Van Dyke Parks on His Invisible Career, Surviving the '60s and the Role of the Beta Male


  • Roman Cho

Van Dyke Parks doesn't give interviews; he speaks in pull-quotes and aphorisms. If Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker had spent their formative years among rock & roll royalty, as Parks did as an arranger, songwriter and singer, they might have viewed that world with the same big-hearted verbosity that Parks brings to bear in conversation.

His career is rivaled by few: as an arranger and producer, he shepherded the careers of Randy Newman, Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt in their infancies. As a lyricist, he is most famous for the long-buried (and recently released) Smile sessions for the Beach Boys, taking the group's sunny pop songs into beautifully bizarre visions of Americana. His own albums, particularly Song Cycle and Discover America, set his high tenor voice against and ever-evolving tapestry of classical tropes and West Coast pop confections.

He is touring in support of a series of new 7-inch singles that are distributed through his Bananastan label and which feature artwork from Art Spiegelman and Klaus Voorman, among others. The Mississippi native is based in Pasadena, but his Southern gentleman's lilt came across the wire as we discussed his upcoming tour of the United States (which stops at the Luminary Center for the Arts on Thursday), the first-ever undertaking for an artist entering his seventh decade. "70 is the new 69," as he quipped.

Christian Schaeffer: We're excited to have you come to town. Have you been to St. Louis before?

Van Dyke Parks: Christian, I want to tell you something. My mother noted that she and my father were impressed that I put my retirement before my career. I've been in California for 40 years, hermetically sealed. I've paid for three college tuitions with this somewhat anonymous profession. This tour is a great adventure for us and I'm just absolutely amazed.

What will your performance look like at this week's show?

I bring what I think is the irreducible minimum - a percussionist and a bassist. And I sit at the piano and I sing. And sometimes I don't sing. It's really a great blessing for me; it's a novelty for me. This is George Plimpton time - this is a whole new role for me. It's exciting and terrifying and consoling. My peers did this years ago - Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, the Beach Boys - anyone who is still alive has been doing it for a living. David Crosby's been doing it for years - I can remember well when he offered me a position in a rock & roll band.

I really think that I'm at the peak of my powers as a tunesmith. Things are slower but surer. I have managed to clarify my aims. I love this song form - it is the most politically potent form. It is something that lives in the heart. It's not serious music I do, but I take it seriously. But that doesn't mean that I don't strive for durability.

As I look at it, I'll be singing a lifespan of work. I've ended up with a motto - the older I get, the better I was. I'm amazed at the craft I put into the song. Every day the hand is a little father from the head. When I think of Mick Jagger, when I can recover from the nausea, I marvel that he is still doing these geriatric gyrations he did as a youth. With this tour, I'm getting a chance to discover America, as it were. You know I'd go there. [Laughs]. My agent put a career in these terms. Who is Van Dyke Parks? Get me Van Dyke Parks. Get me a young Van Dyke Parks.

You've chosen to release your first new music in fifteen years via 7-inch records; what about that medium is a good fit for these songs?

Each of them, I pray, is a work of art, an objet d'art. It's a tactile experience with the vinyl. It's something that escapes the jewel box. I'm doing a tour with a 45 record, each of them graced with a great artist. I'm in the endgame of life and I'm doing what I think is right.

I've loved Mozart all my life--I know what a genius is. I sang lead in a Mozart opera when I was nine. My music is not genius, but it is utility. I think that the single is the perfect medium for me. I thought that an LP would be an immodest thing to do. I love the visual icon of the record itself.

  • Art Spiegelman

What other plans do you have for your Bananastan label?

My next record is by the New Orleans piano player Tom McDermott, who was actually born in St. Louis. He's a true keyboard genius, and I know keyboard geniuses - I know Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, I knew James Booker. I got him out of jail once. I never thought Elton John was that great of a pianist, but then again, I didn't vote for Nixon.

You're at an odd juncture in your career - your early work has been drawing more respect and attention, but you're clearly not resting on your laurels. What comes next for you?

I really appreciate your kindness - we're here for our powers of empathy. That's nice of you to say. It's quite a wrestle. Ted Turner used a phrase for his book -- It Only Looks Easy. I love that convention. The late, lamented Vic Chesnutt could not afford to stay alive in this country. In the second verse of a song ["Isadora Duncan"] he noted, "There is no shelter in the arts." I wanted to kiss him and comfort him when he said that. It is so true that it is a struggle to find relevance, to be a prism for the human experience. To create that, I can't believe how demanding it is. It takes work to present the song to another person without a stain of apology. I try to make the songs or the pieces of music beautiful to the casual or vulgar observer. The side [of my single] called "Amazing Graces" is just variations on that great tune. There are no words.

About a month before he died, Ray Charles' manager called and asked for my string reel. Ray Charles was interested in the way I arranged strings. I cannot tell you how that evens life up in the most spectacular way for me. I have such respect for the late Ray Charles. My wife and I were in the kitchen and I started to weep. So stuff like that, it's a cottage industry and it's here to serve. And I mentioned before, that trying to do the right thing.

When did your own aspirations to be a lyricist and, later, a front man take over?

Due caution is always there. The fact that I survived the '60s shows that I can be happy with the decisions I made. I really put a lot of stock in this Beta Male role - the idea of being a team player is attractive to me. Arranging is total, it's the most thrilling aspect of music. I have to notate every sound that I hear. That is really an illumination, but it's drudgery. It only looks easy! (Laughs)

I don't care about the recognition. It's not recognition -- you have to keep doing what you think is right. I believe that there's nothing more satisfying that trying to bring out the best in someone else. That's what is at the heart of what music is all about. In the process of being an arranger, I found my briar patch -- where I wanted to laugh or cry. I found a great medium. So that's incredible, beautiful. It still finds a way to surface, having suffered the disregard of the academic world from where I come from. Ask Mike Love if I have any street credibility. (Laughs) So I got street cred. Yet something fascinated me beyond street cred. That was the guys who would take street cred into the parlor.

Look at the cover by Art Spiegelman and you see a man lighting a cigar with a $100 bill, and the other half of the face is torn away. Obviously I took a vow of poverty - that's what my religion taught me to do. I did not come into music for fame or profit. I already knew the joy it was to be a musician and a collaborator. The greatest joy that society can offer is a collaborative hymn. This is the America that I refuse to leave behind.


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