The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Van Dyke Parks discusses his recent collection Songs Cycled, the synesthetic quality of his work and unpopular pop music.
Van Dyke Parks is a man whose legend precedes him. Though in-extractable from the storied debacle that was the Beach Boys’ maligned masterpiece SMiLE (née Dumb Angel), to leave it at that would be akin to describing Michael Jackson as the guy whose hair caught fire in a Pepsi commercial. From the class-by-itself brilliance of his debut album Song Cycle (1968) to his work as producer/ arranger in collaboration with Randy Newman, The Mighty Sparrow, Ry Cooder, Phil Ochs, and more recently Joanna Newsom (to name a few), his work has been the embodiment of an iconoclastic Americana rich in allusion and unmistakable elan. 2013 has seen the release of two Van Dyke Parks full lengths, the full-circle Songs Cycled, a new collection of tunes both lyric + instrumental, and The Super Chief, a suite of film music lending score to the remembrance of a personal manifest destiny (the latter limited LP comes complete with impressionistic autobiographical liner notes and is a must-have for any VDPaficionado). These releases, along with Arrangements, vol. 1 (2011) + a smattering of live engagements, have brought the maestro into a new light internationally, albeit with that same certain Yankee sonority. We spoke on a hot day in May on the patio of the Dream Downtown Hotel in Chelsea, over an iced tea and into a Marantz digital recorder owned by the Bernadette Corporation. A downtown dream indeed.
Van Dyke Parks Do you have a card or anything? Are you a Commie?
Keith Connolly No, I could give you someone else’s card…
VDP No, I don’t need that. Are we on mic?
KC Yeah, It’s coming right into the machine. Don’t look at it!
VDP Wow, mic left, mic right, that’s a very beautiful machine.
KC I want to begin by asking you about popular music…
VDP Isn’t it funny that pop applies to unpopular music? When popular went to pop, was basically, for me, was ’63. You didn’t ask, but that to me is when that happened. And basically, that is exactly when I went into music as an occupation.
KC At the onset of pop?
VDP When Warhol came out with his irreducibly minimalist Campbell soup can, and also when Americana got a pop stamp through Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, people like that. Music did too, with Bob Dylan and the Stones even, co-opting American language. That’s when I came into it, so now we’re still talking about me as a marginalized member of this pop reality when nothing could be really further from the truth. Because you equate that with the eroticism of wealth, you know? When you think about success in music you think about people that we know, and love to know, and I haven’t yet achieved anything in that area, I’ve achieved a decided anonymity and enjoy it.
KC You got your start in showbiz alongside Grace Kelly in a film?
VDP The Super Chief LP describes that chapter in my life. It’s fair to say that I peaked in the ’50s. I boarded at a music school outside of Princeton, New Jersey and I paid my tuition by coming to New York City to be in television shows. That led to what they call a “starring role,” in a two-person picture called The Swan (1956) with Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness. I was an obedient child and I did a lot of work as a child to support my musical education.
KC Can I ask you what your definition of an arrangement is? This has been asked of me before and I never know quite what to say.
VDP Arranging is a premeditated monastic process that takes the concentrated solitude of observation to develop. An arrangement, in my case, is something that takes anywhere from two to five days per song, of nothing but that work. There might be meals to prepare and dishes to clean between preparations but that’s all part of the process. Doing the dishes, taking out the garbage—as my wife would say, “Take out the garbaggio, Ludvig,”—all of that feeds into the concentrate, the focus it takes to make an arrangement, to observe the piece that is presented.
An arrangement can be illiterate, an arrangement can be instructive. Brain Wilson instructed arrangements for Pet Sounds, he instructed people and arrangements for his Smile record. A lot of composers today compose with no literature at all. If it’s a basic track, say a vocal that’s out of tune and a ukelele—or even if it’s a hearty rock group cavorting and consorting in what they think might bring some great notice because of its volume and find out in the final analysis that it still needs remedial surgery—arranging serves to ennoble the plain. Arranging serves to bring the casual observer, or disinterested observer, into the magnetic field. Arrangement can often be felt and not heard, but to me it is the most fascinating area of music production, begging the question, What is a producer? I still don’t know what that is.
KC That’s a topic that seems to come up in each interview I do. There’s a revisionist kind of critical authority which tends to slam the arrangements in much popular rock music, adhering to a purist “just the songs” approach, leading to Let It Be … Naked or whatever. But it is not always as simple as less is more. Love’s Forever Changes comes to mind…
VDP Well, I think the results are inevitably unpredictable, unless you’re a Presbytarian, and you know what you’re doing. Arranging requires a person to not know what they’re doing, because it’s a reactive process. In the heat of the battle, sometimes one will find overarrangement and in the same heat of the battle one will find underarrangement. Both are life threatening, but I enjoy that guessing game and I find myself more and more a rare exponent of a dying process in recording, as we find musicians more and more isolated by the technological advances that are supposed to serve music.
We find more composers—of course people who live in glass houses should throw no stones, but Philip Glass does come to mind—who put their finger on a keyboard and are inevitably as good as their tools. Other people don’t have to have so many tools and are still good. I think that I bear out the old axiom, It ain’t how big the gun, it’s how good the shot. The way I do that is with due diligence. I work hard. I don’t have an ability, a natural ability, I have to work to get results that so many of my musical dweeb friends find to be child’s play.
I’m glad we talked about arranging, because I’ve seen three offspring through college basically within this anonymous, unremunerative field called arranging. This is where I’ve hung on to the idea of being a musician.
KC Let’s talk about Warner Bros in the ‘70s. Around ’71 there was an AV department you were put in charge of?
VDP Yeah, but I wasn’t put anywhere at Warner Bros. I insinuated myself into that, I made up that audio/visual services. As a matter of fact it was a decision, a career decision, you might say, to put the audio before the visual.
VDP I had a department with five employees. We made 13 promotional films (and they were films), which were by nature documentary, so that they could be rented or bought by any accredited music school. They were instructive, they were entertaining, they were promotional—but they could create an income stream for musicians who were hard-pushed into tours that required drugs to sustain them.
We would spend $18,500 in the production of one film. Generally, they would be 10 minutes in length or song length. The one exception was for a Steel Band documentary, which was a 40-minute documentary about a trip through the South, a bunch of black men going through the American South. That was a fascinating, gripping adventure which I felt deserved to be presented. But having recovered the production expenses—that is, having broken even—I provided that each artist would get 25% of the net profits of the rentals or sales. It was going to be a very promising market for the artist. Warners soon tired of what I thought was a fair equation of participation in creative profits, and basically isolated me to the extent that I left.
KC Can you recall some of the artists who were the subjects of these films?
VDP Oh well, there was Ry Cooder, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Earth Wind & Fire, Don Van Vleit. You know, the jewels in the crown.
KC It seems like there were dozens of people surrounding Warner Bros at the time that we could talk at length about. Ron Elliott, for example. There’s very little information for my generation or for me (_laughter_) about Ron Elliott, but the recordings he was involved with speak volumes. I know you and he worked together.
VDP Ron Elliott was bigger than his guitar. He was also more modest than most of the people I’ve met who were infected by fame. I loved the fellow, and haven’t heard from him since Warner Bros scraped us all off like a barnacle and moved on to its disco madness and arena rock and so forth. Ron was a great song talent and I’m so glad you brought up his name, because I miss him.
KC Yeah, he persevered on an increasingly strange musical path, largely obscure to history. There’s his own solo record, The Candlestickmaker, which is legendary in collector’s circles but borderline inaccessible, and a couple of groups, Pan and the Giants, that he did a little later on. Plus, of course, producing the Everly Brothers’ late masterpiece Roots. Jerry Yester, who was also at Warners at this time, is a friend. We made a record together in Harrison, Arkansas in 1999. He’s another great producer from that era.
VDP I just saw Jerry Yester with Cyrus [Faryar] and Henry Diltz and Chip Douglas in a rareMFQ [Modern Folk Quartet] reunion very recently, within the last six months.
Wonderful talent. A wonderful man. And as acute as ever right now. So your point is taken, there is such a thing as a producer.
KC These guys for sure.
VDP But it’s rare. The producers you’re talking about, Ron Elliott and Jerry Yester, they areproducers. I’ve heard it said that by no title, merit, or honor is any true man alighted and in fact, I believe that. I think that titles are often grasped as accolades. I’ve been disappointed by the intervention of so many producers when I saw that arranging was the trump card. But those are exceptions.
KC I have here in my notes “eclecticism vs. traditionalism,” trying to get at what this Americana that you’re responsible for is all about, what it’s constituent parts are. I thought of Charles Ives, John Fahey, Moondog, Harry Partch.
VDP Moondog, certainly.
KC I am trying to figure out a context to place your work in that makes sense. I mean, the Beach Boys mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but I think that it’s not really accurate to abandon you on that shore, so to speak. (_laughter_) So…
VDP Thank you very much.
KC You’re welcome. These guys come up for me, but I want to know what you think about eclecticism vs. traditionalism. Do you consider yourself a traditionalist?
VDP Well, certainly I thought it was wonderful when somebody stopped being confused and called me a “futuristic traditionalist.” I’ve seen other terms that seem more mannered than that too. Tower Records, when it existed as an outlet, had a department called Afro Celt, which I thought was really a stretch, and yet there were hundreds of records in that sub-genre called Afro Celt. I think “futuristic traditionalism” is a far more sustainable bifurcation. It’s really what it’s all about.
I think one of the components of Americana—I mean as a living organism and not a museum piece—is that it reaches the definition of art in cliché. That is, to raise up something we may have heard, something that seems familiar, and bring a sense of novelty to it, bring it into the present tense, make it something that can be discerned through the prism of contemporary experience and understanding and survive vividly, and even with urgency. You take something that is at once seemingly familiar and reiterate it with the power of P.O.V, and even some minimal surgery and come up with something entirely, newly synthesized and refreshing while still leaving it wobbling, which is of course my pernicious habit. I love to leave them wobbling.
KC (_laughter_) This is the eclecticism, perhaps. It’s not a very pretty word, but …
VDP Well, it’s a condemnatory word now. Eclecticism was something I ran into at the death knell of the Beat era, in 1962, when I went to California and played in coffee houses from San Diego to San Francisco with my brother. Eclecticism wasn’t a dirty word and it didn’t confuse people or upset them. Nobody needed to be told what to think, we were all wondering, we were waiting and Ferlinghetti’s poem, “I am Waiting” epitomizes the way I view all of the values of inquiry from the beat era.
Now it is something I think that is a stigma. People want the convenience of being told what to think. This is because of what Zappa called “the mass midget mind,” the centralization and corporatization of information has led to its autonomy.
My work is different, and it is different because it’s an unbridled embrace of the tenet that one should write what one knows. Randy Newman was once asked what kind of music he likes, and he said that he’s a goat, he’s got the appetite for anything that’s good. I think I’m guilty as charged with that same thing, and I think in this case I think it’s proper to say my work is eclectic.
KC Well, another word that is not a pretty word would be iconoclastic. This is where again my tendency was to think of people like Ives, or Harry Partch, or Moondog, Fahey, all the same figures, who are not really popular music.
VDP Fahey’s a giant in my book.
KC He is, in more ways than one. I had the pleasure of knowing him and he was fascinating to talk to.
VDP Iconoclastic, yes. But you see—
KC One can’t really be self-appointed, right? (laughter)
VDP No, it’s inescapable. I came from a family of Yankees, but they were rebels. I’ll never forget the time that Mr. Wells, our neighbor, came into the kitchen. I was the youngest of four boys and the kitchen was where we gathered. Mr. Wells came into the kitchen and he had a drink in his hand and he was reeling, and he said to my mother “Mary Joy, I just burned a cross on Mrs. Goldstein’s lawn.” And my mother said “Get out of this house and don’t come back.” She didn’t pause to say that. That was an immediate response to Mr. Wells, and that horror that he had just talked about.
My only surviving brother wrote me an email a few months ago asking if I remembered that moment. Of course I did. And he added that it did not escape our mother’s attention that Mr. Wells was the president of the bank that held the mortgage on our house.
So I come from a family of people who have believed in such immediacy, and who are able to question authority and were iconoclastic by nature. Ain’t it grand?
KC You made enduring work, and this is a good time for access, it’s a good time for the assessment of this work as history. Song Cycle  was something of a rite of passage for me. I went from being a kid and listening to the radio and having my Walkman in the ’80s to starting to become involved in producing music and understanding that the vinyl record was the primary text, and ultimately the most ennobled format.
VDP Well, I still believe that. We live in this shuffle mentality, this magazine consciousness. The long form is dead, really. We don’t have time for features in music, we have time for features in film, but even that is a dying industry. To me, the LP was the paradigm, the ideal, in presentation of music. It was the short story, like having a good beach read. It was an escape, but it didn’t take days to get through. It took maybe three quarters of an hour, on average, to get through a record.
I love the idea of the visual aesthetic and the audio coming into a unified field. Synesthetic relations have always appealed to me. I’ve been accused of my music being filmic, I mean, perhaps that’s a good idea and perhaps not, but that’s what I’ve been accused of. That’s because I love it, and I promote it in my work.
KC The object-nature, or physicality of LP records holds for me a certain kind of ceremonial significance, a talismanic object. There was a sense of portent or arrival when one found oneself listening to something like Song Cycle. Now, by contrast, it’s a good time in history to put that into a context for people and maybe try to explain it to them, but it’s not a great time in history for them to live that experience, though I guess vinyl production is technically on the upswing. I know you made some 7” singles recently.
VDP I love vinyl for the same reason I love to just sit at my granddad’s Steinway rather than play a state-of-the-art Yamaha electric. The same parallel is true in the digital age and the world of vinyl. To make my work available on CD is a concession in a way. It’s not one that I’m grudgingly accepting, I’m grateful for it. I’m happiest knowing that alternative music can have alternative stamps, or production, that it can be both vinyl and digital, happily, and that’s happening. And that’s where I am today, with Songs Cycled .
KC Which has a physically beautiful cover.
VDP Absolutely. Kenton Nelson, seductive So Cal reality, a candy-coated confectionary approach to the ad age, a propagandist image to celebrate my sense of place, which is Southern California, and to give relief to anyone who might be distressed with the darker nature of my adult mind.
VDP You know someone recently insinuated that this work was autobiographical. Nothing could be farther from my intention. What I’m trying to do is illustrate the common man, the human comedy, and it just turns out, that it is both biographical in nature, and also a general statement about where we are, where we should go, and what we should do to get there. All of that happens, hopefully, like the b in subtle. That recipe is well-proportioned and allows the music simply to entertain. It took a lot of money to get those strings to rhapsodize on “The Parting Hand,” a song about contemplating death, which I thought was something I should do.
I put those strings there into place in defiance of the fact that “The Parting Hand” is intended as a vocal piece—it’s from the Sacred Heart Society of Georgia, and they’re no nonsense about it. Accompanying instruments were viewed as the devil’s workshop, in spite of what you may have seen on Cold Mountain and the music of T-Bone Burnett accompanying. Fact is, it’s taboo to use instruments in the low church that produced the sacred heart hymnal, from where I got that piece.
There are a lot of inexpressible qualities in the work that I do that may have no actual effect on the casual observer. In my first record, Song Cycle, you hear in “The All Golden” a presidential dirge, the only time I had ever heard that, the only place that it was produced in my knowledge was on Pennsylvania Avenue, and that was for the funeral procession of the president, John Kennedy. So that would be lost, that drum tattoo would be lost on anybody who listened to Song Cycle, just as it might not mean a damn thing to anybody that I took a purely vocal piece called “Wedding in Madagascar” which was a cappella, to create the opening instrumental track on Songs Cycled. If this is antique musical roadshow, the provenance of that piece is a production by Henry Kaiser and David Lindley in Madagascar. They should be credited for finding that beautiful a cappella piece about some parents’ misgivings about their daughter’s marriage. And I did that song to celebrate my own daughter’s wedding. So yeah, it is autobiographical in a sense.
KC What a fantastic track, a Pandora’s box of instrumental voices.
VDP Every beat was observed, everything about it is a mirror image to the a cappella version, the choir from Madagascar. It was just an amazing piece of music, it really blindsided me, and I had to do it.
The whole thing you see is an album. They use this hackneyed expression, compelling, when they run out of adjectives. To lure an audience into a movie, they’d say it was “compelling.” Well, I felt compelled in doing this album. It was inescapable that this became an album, a derivative of some vinyl singles that I amassed within the last year and a half that were produced by me and my wife. Well, we weren’t called the producers, there were no producers, we did it simply because I could not find a patron. Finally I got the notice of Bella Union, and—although I had been branded as Americana here in the United States—I had to get my patronage as it were, my chance for reimbursement on these expenses that we endured—from the United Kingdom. I found my way back through an entirely circuitous route, but I was compelled to do it, never expecting to have that record ever come out. Now I’m astonished that I’m now in my 8th decade—70 years old—and I’ve got a record out there.
KC You’ve spoken a couple of times in the course of this conversation about magnetism.
VDP Well, what draws me into music are things that are entirely unmusical. That’s funny, isn’t it? Although, I love music. A day without music, without musical productivity, and I’m at sea. I don’t know how to relax at the beach. I remember my dad couldn’t relax, but now I know what it’s like not to relax.
Harry Nillson once said a man who never sleeps can never have a dream. I find myself in this perpetual state of semi-consciousness, and I think it’s not just a product of age, I think that it is understanding the crisis that we’re in, basically the ecological crisis. I think about our new age, the Anthropocene, a geologic age that made its debut the day that the bomb was dropped at Hiroshima. We have a population boom, we have a Pope that doesn’t know about birth control. We are at the tipping point. I don’t mean to be flamboyant or alarmist, but I can’t get that out of my head, so as music has become marginalized, and my music even more so, I’m more and more drawn into this being magnetized by my obligation to find a solution through the power of song.
It’s left me in a place that is neither rock nor part of the American linguistic hegemony. Everything is rock, driven by this post-Elvis musical continuity. I’m not a member of the rock community, nor am I legit, but I find my surreptitiously unique standing as a messenger between these two places, the street and the parlor, trying to make what is plain noble, not intending to make what is noble plain. Some people think I don’t have a right to do that. I won’t go to the Grammy museum. I don’t believe in idolatry. I don’t believe that competition has a place in the arts. I don’t think that any one piece of music is better than another. I don’t take that horseshit to Jesus. I don’t concern it.
To people that see me as not having a legitimate part in the rock arena, I can only say this: I married up. I married a girl whose great grandfather owned the last train to Clarksdale. Not only did he own the last train to Clarksdale, he owned the first train to Clarksdale. He owned the land on which Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. He may have owned … Robert Johnson. My wife came from that kingdom called cotton. She is Memphis.
I don’t look at white boys with the woo-woos as the only solution to what ails us. What I want to do is continue, and I’m not going to do it by hiding in some genre that’s easily understandable. I’m troubled by the excesses of triumphalism that we found in Neil Young’s song “Let’s Roll,” I’m troubled by the sub-Saharan Diaspora in Paris and how they have not assimilated and are not being addressed. I’m troubled by the tectonics between Islam and Christianity, by the developed and the undeveloped world. This is what plagues me, and this is what keeps this fool in the game rather than in the safety of the walled garden at the age of 70. This is what brought me through airport security to New York on a red-eye, the first red-eye I’ve ever taken, at the age of 70. Very interesting experience.
It leads my mind to wander, this jet-laggery, but it’s because so much is at stake and you do have to suffer to be beautiful and your scars are your beauty marks and we are here to serve some higher purpose than the eroticism of wealth and the progress of profit and music that can only be evaluated in tonnage. There’s a Napoleonic law the French have: it’s a punishable crime—matter of fact you can be thrown in the can—if you defraud any of the people. I’m pretty much in that position with this record label called Bella Union. I just want to see them make their money back on what they’ve stepped out and done. They’ve gone along with me and shown faith in me and I’m very happy about it. I hope it works out.
Keith Connolly is a founding member of the No-Neck Blues Band and a native New Yorker. He is currently on tour in Europe with New York City Players as part of the cast of Richard Maxwell’s Neutral Hero.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.