The Van Dyke Parks Interview, Part Two
Continued from Part One…
Van Dyke Parks has long been more of a “studio rat” than a live performer; he says that a 2009 tour with Clare and the Reasons was his first time “really getting out there.” For a number of reasons, the studio has been his focus. “My mother and my father marveled at the fact that I could put my retirement before my career. While everybody I knew around me was pursuing a record contract and going out and performing, I was staying in the trenches in Los Angeles, working behind the curtain, as it were. People like Ry Cooder and me, we had no money. We decided that [studio work] would be the way to stay alive.” Quoting the late Vic Chesnutt, he says, “There is no shelter in the arts.”
“It looked like I was a shy, retiring wallflower: no, no no. None of that,” he insists. “I was trying to get my kids fed, the rent paid. And their tuitions paid. Because they were deserving. I worked hard: family first. That was my story, and a very ordinary one. Kind of a yawn. But I was a family guy.”
“Now that’s over,” he says. “And I have a new chapter. If not now, when?” He goes on to recount two relatively recent gigs that illustrate his willingness to “get out there.” One was “forty appreciative women — who may or may not have heard of me — at the Grand Rapids Ladies’ Literary Society Clubhouse” and the other was as the lead performer at Roskilde, in front of 17,500, with a sixty-piece orchestra. He describes the latter as a “very abstract and profound experience,” but makes clear his preference for “intimate, close-range” performance situations.
Reflecting on the aging process, Parks observes that “the hand is farther from the head every day. That’s what happens. Yet, I still have this desire to do everything I could when I was an ‘athletic brunette’ at the keyboard. And one of the challenges is to do these songs — songs that I’ve never promoted – because there are a lot of unknowns in the process. And just getting through it, to me, brings such great satisfaction.”
Parks agrees that presenting his songs in this stripped-down context — as compared to the full orchestra treatment on his Moonlighting: Live at the Ash Grove album – shows the songs in a different light. “I think it makes them less formidable,” he says. “The irreducible minimum is bass and piano. The music I do — and I hate to say it — is thick with thought. It’s full of anecdotes. I try to indicate a lot on the keyboard.”
I comment on the expressiveness of bassist Jim Cooper‘s work, full of sawing attacks that often made it sound — or at least feel — like a human voice. “This is amazing,” Parks chortles, “because I just met this man twenty-four hours ago! Jim Cooper is a promising musician from Chicago. He drove eleven hours to play with me.” He recalls his recent Australian tour (“I played every damn phone booth on the continent,” he quips) in which he worked with a different bass player every night. “Not one disappointment,” he beams.
Rhapsodizing on the uncertainty of playing a hall in which one has never before worked, Parks says he half-expects to find “spinning discs with sawtooth edges” in the “morgue-like” expanse of the hall. He jokes that concert halls are “abattoirs of inhumanity.” Thankfully, he says, the crowd warms the room up.
“The opening act,” Parks succinctly observes, “is built to bring comfort, and to elevate the room – hopefully — for the main act. That’s the job. And that flies in the face of all my phobias. For example, my greatest fear, when I look at a room, is an empty seat. Colonel Parker would never let Elvis play to a hall with an empty seat. So I was standing there last night, and I looked out and saw that the hall was about two-thirds full. Not three-fourths, but two-thirds. It was pocked with empty seats. I fell into conversation with Robin [Pecknold], the leader of Fleet Foxes, and I admitted my phobia. That’s at the beginning of a show. I don’t mind if somebody walks out in disgust, but give me a chance!”
Our conversation turns again, this time to the Arrangements Volume 1 album. “’Volume One’…what a bunch of chutzpah!” Van Dyke chuckles. “My favorite part of that album is the essay I wrote for the liner notes,” he says. He has a special place in his heart for the track by Dino Martin (Dean’s son), a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting Here in Limbo.” Even though he admits some might think of that project as “arch kitschery,” Park says he wanted to “promote Jimmy Cliff’s work, and get him some authorship residuals.”
More than a half hour in, I ask Van Dyke Parks if I might ask some SMiLE-related questions. He pauses, seemingly to gather up a rehearsed reply. “I want not to comment on SMiLE-the-release. No comment. And that speaks volumes.”
A bit of silence hangs in the air while I re-collect my own thoughts. Parks again speaks. “You know, the other day I was having my picture taken by the great photographer Henry Diltz. And Henry said, ‘Smile.’ And I said, ‘There’s nothing to smile about.’” A bit taken aback, I assume that Parks is making an oblique reference to the new album of 44-year old tapes. But in fact, this time he has changed the subject, and I struggle to keep up. He goes on to make observations on problems facing the world today: issues like ecology, the culture of greed, and the “insufficiency of military revenge in an age of guerrilla tactics.” He stresses that he himself has a “deep sense of contentment, and my wife understands why I’m not prone to smile for pictures,” and that he really is a happy person. Unless someone tries to talk with him about SMiLE, that is.
Parks offers a fascinating perspective on the role of songwriting. It’s clear he’s given the matter much thought, as – for the only time in our entire conversation – his answer sounds a bit like a speech. “Songcraft — the process of songwriting – should be one that is immediately empathetic, offering consolation and entertainment on the face, and ripping jugular veins of contentment underneath.”
Parks believes – as the tired saying goes — that everything really did change after 9/11. “Neil Young sang, immediately after 9/11, ’Let’s roll.’ This Canadian native was telling the people of the United States to go spend money on some bombs: Go get the bastard. My first reaction was not, I think, so simplistic. My first reaction was: Why? And how can we solve this so it does not plague our children like an ongoing crusade?” Our conversation continues down that path for awhile, and Parks sums up his ultimately hopeful philosophy this way: “Peace is not an unachievable goal in a world of fundamentalists.” He adds, “This is what I’m thinkin’ about as a songwriter.”
Oddly enough – and with no help from me — the conversation circles back around to Brian Wilson. Ruminating on the songwriter’s fulcrum between “absolute faith and despair” and how great works explore that, Parks pauses. “I will say this: one of the market artists of our time — someone who represents the public’s fascination with that — is Brian Wilson. Because you don’t know whether to laugh or cry when you hear that stuff. And I think that’s what great art can do. Not should do – I don’t know what art should do – and that makes it precious.”
Sensing the tiniest of openings, I pivot back to SMiLE, with a question not about the 2011 release, but rather relating to the original 1966 sessions. I’m one of those trainspotters who’s long been in possession of stacks of SMiLE session bootlegs, with which I’ve spent countless happy hours. And while I know that the official story holds that Wilson brought Van Dyke Parks into the project as a lyricist — much as he had done on Pet Sounds with Tony Asher — to my ears, Parks’ (uncredited) fingerprints are all over the music as well. What’s the real story? In the hardcover book accompanying the 5CD/2LP/2x45RPM set, right there in black-and-white, it reads:
All Songs: Music by Brian Wilson, Lyrics by Van Dyke Parks.
“I had a musical role. [emphasis mine] My only goal,” Parks insists, “was to see Brian come back as a functioning musician. That’s [also] why I did Orange Crate Art  with him, to prove that he could do it. I feel that I have paid my social debt in full.” With that, our discussion of Brian Wilson and all things SMiLE comes to a close. But I feel that I got the answer I had long suspected, buried in the shallow yet fertile soil of his reply. He does add a telling postscript: “Friends can be useful things. But that doesn’t mean that they can always agree. And I’ll leave it at this: To disagree is not to disrespect.”
Speaking, I suspect, obliquely of of the touchy subject of SMiLE but more universally of life and work in general, Parks makes this observation: “I continue to look through the windshield. The rear-view mirror is a nice reference, but the windshield is what brings me my info. That, and my implausible desire that my best work is ahead of me.”
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