The Swarm

September 14, 2011

The Daily Swarm Interview: The Legendary Van Dyke Parks Takes a Walk Through His Mind...

Alex Sherman

On my way to Van Dyke Parks’ house, I stopped at a newly-opened record store in Atwater Village to thumb through whatever albums of his they had in stock. First I checked under “V,” then under “D,” then under “P” – most record stores don’t seem to know where to stock him. Is Van Dyke Parks a band? A person? After a career that spans nearly fifty years and includes celebrated partnerships with Brian Wilson, Harry Nilsson, Joanna Newsom, and Inara George, we still don’t quite know where Van Dyke Parks belongs.

In fact, Van Dyke Parks’ contributions to pop music are significant as a lyricist, composer, producer, and arranger. His visionary first album, 1968’s Song Cycle, is a psychedelic survey of the sights and sounds of Southern California in the Sixties, weaving together song fragments and “samples” to dizzying effect. There’s no beginning, middle, and end –- it’s a cycle, after all -– and the result is an album that’s alive with the mixed and unresolved emotions of that rapidly-changing era. Each of his subsequent albums are beheld by that same tenuous relationship to its times, and a listener’s search for their center is… complicated. It’s a journey both satisfying and mystifying.

Now that vinyl has come back into style, Van Dyke is recording for the medium once again. Bananastan, what he calls his “modest vanity label,” is releasing Parks’ first new music in over 15 years –- a series of singles commemorating recent historical milestones, from the bombing of Baghdad to the financial meltdown. Also, Bananastan is releasing a compilation of Van Dyke’s most inspired arrangements for himself and others—some available for the first time since their original pressings decades ago—in addition to reissues of his calypso recordings of the Mighty Sparrow and the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, famous for its cover of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”

From the patio of his cottage in Pasadena—“on the edge of the great urban sprawl,” he notes—Van Dyke waxes poetic while sipping a Thai iced tea from a mason jar. Behind his antique personal style lurks a childlike bon vivance and whirligig memory for pointillist detail. His expansive and elevated frame of reference, and a consciousness with regards to his humility, give him the quality of being from another world entirely. Everything is grist for his mill.

Van Dyke’s conversational eloquence brought him together with Brian Wilson for their co-creation of SMiLE, the great lost Beach Boys album, the original sessions of which are finally set for release in 2011. In that spirit, speaking with Van Dyke provides a sense of the obsessions and crises that continue to animate his art and life—from his process and “getting outside this fuckin’ box” to what it was like to watch Harry Nilsson sing.

Go here to listen to a special Van Dyke Parks Spotify playlist.

Van Dyke Parks: Where do you live?

TDS: Los Feliz Village, right near that piano bar the Dresden.

VDP: I know it well. They shot a scene for The Two Jakes there, the sequel to Chinatown, and I was required to go to that place in pursuit of my duties. Mr. Nicholson had offered me the score. My heart leapt with joy because it would be an orchestra with five saxophones, and that’s a very good thing. I wanted to enter the time of the picture, 1948, a year with a temblor in it, an earthquake. There’s a very interesting plot interwoven into that history, and music too. The source music and the score were very conscientiously positioned in a complementary way, so I said I would just love to do that. He said, “Come up and we’ll talk about it over dinner.” And I said, “I think I can make time.” “There’s another thing, would you be willing to do a little cameo?” I said, “No, no—I don’t do shit like that. That’s not my metier… my bag… my groove. But thank you and I’ll see ya.” So I get off the phone and [my wife] Sally says to me, “What happened?” I said, “He offered me a score.” “But what about that other part you kept saying ‘no’ to?” “He offered me a part, a cameo.” She said, “And you turned it down?” “Well, yes I did.” She said, “You call him right back. You need that job. We need the hospitalization. It’s a union job.” So I called him back and I said, “Jack.” He says, “Yes.” I said, “It’s V.D.P.M.D. Act? I thought you said shmact.” So I took the acting job to get the music job.

When I got up to his house, it was just the two of us having dinner at candlelight, with the great expanse of Los Angeles below. As far as I was concerned, the job was still very much on the line because it’s a business based on personal dynamics as much as anything else. So I was very apprehensive. And just as I was beginning to relax at the table he asks me, “Who is your favorite dramatic force in motion pictures?” And I gulped because I don’t know anything about film. “Film-literate” is oxymoronic to me. I don’t go to the movies a lot. So I said, “That would have to be Dennis Potter.” And he said, “Absolutely correct.”

“Love Is Good For Anything That Ails You” from Pennies From Heaven

Dennis Potter wrote and directed “The Singing Detective” and “Pennies From Heaven” and created, in my view, a new way to make music. I haven’t tapped into that yet. He would create serious drama that had within it musical interstices that had a schizophrenic, vise-like grip on all the events around the tune, sometimes playing into the through line of the picture, so the music would be expository in a way, sometimes not, sometimes escapist from the serious issues of the show. For example, you see a picture of hopeless life, of ragged poverty, on the screen, enough to reduce an audience to tears, just Dickensian in its convolution and design and sincerity. And then you’d follow the hungry children to school, too hungry to learn anything, too cold to learn—a hopeless Welsh underclass. And then the prim teacher rips off her skirt and jumps on a desk and they all jump into a Busby Berkeley number. It’s great stuff! My answer wouldn’t have made a difference, anyway, because Jack’s hiring me was an act of compassion. But it was a good thing to do, and I enjoyed it very much—sixty-three minutes of music prepared in nine days with one orchestrator chasing my ideas. That’s hard work.

TDS: What is the process of arranging a song like for you?

VDP: When I’m doing an arrangement, it’s all about how I should spend a week to think about a song, how to frame it. But when I’m writing a movie, if the budget will allow an orchestrator, I’m whipping somebody into great craft. It’s hard because when you’re doing a score you’re thinking about the cumulative minutes you’re getting done a day. 2.5 minutes a day is what Dimitri Tiomkin proposed a film score – that no one should be required to do more. Well, that was when he was the head of Paramount Music, the great composer whom I met on The Alamo, which my brother and I played guitar on. That was before synthesizers and music programming came along: now to say you do six minutes of music a day is not immodest. A lot of people do that. But there is a line between inspiration and execution. Giving a moment of pause before you really plunge in is really sometimes defining about any value to the work at all. So I kind of wobble there, in that moment.

Dimitri Tiomkin’s “The Green Leaves of Summer” from The Alamo (used in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds)

TDS: Is Bananastan designed to free you from these constraints of time and money?

VDP: The project is shamelessly to do what it is that I can do. What I’m trying to do is create some objects of art. I can relate to vinyl. I like the smell and the look of it. I like the concentric circles, the striations. It’s very interesting to return to the world that I know, the world that I can survive in. I don’t know how to survive in this world—the world that we see, the world of the CD. I can’t keep CDs in my house; I don’t have enough room. I either have to keep information somewhere in cyberspace, or it has to have an absolutely magnetic tactile or visual importance.

TDS: Is the music you’re putting out all new?

VDP: Some of it is a contemporary view of something quite old. I’m doing “The Parting Hand,” a song of lamentation. White people called the Sacred Harp Society of Georgia put out shape-note singing. They would have four parts and shout at each other in church. So I decided to do it with the song unfolding a cappella, and then I treat it as a serious source for orchestral variations.

Sacred Harp 62 singing “The Parting Hand”

[VDP’s dog comes over to say hello.]

TDS: What’s your dog’s name?

VDP: His name is Jubal. The first musician of the bible was Jubal. He is named Jubal Early because Jubal Early coincidentally happens to be the name of my wife’s favorite Confederate general. Jubal Early was known for his speed. He almost –- the operative word being almost –- took Washington twice, and in both cases he outran his supplies. The lesson here is, don’t let the ambition outreach the ability. That’s important to a general, and that’s important to a songwriter and an arranger. I think that principle is more consequential to a songwriter or an arranger in the long run than a general because you’re never out of battle. The work is always there. It doesn’t go away. I’ve always tried to put enough craft in the work that it would have an enduring provocation or purpose.

TDS: Does thinking about vinyl change the creative process for you?

VDP: An album is good for its coherence. It can have a topic that coheres. And it’s bifurcated – it’s a two-episode experience, a two-part adventure. Around the time of Tokyo Rose, I realized that the public was losing patience with the through line. We were entering a “magazine consciousness”: that was a buzzword like “shuffle mentality” is now. It’s even faster now in this staccato age –- impatient, unable to develop a thought, but just get intimations of thought: “info” rather than “information.” So I saw that coming and I reeled from it, and the record went nowhere, and I felt rather ashamed. But then about two months after the record’s release, Kurt Vonnegut came out with a novella about the identical crisis expressed in Tokyo Rose –- the emergence of Japan as a global economic superpower. At the time, the Japanese were buying up things like Rockefeller Center and downtown L.A.—these totems of American real estate—and I got that sinking sensation that it was “Sayonara, America.” Now it’s the Chinese. One song is called “Trade War,” and a V.P. at Warner said, “Do you really want to do that song? You know we have a sister company called Warner Japan.” And I said, “I am not taking it off that record.” Vonnegut ends his book –- which is filled with a crisis as real as anything Charlie Chaplin felt, or Buster Keaton, or Christ –- with somebody hurting bad and trying to get out of a jam. He ends with this great question – whether it is enough to be simply smart to figure things out. He entertained that there might be something more than that. That’s where I was when I wrote my way through Tokyo Rose. Isn’t it nice to be able to do something like that? To work through your current psychodynamic and to try to explore it through the arts? I think it’s a really wonderful thing.

TDS: It’s a privilege.

VDP: It is important to use the creative process as a way to expunge the beast within. We all have this beast, and the work should help exorcise demons. In “Trade War,” the character who sang that song was this arch super-patriot. That’s what we do when we work. Working happily is having completed the job. It’s not so much happy as the absence of pain. But it hurts to work. That’s why they call it work. It’s sacrifice and it has to be sacrificial to be worth its salt. A friend of mine puts it much more poetically. He says, “I’ve suffered like hell all my life for my music—now it’s your turn.”

Van Dyke Parks’ trippy Datsun radio spot

TDS: Can we talk about the political context of your album Discover America? I had been listening to it during the 2008 election, when the Obama campaign’s slogan was “Yes We Can.” That was also the name of a Lee Dorsey song, an anthem of the Civil Rights era. You covered a number of Dorsey songs on Discover America, but in a calypso vein. Obviously it’s an unintended coincidence with the Obama moment, but I was hoping you could shed some light.

VDP: Prior to that album, I had traveled with the Esso Trinidad Steel Band through the South. At one point, we were on a snowy country road in Arkansas, and the bus broke down. At that moment, a good American came out on his front porch, took his shotgun, and aimed it in the air and took a shot so that we would all know that he had a shotgun. There were other criminal offenses like that that I watched. The experience resulted in their album on Warner and the documentary [which comes packaged with the reissue of the Esso album] and my related pursuit of calypso. Now, the steel band was just a ha-ha-ha amusement—a novelty act—for Warner Brothers executives. But for me, it was a moment to pronounce my spectacularly sole objection to oil company practices. In 1969, I started paying attention to it with the spill off the coast of Santa Barbara. Discover America is about oil and our insatiable pursuit for oil. The steel band was a wonderful form to use. Steel is oil drums. I thought it would have a truly “cosmetic” value. I thought it would improve the cosmos.

Esso Trinidad Steel Band performing “Cecilia,” from the documentary about the band

TDS: There’s a lot of coded meaning in your albums. You have to listen really closely to appreciate what’s going on sometimes.

VDP: You never know exactly whether to actually hit the nail on the head or to use artfully the power of illusion, allusion, elusion. I heard once that Milton Berle had a term for a joke that hit you right on the head. It was called a “lappy” –- once it landed in your lap, it had no repetitive value. Better to hear a joke that’s worth repeating, or to enjoy in the repeating of it. To me, that is the priority consideration: durability. You want to know the song will drive down a Mexican road in twenty-five years with a healthy six-figure mileage. That’s what I’m thinking, and that’s what I try to do, and I think that’s why you even listen to that album. I’m very grateful that you listen because there’s nothing covetous in my effort. I was simply trying to get outside the box, to get outside this fuckin’ box, and that’s what calypso offered me. I believe that the poor will always be with us, and that you should always try to find out everything you can, and to celebrate the aims with reference to the underclass or the disenfranchised. It wasn’t something new that I wanted to do, to get out of the box. I wanted out of the box my entire life. I was not interested in towing the line for institutions and in institutions; I was suspicious of any group that would have me—an odd man out. The only way I got through the short time I had in public high school was by taking pictures of the football players and the basketball players, and in doing so I got their protection, because I made them look like gods.

TDS: So you started out as a journalist!

VDP: [Laughs] Which of course is another imploded industry, so we have a real folie à deux here. It’s madness for two.

TDS: I want to talk about this dialogue you have with younger artists, like Joanna Newsom and Clare and the Reasons or Inara George. Do you think the younger artists you work with look up to you as a mentor?

VDP: I don’t see any mentoring in it. I am as obedient as anybody can be about the evidence that’s given, the Q.E.D. The arranger comes in after the fact. To me, arranging is the whole megillah. It’s producing, it’s thinking, it’s not being but it’s doing, and getting it done, and guaranteeing it, and making it happen. It’s reacting and not creating, and then hoping to be left the hell alone to get it done, because arranging is an absolutely contemplative process. It’s monastic, and anyone who says something else is welcome to his or her respective opinion—but fuck ‘em, they’re wrong. It is monastic, and it should be. As Zappa once said, it’s dancing about architecture: it’s not smart to talk about it. It’s not smart to preordain that a cello should come in at a high level. You can’t start an arrangement like that. You have to start to work. To me, not to know anything is the ultimate testing ground. I don’t think it’s important to know what you’re doing. I think it’s more important to know what everybody else is doing. Discover America was worth a moment of thinking about. It was the first record of its time.

Van Dyke Parks, “John Jones”

TDS: In what way?

VDP: My notoriety started when popular music went pop. When Andy Warhol was on a can. When Jasper Johns was red, white, and blue. There was the cartoon consciousness, the irreducible minimum, both in visual and audio, and the art of cliché, which is something I embrace. It was cliché to put into Song Cycle the presidential dirge I heard after the assassination of Jack Kennedy as they rolled his body down the streets in Washington. That’s in the march to the All Golden. It was the sights and sounds of the era. Journalistic in intent, and unfortunately for me, autobiographical by demand because I wasn’t interested in being somebody or being noticed.

TDS: Looking back on Song Cycle now, how did it change your perspective?

VDP: Song Cycle taught me a lot. If that hadn’t been so outstanding, I would not have been noticed: nobody had a way to approach the record, and it alienated people because it was individual. We always get back to that question of what is allowed in the arts. The Japanese said of the hammer and nail –- the nail that sticks out gets hammered down, or something to that effect. I think that’s what society aims to do: to hammer down the individual. Packages do that. At first, I got my feelings hurt because I was simply in the way and wasn’t going to get a big record contract. For what purpose I know not, except for maybe to not spend any money on it? That’s the thought. Now, what I’d like to call my modest vanity label, is a result of not having any imprimatur.

Van Dyke Parks, “Donovan’s Colours” (rare mono mix, not entirely instrumental)

TDS: Where does the name Bananastan come from?

VDP: Bananastan comes via a quote from the movie The Hot Rock. [In the film, Zero Mostel says jokingly “Afghanistan Bananastan!” Coincidentally, The Hot Rock prominently features several moments of breathtaking aerial cinematography of a half-finished World Trade Center.] I wrote a song to commemorate the bombing of Baghdad. It’s called “Dreaming of Paris”—it was the night after G.W.B. started bombing Baghdad with a gullible public entertaining the possibility that they had weapons of mass destruction. They call them “W.M.D.” the way they like to call men “troops” to, like, minimize the emotional impact on an unsuspecting public. We have been had bad and I knew that, so I decided to write that song to express my darkest fears.

The World Trade Center in The Hot Rock (1972)

When Sally and I were riding back to Paris, where she had a business in the flea market for six years, she had a shop called Bananastan, and for six years she pursued shmatta. She had a great shop, and would go to Afghanistan and pick up fabrics. She worked her ass off. And so I wrote a song that has the moral ‘the more things change the more they stay the same,’ because we were once again at war, which had prompted her to go to Paris in the first place when she was 22, the day after M.L.K. was shot. We were eating watching bloody babies on television, and we were at war, there was this problem with civil rights, and in this terrible, septic pool of information, she got on a ship—the first ship that she could, to flee all this, to expatriate. It was a Polish ship, and it was taking her to Morocco. There, she somehow found [director] Mike Nichols and his wife, who needed a babysitter. I wanted to celebrate my regard for my wife in that song, and if nobody knew it was about my wife and about my concern that America was dropping bombs around the world, I would be content and she would too. And then what I would do is print these things up by asking these artists to contribute to my cottage industry, and I told them it could be the difference between a three- and five-star hotel on the road, and that matters for a guy like me at 68 years old. “Not one red cent” is what I told these artists. “I’m not a man of property, but if you have anything that alludes to the lyrics, could be out of the trunk or something new.” One man, Ed Ruscha, who typifies the So-Cal P.O.V., he obviously dug something out of the bin –- it was a colored-pencil rendering of the word Paris, which he sent to me, and I saw that he had done it in ‘68. Because I knew him when he was just out of art school, many years ago, I thought, “Well, you know, that’s not really working very hard. But maybe that’s happening? Maybe that’s the hip thing to do?” So the next morning I get another email, and he’s realized the song is not called “Paris,” it’s called “Dreaming of Paris,” and he talks about putting an irregular black border around it. And at the bottom he says, “Hey Van Dyke, what think? E.R.” I inferred immediately that he felt a little guilty that he had been dismissive with me and wanted now to show me that he would work on it. When I saw my name on an Ed Ruscha sketch, I knew that was sufficient. I said, “I’m using that, is that okay?” So I have this thing from him: “What think?” An Ed Ruscha has sold for $100 million. I don’t need to bother him with my cottage industry.

TDS: I felt the same way when you had responded to an email I had sent you a few months ago. I felt guilty about even bothering you once you replied, because I thought it would just end up in the ether. I had emailed you this odd question about your inclusion of that Chicken song on your live album Moonlighting, because I had this experience with the version of it on the Immortal Mississippi John Hurt album.

Mississippi John Hurt, “The Chicken”

VDP: That wasn’t the first time I had heard it, although I heard him sing it in ‘64. But I had already heard the Red Clay Ramblers sing it. I got in touch with Dr. Charles Wolfe, who was the world’s leading authority on chicken songs. He worked at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. Great musicologist. He was hired by the Library of Congress because of his incredible academic standard. He knew more chicken songs than anybody.

TDS: So what was it about that song to you?

VDP: The song, if you compare it to “O’ Dem Golden Slippers,” you hear the same harmonic cadence, it’s the same animal. “O’ Dem Golden Slippers” sprang out of San Francisco: I’m not sure where it’s popularity started, but it’s in that same time period that this emerged in minstrelsy. I wanted to study that math, and approach the music as an opportunity to do a study on a peculiarly American cadence. A lot of what I do is almost always—within conscious entertainment -– “What do I drag forward so that it’s preserved?” I decided that it was important. Now, someone might think I’m an absolute fool, but there’s nothing I can do about what someone might think! Because that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to do a good job. And to me, what is in referential peril, the stuff that is slipping from our view, is the most precious commodity that we can trade in. To me, gleaning is what it’s all about. Look here, I’m on the edge of one of the largest cities of the world. I can see the constellations at night. The sky is absolutely firmamental. You can get the dizzies if you just look up from a chaise, you can get dizzy, falling into space. You can’t do that within the pollution of the light of this town. It’s hedgerow stuff. It’s not having to be immediately relevant. It’s funny because in the process, I’ve succeeded.

“O’dem Golden Slippers” from the movie Way Down South, 1939 [embed disabled]

Harry Nilsson “Vine Street”

TDS: So, I have this one final question I’ve had on my mind for a while now. Can you tell me if there was some kind of dialogue that’s happening between you and Harry Nilsson in each of your versions of “Vine Street”?

VDP: Oh, no. As far as I’m concerned, he was a marauder. Randy [Newman] wrote the song for me. The song before it on Song Cycle is called “Blackjack Davy.” What interested me was folk music. I met this guy Steve Young in 1964, and he taught me that piece. The song itself is—I hate to say it, it sounds snooty—but to me it is the Rosetta Stone of our American Celtic tradition, of what we got here from Appalachia. It tells a story, it has a through line, and it’s a beautiful song; I just love what it suggests in the song form. I really think it is a totem, and I thought it would be a great way to open the gates.

TDS: It’s not an old band of yours, like the song lyrics say?

VDP: It was me and a few guys in a band we were gonna call “The Gas Company.” I imagine we did it to make a demo or something. It was not recorded specifically for Song Cycle. I wanted him to do a lot of songs -– we all brought a bunch of songs together. We once opened for the Lovin’ Spoonful in Phoenix, which was as far as we got. But we weren’t interested that much. But “Vine Street” was just Randy trying to put in an extra day on the sleeve art, in this case on the lyrics, to give it a biographical nature.

TDS: Do you know if there’s a story to Harry’s version?

VDP: Yeah. Harry wanted in, and we were the “in” thing. He wanted to be quasi-counterculture. He wanted to get into that. He didn’t need to, it turns out, because his most enduring work I think is his simple rendition of those evergreens [on A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night]. It really shows his incredible talent. It’s kind of like watching Fred and Ginger in a picture in which there are no edits from top to bottom. It’s all legs, and they’re in flight formation. That’s what it was like watching Harry.

“I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” from A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night

Alex Sherman is a Los Angeles-based writer and documentary filmmaker who has written for and He is currently a student at Loyola Law School. He can be reached at alex.sherman [at] gmail

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