A Conversation With Van Dyke Parks
Mike Ragogna: Van Dyke, hi. You are an artist with a lot of irons in the fire, like recently touring with Fleet Foxes.
Van Dyke Parks: That's right. I just wanted to say since you called me an artist, which is very generous and I would love that validation in the end, especially when you're nearing 70 as I am. But, it's true, I wear many different hats trying to make my life an art, and that's been mostly through music. Maybe it's best to just call me a musician rather than an artist. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) I simply meant that I perceive you as an artist because you are able to come at life from all sorts of artistic angles, through writing, composing, and performing.
VDP: Well, it's a joy to be heard and to get to do what I do, especially since I get to do so through a solar-powered radio station as well, right?
MR: Ooh, that's right. The interview will also be aired on KRUU-FM, the Midwest's only solar-powered radio station.
VDP: There's a signature in my work as a songwriter, for any record, no matter whose name is on the shingle. I always assumed that it was my obligation to give everything that I could to that particular album. I speak of albums in a magazine format, scattered mentality. It almost makes the song the perfect implement not only for consolation, but for a political implement and to communicate something beyond the corporatized satisfaction that life offers. So, I pursue an eco-consciousness in my work. I first went green when I produced the Esso Trinidad Steel Band back in 1971.T hat was because of feared oil and world power. In my opinion, to be on broadcast in solar-power is an incredible experience. Hats off to you for that.
MR: My God, thank you. And, I must say, even though you may not have been the featured "artist" for some of these records we'll be discussing, you certainly were a driving force creatively. For instance, can you tell us about your association with Brian Wilson, how you met The Beach Boys?
VDP: Well, I met Terry (Melcher) because I was a keyboard player and I had a reputation. There were no charts or anything involved, it was just like a chamber group that just happened to be playing electric guitars. Terry hired me because I could move my fingers, I practiced hard when I was a young boy. I wanted to be a pianist, and I felt I was one, so I kept playing. I tackled all kinds of music all my life. There were many tears and there was much blood on the track, music was a hard study. Then, I played for Terry Melcher and he hired me on to play on The Byrds' Fifth Dimension album. I played a lot with Ry Cooder, who was a great guitarist. We did a lot of sessions together with Terry Melcher. Then, Terry introduced me to Brian and he introduced me as a lyricist. I think the reason that he did that is because I'd written a song that he loved that had lyrics that he thought were very nice, so he thought that it'd be nice if I worked with Brian. To recite the details of what ensued would really be the height of redundancy. (laughs) I do, however, think that when people refer to the doomed album Smile, it's an ironic misconception. In fact, everything good came from Smile. We learned so much, and we got to hear our music and words out loud. So many people with great talent don't really get to hear their music realized.
MR: Nice. I do agree, though, that the album Smile was so influential to the music world, interestingly having never been released until Brian's version and now The Beach Boys' recently released Smile Sessions project. What are your memories of it?
VDP: That album took up eight months of my life. It's an amazing thing, in fact, because it's a very peculiar piece of Americana. It was truly the first interactive or bootlegged album. It became highly interactive, and also became the thesis of one novel. It was a joy, though, to be able to bring that piece of pop-art to the ear.
MR: Yeah. It was also nice to see The Beach Boys' reunion at the Grammys. Did you catch that?
VDP: My wife and I don't have a television. I knew it was happening and if Brian is happy, I'm happy. He's such a good friend.
MR: Nice. And there's your work with Randy Newman.
VDP: I produced Randy's first record with Lenny Waronker. I convinced Lenny that he should bring his rival over to the label. I had a wonderful contract with Warner Brothers. One of the sections said that I would receive "leader scale" on every date that Lenny Waronker does while under employ at Warner Brothers."
MR: Obviously, that was per your request, or maybe was just a generous offer from them.
VDP: Oh, I'm sure I put it into the contract. (laughs) Had that clause been honored, we would be speaking of different cabbages and kings.
MR: (laughs) Oh, wow. I forgot to mention to our readers that anyone who watched The Honeymooners would recognize you as little Tommy Manicotti, isn't that right?
VDP: I only had a couple of lines, but I didn't blow them...not until he (Jackie Gleason) blew his at least, then we would just have a conversation. It was great. Gleason was a man of immense ability, but one of those abilities was not memorizing a script. He was a genius at improv, but that's also why he didn't have children or dogs on the show. I was lucky that I got to do two shows, meet him, and see "The Greatest Orchestra." (laughs) It was wonderful.
MR. Very nice. Van, your album Song Cycle, released in 1968, also is considered an influential album to a lot of people. How do you feel about the way your album is remembered?
VDP: I believe that being viewed as influential has a confirming aspect to it. It is art's job to agitate and arrest the attentions, and I feel that album did that. I had a great experience with that record because I learned so much...I made every mistake that could possibly be made in an album. But it was to everyone's benefit, even ultimately, my own. We talk down about the doomed records Smile and Song Cycle, but they're still enjoying a detergent effect on the present state. I think it's incredible for a musician of my age to have enjoyed such exploration and validation. In fact, when you look at it, Song Cycle was just about the craziest thing to have ever been said, by me at least, for reasons that we needn't discuss. But because of that, the album has a guarded optimism about it, and it's a spiritual force. That makes it interesting. The spiritual force of an album survives. The song, "Donovan's Colours," for instance, started on a three-track machine. I bounced that to four tracks, then I had two four-tracks in tandem. I recorded the marimbas at half-speed because then they graduated up an octave. Many things were learned during that process. Who knew that by doubling the tape speed you would reach an octave? I learned so many things working on that album back when nobody knew nothing about recording. The only one that knew anything was Les Paul, and he knew it all. He was the ultimate master of the studio...at least that's my understanding. Esquivel came in a close second.
MR: I also think folks from George Martin to George Clinton made a lot of interesting contributions as well, maybe not the same though.
VDP: Yeah, but all of these things, many people met in the vector of this technological improvement in sound. The recording studio got so much better during my first contract in '64 at MGM, which went all the way through '72. There was an exponential growth in the sophistication of recording processes, it was very exciting. That was all back in the golden age of analog when you could actually hear something, long before these naughty little CDs started getting made. (laughs) There was a reason they called it high fidelity. That's why I'm exploring it again with the vinyl singles that I'm doing on the Banana Stand label, my cottage industry. It's the thing that I take with me on the road.
MR: Well, since you mentioned analog, it's time to talk about your 45s.
VDP: It's totally conscious personal choice, it's just me being me. I've been very obedient and pursuing a life of blessed anonymity. That's what I wanted and I've finally achieved it. But the fact is, I wanted to go out where I came in. I came in through this tactile medium - buy a vinyl record and listen to it. I have made the singles downloadable too. There's nothing precious about this, people can access and judge the music however they'd like. But I'm putting it on vinyl because that is where I want to focus my attention. This is where the best sound, and the sleeve art live. I'm even using the sleeve art to celebrate the great artists of my time, artists like Sally Parks, Ed Ruscha, Stanley Dorfman, and Charles Ray. Charles even took the time out of his precious life to make two life-sized drawings of me on the album at no cost to me. He put one on the front and one on the back. That stuff takes time and a lot of hard work, even if you use robotics to get it done. I know that all this sounds a bit regressive, perhaps, but it's not. It is firmly entrenched. This is an aspect of recording that I want to celebrate, so I came up with an article that people can see, hold, and put on their shelves.
MR: Have you ever been in the midst of following you intuition when you suddenly felt something tell you to change your course?
VDP: Probably, but I've always been taught to try to finish what I start. I'm also very focused on songs now. I've got a song now that is about the events of 9/11 because I want my music to reflect that. Art Spiegelman was picking up his daughter from school and looking up at the sky a few blocks from Ground Zero as the second tower started to collapse. His daughter looked up and pointed and said, "Dad, the birds are on fire." Then he rushed her from the scene. It smelled, someone said, like a German concentration camp. At that same point, my daughter was four blocks away running north as well. She was on her cell phone with me as I watched all of it happen on television. She asked me what to do and I asked her what she was doing currently. She told me she was running north as fast as she could, and I told her to keep doing just that. She finally found shelter on 24th street at a friend's apartment. I remember Neil Young came out with a song called "Let's Roll," and I had no desire for retaliation and was rather sickened by all of the bravado surrounding this, that the public almost celebrated our prowess in face of this calamity. The song that I wrote has an entirely different vector from the same event. My view is that we should try to discover why they did this, and what had we done that we could do differently? I came away from 9/11 not so much with an opinion, so much as I was in a state of wonder. So, I put that into a song called "Wall Street," and Art Spiegelman contributed with a picture of a man and a woman falling through space upside down. Falling in love. I wrote a song that tries to reflect his visual depiction of that same event.
MR: "Wall Street" being part of the new releases.
VDP: It's one of the 45s. There's another one called "Black Gold," which celebrates the sinking of a ship called The Prestige, an oil tanker that tarred the face of European waters. Entire fishing villages were bought out because of the damages. That money is gone, and so are their fish. That certainly confirmed every suspicion that I've had about hauling large quantities of oil in single haul tankers of Liberian registry. They're very concerned about ecology, so I wrote a song about that. It was only on page eighteen of the LA Times...Phil Ochs, a man of conscience, was reading it over my shoulder. All of that said to me that I had to write a song about this and waste people's time on a tune called "Black Gold."
MR: No waste of time, I'm sure, sir. Plus I'd like to thank you for providing music with commentary and vision.
VDP: Well, a lot of great songwriters go through life writing about how they lost their dog or their lover, which is great. I think all of that reveals the self, you see. James Taylor is famous for putting his heart on his sleeve, but his music is also interesting. I'm not interesting. (laughs) I'm Dullsville. I have to find something that I think will mark me in this time, and ultimately bring enlightenment about this time.
MR: Oh, you are many things, Van, but Dullsville, you're not. (laughs)
VDP: (laughs) Well, thank you. But if you cut to the chase on my life, I had some great opportunities as an arranger, which helped me migrate to another generation of celebrity musicians who are less than half my age - younger than my children. I just played for a short time with Fleet Foxes and they were so sweet to me. I just go in as the beta male. I play with a pianist, bass player, and a percussionist, and it's great to just go in and do a job with great musicians. We played at some really big houses, around 2,500 seats, and every one of them was filled. Colonel Parker would have been proud if Elvis played in such places. (laughs) Lots of perfectly restored, grand movie theaters. So, now I've found myself in this new generation of inquiring hearts and musicians, it's beautiful. And the music that I get to hear in this process is so imaginative that it seems that the song itself is changing in wonderful elastic ways. It's learning about world beat, it's becoming a more interesting and condensed form of thought. The song, to me, has become like a novella. It's a short story that doesn't require a lot. It's as good as a beach read. That has been true of many of the people that I've worked with - Rufus Wainwright, Joanna Newsom, Inara George, Silverchair, and the list goes on. Their songs have all these qualities. It can have a through line or just sit there and do something quietly. I dig all of these aspects of the tremendous potential of the song form. I see it in so many exciting ways, and I honestly think that a lot of these young musicians show powers of invention that are far beyond anything that I may have...or that might have occurred to me when I was a brunette. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Nicely put, though I think that that's all relative to the era, not at all it being a reflection on your immense talent, sir.
VDP: That's true. You know, I did much more work when we were just walking out of that Eisenhower sleepwalk. America was very, very content and then came 1963, "the endless summer." Then came the Selma Riots and Tonkin. They were showing these tremendous war images of babies on fire on the television during the dinner hour in the United States. The song, at that time, took on great importance, and I'm trying to go back and capture that time. I know that all of this may be viewed as retro, but it's not. I have a song that I'm working on right now called, "I'm History," which is probably my best song. But there's still so much left to do to decorate the song. You spend so much time and money in the studio because you just want to delight the careless observer.
MR: Nicely said. You've also done a bit of work with the electronic artist Skrillex, isn't that, right?
VDP: Mike, I haven't worked a day in my life. (laughs) First you call me an artist, now you tell me I work. (laughs) Skrillex called me out of nowhere...out of nowhere...and asked me if I would do an arrangement. We talked for a second about the kind of things that I would need as far as the orchestra and everything. Then, I YouTube'd him and found a video of him spilling beer on his laptop onstage in front of thousands of people and I thought, "What is going on?" There were people going crazy and jumping over mosh pits at his concerts. But as Vic Chesnutt, the paraplegic songwriter of late, said in the second verse of one of his songs, "There is no shelter in the arts." I have found that to be true on my own. There is nothing safe about it, and it takes a struggle, a loyal family, and some empowering.
MR: Van Dyke, do you have any more advice that you think would be valuable to artists just starting out?
VDP: I can only reiterate what Vic Chesnutt said - "There is no shelter in the arts." It is uncertain by definition and flies in the face of the five-year plan. But it must be pursued with a discipline and a willingness to learn things that seem irrelevant. In terms of music, I feel that music should be read to be believed. You can always abandon a page, but if it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage. And that's the truth. It takes work and discipline, but it also takes an incredible power of forgiveness and a desire to serve the music completely without any sort of cosmetic desire. Stripped and bleeding...baring your soul, so that someone else might feel exalted and able. You must learn to give if you want to pursue the arts.
MR: That's beautiful, what an amazing answer. Van, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to spend some time with us.
VDP: Thank you so much for having me, Mike. And sometime we may sit down and drink a toast to all those who endured this wonderful interview.
MR: (laughs) Oh man...
1. Donovan's Colours (mono) - George Washington Brown
2. Come to the Sunshine - Van Dyke Parks
3. The Eagle And Me - Van Dyke Parks
4. Friends and Lovers - Sal Valentino
5. Alligator Man - Sal Valentino
6. Farther Along - Van Dyke Parks
7. Valley to Pray - Arlo Guthrie
8. Out On The Rolling Sea When Jesus Speak To Me - Van Dyke Parks
9. Sittin' Here in Limbo - Dino Martin
10. Wha She Go Do - Bonnie Raitt
11. Sit Down I Think I Love You - The Mojo Men
12. One Meat Ball - Ry Cooder
13. Cheek To Cheek - Lowell George
14. Spanish Moon - Little Feat
15. Moog Music ('67) - Van Dyke Parks
Transcribed by Evan Martin
Another slice of 24-year-old JB Baretsky, this time with his piano/vocal demo of "Calling My Bluff":