT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, and a great deal more daring. This album owes as much to American popular music as SERGEANT PEPPER owes to the British music hall. Echoes of Scott Joplin and Jerome Kern are just within reach of the listener. The entire piece has been described as playing "like a Summer-of-Love equivalent of the Gershwin and Berlin musicals of the 1920s and '30s."
Unfortunately, the lack of commercial success inspired Warner Brothers to embark upon an unimaginably odious advertising campaign hawking their "loser" (a free-copy promotion received fewer than 50 replies), and Van Dyke temporarily retreated from recording, turning to production where he helped launch the careers of Randy Newman, Phil Ochs and Ry Cooder.
Other projects during that period included collaborating with long-time friend and ally, Warner Brothers legendary Lenny Waronker; the pair grooming two new bands, the Mojo Men and the Tikis. Waronker chose a still unreleased Buffalo Springfield song "Sit Down, I Think I Love You", written by Steve Stills and Richie Furay (legend has it that Van Dyke was the party responsible for naming the supergroup after a piece of agricultural equipment),--Stills was an alumnus of the Van Dyke Parks Band, performing with them in Phoenix, Arizona as their single "Come to the Sunshine" reached a high of number 16.
The Tikis were given Paul Simon's "59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy) for their debut single. With a name change to Harpers Bizarre (Van Dyke is quoted as saying he renamed the group so that he "could weed out my love of Cole Porter/Depression-era songwriting), they were on the fast track to success.
Van Dyke on production: "Well, over the years I have hung around with people who even I felt couldn't do things as well as I did, but I wasn't interested in musical snobbery. It can lead to feelings of musical superiority which is the mark of a small person. And I always try to remember not to look down on somebody unless I can haul them up. Of course as a producer I can remember, say, Randy Newman's first record. I remember needing to really ignite that project. There was such a dubious reaction to his voice at the time - and don't forget that Dean Martin was carrying Reprise at the time and he was a crooner! But there is always doubt. There was also doubt about Ry Cooder at Warner. But it's not how big the gun, it's how good the shot." (Irish Times, 12.11.99)
"There is something of a hibernation between these records that I do once every, say, roughly five years on average. It is a process of hibernation, and then there is some kind of attendant amount of discomfort, or pain, or hunger. I awaken to do another project." (VDP, e-mail to the author, 3.27.97)
1971 brought DISCOVER AMERICA, a sunny mélange of steelbands and calypsos with titles like: The Four Mills Brothers, G-man Hoover, the eminently singable Jack Palance, the benignly misogynistic Be Careful, and a raucous, rousing calypso version of John Philip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever. Easily as extraordinary as the subject matter was Parks' immutable character and integrity. Stated in the liner notes was his resolve to reacquire royalty and copyright authority for those foreign performers previously neither compensated nor protected by ASCAP or BMI...a position which was, at the time, neither politically correct nor professionally expedient in the minds of most other young artists. No stranger to this music, Van Dyke and his brother Carson had previously performed with the Andrew de la Bastide steelband. [As of this writing, Mr. de la Bastide, now in his eighties, is still performing in Los Angeles.] Parks had also recently produced an album for the Esso Trinidad Steel Band which included a cover of "Come to the Sunshine" as well as an astounding rendition of "Sabre Dance".
Caribbean influences continued to prevail in 1975's CLANG OF THE YANKEE REAPER, which, aside from the title track, is a Parksian redaction of songs composed by others. The gotta-move-to-it Iron Man is eclipsed only by the outrageous Cannon in D, ostensibly a disco version of the Baroque Hit Parade standard, the Pachelbel Canon. However, the song in question is not Canon. It's the Lutheran chorale Ein 'Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress is Our God). Go figure.
Six years would pass before the release of JUMP! in 1982. A song cycle based on Joel Chandler Harris' tales of Br'er Rabbit, the album has been interpreted on several different levels...as an art piece, an homage to the musicals of Hollywood's "Golden Age", and as a jubilant testimony. With Parks joined by talents like Danny Hutton (Three Dog Night) and Jennifer Warnes singing background, JUMP!, from the opening instrumental (which might have been performed by Heaven's own marching band), is suggestive of the soundtrack to a favorite film. Br'er Rabbit is often the singer, and he doesn't tell stories so much as expound on his philosophy of life...disquisitions filled with puns and clever twists on clichés. One reviewer stated that "Parks composes skewered bits of Americana, as if Kurt Vonnegut had discovered a forgotten trunk of Stephen Foster songs and rewritten the lyrics." The music, a wonderful distillation of 19th century popular music has some very Parksian twists. Van Dyke plays honky-tonk piano and Fred Tackett plays banjo and mandolin over some lovely string arrangements. Robert Greenridge's steel drums and Emil Richards' marimba make oddly effective cameo appearances. Billboard Magazine's Timothy White characterized JUMP!: "...a masterpiece, gaining momentum from all that went before but giving voice to a dramatic new strength of purpose. Rarely had a pop-rock framework been expanded to such stunning effect, with eleven song sequences, daubed in subtle shades of Aaron Copeland, Gilbert & Sullivan, Jacques Brel and Stephen Sondheim, but brimming with a crisply original foreground...that described America's unfinished quest for racial and social concord." (1998; npd).
Rabbit Redux: In a kindred venture, Parks authored three award-winning children's books. Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Jump!, Jump Again, and Jump on Over are sensitive adaptations of Harris's stories, superbly illustrated by Barry Moser. These books have been cited by the New York Times as "racially irreproachable" and noted for their "...combination of elegance and humor...perfectly suited to the diction and tone of the text." Several attempts have been made to bring JUMP! to the stage; perhaps the most intriguing being the collaboration between Van Dyke and savage humorist Michael O'Donoughue (Saturday Night Live's 'Mr. Mike').
1989's TOKYO ROSE, Parks' musical narrative of US-Japanese relations in the context of a trade war, shot to the top of the Japanese charts while remaining relatively underappreciated in the States. As indicated by the title, there are strong suggestions of Japanese music, although the calypso influences return. In interviews corresponding with the album's release, Parks called TOKYO ROSE "an album born of fear." (E-mail to the author 3.27.97) Commencing with Commodore Perry's arrival in Japan, it encompasses Pearl Harbor, the present-day funeral of an American World War Two veteran who subsequently found himself working in a Japanese-owned auto factory, and winds up with Trade War, a song which was heralded five years after the album's release by one business correspondent (and music aficionado) as "positively prescient today in light of all the recent threats of trade sanctions between the two countries". In its return to the spirit of SONG CYCLE, one becomes aware of multiple layers of text and texture, wordplay and ribaldry in this recording. Regard the engaging lyrics of Calypso, the bilingual cleverness of One Home Run, (delight in Van Dyke's tender caress of the line "The glove was made by Mr. Spaulding from a cow in Salvador"), the absolutely exquisite western/orientalist arrangement of America, the strains of Ave Maria rippling through White Chrysanthemum and the Asian-Mariachi exuberance of Yankee Go Home. If that weren't satisfying enough, the haunting melody of Out of Love might well be favorably compared to God Only Knows. Ably assisted by Danny Hutton, Syd Straw, Arnold McCuller and Terry Evans, Parks produced yet another eclectic and exceptional listening experience.
NOTE: The book WIDENING THE HORIZON--Exoticism in Post-War Popular Music by Philip Hayward contains an exhaustive analysis of Parks' works, concentrating particularly on TOKYO ROSE in the chapter titled "MUSICAL TRANSPORT - Van Dyke Parks, Americana and the Applied Orientalism of TOKYO ROSE. This is required reading for any serious student of VDP's music.
In 1993, Parks began to plan a new album, originally to be called VOICE OF AMERICA. At the heart of the album was a longing for an idealized life.
"The thing that drove this album wasn't a sense of nostalgia or to memorize the past and recite it...but to idealize and bring to poetry and music the vision I have of California. It was more like an urging to protect what is still here of California. It seemed quite urgent." (VDP, e-mail to the author, 3.27.97)
Blossoming into ORANGE CRATE ART, the original concept had Brian Wilson singing just one song; but, track by track, the collaboration evolved into a complete album's worth of Wilson vocals; thus the dual billing.
"I had the words and tunes, which liberated Brian to sing, instead of doing his usual job as this musical force. He enjoyed it immensely." (VDP, e-mail to the author, 3.27.97)
Wilson clearly agreed, calling their partnership "a good formula" and stating that "A certain degree of magic happens when we work together". The 30-year collaboration of Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson had finally come full circle. This time, a fully realized album was released. "We had a dry spell for 28 years," said Wilson. "It was worth the wait." (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 11.20.95)
The music on ORANGE CRATE ART was labeled by the Singapore Straits Times as "more alternative than any music being made today". Wilson's three-octave range is impressively showcased by Parks' long-lined melodies and framed by lush orchestral arrangements, evoking an era of songwriting when melody rather than rhythm was the guiding force.
"...All of these songs lend themselves very well to the hands. All of them could be played very easily in a living room. It's very personal. The music lends itself to personal possession and is transferable...That hasn't always been so with my musical efforts...My objective in this was that this record insinuate itself so successfully on the American public that somehow it survive this recording! By taking the more intimate or less important form of people being able to "play" this music for enjoyment". (VDP, e-mail to the author, 3.27.99)
An Australian music magazine referred to Parks as "...the songwriter's songwriter, a poetic lyricist of immense craft whose lyrics to ORANGE CRATE ART are closer to literary art and polished fiction than the sway and play simplicity of pop".
1998 brought forth MOONLIGHTING, Van Dyke's first "in concert" recording. The set, recorded in September, 1996, is similar to his more recent concert performances, a fine balance of familiar VDP works, poetry and snappy patter. Parks once again exhibits his versatility and virtuosity on pieces like John Hartford's "Delta Queen Waltz" and his breathtaking rendition of Louis Moreau Gottschalk's "Night in the Tropics" . Backed by his regulars, Grant Geissman and Leland Sklar and a marvelous string section, Moonlighting is as smart and jaunty an album as the photographs inside the CD booklet of the dapper man at the bistro table would suggest it to be.
2000 promises the release of a new, folk-oriented album.
"Songs are epic opportunities. I think a nation is known by its songs. We identify who we are by the nature of the songs that we hear. They are the currency of a street sensibility. They are the most portable musical contrivance...A song can do a lot. A song can also do a little well. Writing a song is like making a stamp or a fine engraving. You can put a great deal of detail in a small space and have something of great beauty." (VDP, e-mail to the author, 3.27.97)
Paul Zollo, author of SONGWRITERS ON SONGWRITING (Da Capo Press), has graciously given permission to reprint the following exerpts from his landmark 1989 and 1996 interviews with VDP:
PZ: For years you have written amazing, interesting melodies. What do you look for in a melody?
VDP: Music has to appear before me. Once it does, I try to find something in the melody that suggests a very specific place. An attitude, a feeling. No matter how ugly that feeling might seem, I do what's at hand.
I met William Saroyan once, the author, in New York after a play that I was in. And I said to him, "How do you get it done?" And he said, "I sit down every morning; I write 'The dog runs.' If it takes me ten days doing that, I write, 'Perhaps the dog runs fast.' I stay on the clock. I don't get my knickers twisted if I don't get a certain amount of songwriting done. Because composure is what it's all about. But you must go there. You must make a habit of the luxury and the sanctuary that songwriting provides. You're creating a world that you're subject to. Or at least you're responding to a world that you're subject to. It's transcendental. It's beyond possession. It really is.
PZ: What do you feel makes a melody great?
VDP: A melody is first an exposition. It goes somewhere from somewhere. A melody takes us through time. A good melody indicates its harmonic development. The melodies that I work on are highly derivative. This is the way I work. I realize that I have heard something before. But I never know exactly where. But I think a good melody can be evocative. It can remind you of someplace that you've been. And if a melody jars memory, I think it serves a great purpose.
I use melodies as evocative tools. Tools which jar memory, so that a feeling of familiarity and safety is created. So that, perhaps objectionable or revolutionary thoughts, or unsettling thoughts can be accommodated. The melody, to me, should be comforting. Or easily digested. Invitational. So that the thought may be accommodated. That's what I try to do.
PZ: What do you think the source of those melodies that come to you is?
VDP: All of the melodies I lay some proprietary claim to have come from the Church. They come from plainsong, or from low or high hymns. They just come out of that experience. And I think of that the way I think about folk music. I think they come out of your earliest recollections. I think you get them on the edge of your experience. That's where I get mine. Songwriting is all about memory. I think that that's what melody is all about. To me, it's the aesthetic equivalent of the Big Bang. This is where you find out where your origins are, and you find out why you want to go where it is that you are going. I think it's the greatest process of discovery. And those melodies come from a place that is beyond conscious ability. They expand and lengthen your experience, and take you beyond time and place...lyrics are hard. I get the impression, when I'm working on a lyric, for example, because I love internal rhymes and a highly crafted lyric, what some people think of as highly pretentious or overly managed words. At one point in our songwriting history, this was a prerequisite for a good song. A highly crafted, a heavy internal rhyme scheme. Those things are thought of as elaborate and somehow out of step.
PZ: Though your process might be abstract, the lyrics themselves are far from abstract, especially as compared to your earlier work such as SONG CYCLE.
VDP: Yes, those days of free association are over for me.
PZ: Was there a reason you made that shift?
VDP: Yeah. When I looked at the sales report from the songs I wrote, I decided I would not do that again. So I retired from that, but I still think it's a valid idiom. Certainly one for James Joyce, who influenced my decision to enter that in a poetical attempt. But, you know, I'm basically where I was then. I was too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a flower child. And basically, I still have this iconoclastic and highly individualized approach to songwriting. And I enjoy it very much. It's an honor, and I'm happy to do it. Even without my abstractionist ideals of my youth. I enjoy songwriting and I think it's so dynamic a field that I hope to continue it till I die. I like the songs I last did the best. I think my work improved. The songs are, I think, more accessible than ever before, which is important.
PZ: Few people stretch the boundaries of what songs can do. Your work shows us that there is a world of content that hasn't even been touched yet in songs. Do you feel that?
VDP: Yes, I believe that. That songs could take on more. But I'm not trying to develop the songform. I'm trying to suggest in the geometry of the song the ideas that must be expressed. I give that room. This is not a commercial consideration, I'm sorry to say. And for that reason, these songs have a tendency to last.
Songwriting is a matter of self-discovery. I just don't want to have to wade through that dirt to get to that flower.
I don't think a song should fall apart like a cheap watch on the street. I think it's important to make a song a renewable resource. Something that can be listened to again.
PZ: You said songwriting is a revelation. What is the source of that revelation?
VDP" It is always the truth that matters. It's the truth that everyone wants.
PZ: An absolute truth?
VDP: Yes, the truth is absolute. Many people write for any different reasons. I know why I write. It's always nice when it goes well and every song is to me like offspring. It matters that much.
Songwriting should represent its central value, that it is a triumph. That it is born at all is a triumph of the human spirit.
Parks has spent much of his career as a producer and arranger, lately embarking on projects with a new generation of songwriters.
Van Dyke on arranging and production: "...I love the role of producer...I deeply enjoy working on other people's music in a custodial way: taking somebody's idea and seeing it through to completion..If I were choosing a job for the future...I would more easily abandon songwriting and continue arranging. That's what I love, that's what I want to do..." (VDP, e-mail to the author, 3.27.97) "Sometimes someone will just look at me and see what I'll bring to the table. That's what an arranger or orchestrator does. I've arranged hundreds and hundreds of things for all kinds of different people and I always learn something because, first of all, it's a reactive job. It's made me slightly famous - which is probably all I'll ever be - but that's fine because I enjoy anonymous work. I enjoy arranging. I've found my briar patch. I've found my place where I can exult." (Irish Times, 12.11.99) "It is obvious that I haven't lost this love of elaboration, this thing that some people find hard to digest, the degree of ornamentation that I like in a production. That's just good honest labor. That's what should be done. Production is an opportunity to entertain. All I'm trying to do is entertain the ear." (VDP, e-mail to the author, 3.27.97)
As producer, he was instrumental in launching the solo careers of Ry Cooder and Randy Newman (co-producing Newman's 1968 self-titled debut album with long-time friend and musical ally, former Warner Brothers Records president Lenny Waronker).
Ever prescient, in 1971, while working as a recording executive at Warner Brothers Music, Parks developed an audio/visual department to produce videos for record promotion.
Movies is Magic: Parks' first feature film soundtrack was 1978's Goin' South, starring and directed by Jack Nicholson. He also scored Nicholson's sequel to Chinatown, The Two Jakes (in which he played attorney Francis Hannah), and Robert Altman's Popeye, starring Robin Williams (one of his children was born on location in Malta during the filming). Other recent film soundtracks include: Truman Capote's One Christmas, directed by Tony Bill, 1995's Wild Bill, starring Jeff Bridges, (about which a reviewer wrote: "Van Dyke Parks' arrangements of nineteenth century songs would have excited John Ford's admiration and makes particularly clever use of a player piano"); Howard Stern's Private Parts, and Bastard Out of Carolina, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Lyle Lovett, directed by Anjelica Huston (featured at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival), and Primary Colors.
He also scores television documentaries and soundtracks, the first of which was Chesapeake Borne for the National Geographic Society. Parks frequently contributes soundtracks for television's Hallmark Hall of Fame as well as several themes one might encounter while listening to public radio. Van Dyke composed much of the music for Shelly Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre, stating that "I wanted to get popular with my own children." As 1989-90 Peter Ivers Visiting Artist, he lectured on film scoring at Harvard University.
As time allows, Parks works in New York City on music for new projects for the Broadway theatre, including "Sister Aimee", a musical based upon the life of evangelist Aimee Semple Macpherson, and, in collaboration with "Maus" creator, Art Spiegelman, on "Drawn to Death", an opera exploring the tumultuous career and characters of the comic book industry near the middle of the century,. Previous music for theatre includes "Mother Courage" by Brecht for the Boston Shakespeare Theatre Company, starring Linda Hunt and Brian Doyle-Murray; and "Henry IV Part Two", featuring Patti LuPone and William Hurt, a Kennedy Center production.
One more go round: After many years of keeping a low profile, Van Dyke has recently begun touring; performing as part of the Harry Smith Project, Nick Cave's Meltdown festival, as well as playing in concert, often backed by his "two great generals, Grant and Lee" (Grant Geissman on electric guitar and Lee Sklar on bass).
On his return to performing live: "Music is an abstract situation and it invites a lot of abstract thought. I believe that it takes attention to detail that eludes the casual observer. So I know that nature abhors a vacuum and the greatest horror is empty seats. A lot of people tell you that the show must go on. Not me! They got the wrong man! I've always had a healthy respect for the conjurers, the rainmakers, the P.T. Barnums - the people who know how to arrange themselves around a room. Boswell and Johnson knew how to work the room. But I don't know how to work the room. I don't do it as a habit. This is a very rare thing for me and an athletic event. Because my fledglings have fledged, I'm going out at 56. I've had a very private life - but I've always yearned to play." (Irish Times, 12.11.99)
"I am a fortunate man. I'm fortunate to have survived in the company of great devoted people who want music to have a purpose. And that is to elevate the human condition." (Irish Times, 12.11.99)
* * * * * * * * *
"My song writing craft improves as I mature. My best work lies ahead of me". (VDP, e-mail to the author, 3.27.97)
Left unsung so he has strung the frame.
January 3, 2000
Author's note: This biography, like the career of Van Dyke Parks, is a work in progress. Any feedback or additional information would be greatly appreciated. Please contactFlorence Tomasulo (firstname.lastname@example.org) with any comments. Many thanks to Andrew Gladwin, Don Richardson, Kalervo Koskela, Biff Rose, and Paul Zollo for their invaluable assistance with research and, of course, to Mr. Parks for his graciousness in reviewing the text for accuracy. Thanks, especially, to Dr. Richard Gray for making this project possible.