Van Dyke Parks

Uncommon Denominators:
A Conversation With the Man Behind the Curtain

His sound of impact barely registered beyond the disaffiliated, hybridized, territorial tinseltown rowdiness, but those who listen hear time unfurl. As lyricist, arranger, producer and studio musician, he bolstered the three-minute pop song with neo-Dixieland chamber swells to almost decorous formalism, hinting at sport shirt sleeve symphonies blessed by bluegrass Bagdasarianisms. Through an instinctual mastery of analog autopsy techniques, his music worried a lot of people, and in the process offered a reprieve from the Daryl draggin’ muskrat mischief of its day.

Van Dyke Parks doesn’t so much play music as he explores its possibilities. South of linen’s handkerchief as the China clipper cradles tomtit tempos, the accordion and balalaikas wringing out mici-zibi mud detected that Inca-blinka parlay view of a lost world. His first record, 1968’s Song Cycle, is the key and the kick for those of us raised on a steady diet of disposable income who spent time on one dance craze after another. Warner Bros. 1727 introduced instruments unaware that were not forgotten but ignored. No foreign coins, please.

Like a condensation of echoes, Van Dyke Parks continues to try and ply the hyphenated attention of the multitudes back on track. His current interests find him teamed with the band Clare and the Reasons, whose latest album was recorded live in Amsterdam, where Parks contributes and collaborates on the Harry Nilsson cover, “He Needs Me.” Fronted by the vagabond vocals of Clare Muldaur Manchon (yes, of that Muldaur lineage), the band’s Elliot Ness speakeasy-listening approach captures a modulated coal-burning connection to Depression-era optimism. The shock of recognition must’ve been luminous like a pile of sequins. Quixotic gestures aside, Van Dyke Parks bent ears, which I believe led to the influx of Caribbean and “world” music sprouting in the works of David Byrne and bands like Camper Van Beethoven. And he’s at it again!

Let’s just say, I’m a sucker for any band that undertakes a whistle on record.

In the midst of a rare tour with the aforementioned Clare and the Reasons – which will bring him to Athens, Georgia on Halloween – I caught up with Parks in his room at the Glidden House Inn in Cleveland.

David T. Lindsay: I lost my virginity to Song Cycle, that’s the first thing I wanted to say.

Van Dyke Parks: “I knew I was gonna get some peach fuzz outta you right away! And your name is?”

David T. Lindsay.

“My goodness. The nice thing about you, you know, you haven’t changed the name.”

No, I haven’t. I kept it and I take the blame for everything I’ve written.

“Well, you know, for a while I thought it would be a good idea to hide my identity, protect my family. And that’s the truth – I chose George Washington Brown as a nom de guerre. It ended up more collapso than calypso, but it was (laughs), it was a ruse. I created a character, and I thought it was fun to do that.”

Well, I found that record, “Donovan’s Colours,” at a thrift store, I misread the title – I thought it said “Donovan’s Colon”! And so I bought it, and I was so pleased with that record. But that is you?

“That is I. And on various instruments, playing at half tape speeds and so forth. But not too many people knew that at the time. I mean, it was a matter of discovery – nothing could be told, everything was found out. That by reducing the tape speed, cutting it in half, it would actually reach the octave. That sounds so ho-hum these days, or irrelevant, but at that time it was an absolutely informing discovery, and allowed me to play my marimba at half speed. And then by the time that I got to a mixed record, people were under the impression that I could really play the marimba! (laughs) I attended that one kind of like as a barrel organ… You know, they used to have these great mechanical devices on the streets of Europe, mostly in Holland was the one where I had in mind. And that was a wonderful excursion, that particular song, and it started with a nickel falling through the floor, and at the end of the piece the nickel is sucked up again, to return to the disgruntled consumer. So, that’s what happened.”

That reminds me of a record I got in San Francisco from the Musee Mecanique – have you ever been there?

“Yes! Yes, exactly! Well, that’s very kind of you. A lot of those reiterated notes and so forth created that. And it was definitely an idea to try to dig back at that kind of entertainment from an America that no longer existed. That’s what I try to do.”

So I understand why a band would want you in the studio with them – why are you on tour?

“Why am I on tour? Because I have been locked up in a room for the past 40 years, diligently pursuing my offspring’s collegiate expenses, staying ahead of the tuitional curve, um, doing what I felt was an A job on some B pictures – those for television and film – uh, finally kind of fed up, losing ambition in the exudation of sit-com romance comedy, from romantic movies. SO tired of the topics of Hollywood.”

Yes.

“So disappointed in the ‘beautiful people.’ Basically had never had the opportunity to get out of town, and just – pardon the pun – discover America. I had no opportunity to do it. And then I met this group called Clare and the Reasons, finally, that I thought were more wonderful than The Wondermints. When they asked me if they would tour with them, I’m 67 years old, and I realized it would be an athletic adventure! But it’s something that I wanted to do, because I had never been in the performance [realm]. I mean, I always felt that my job was to create durable goods, and in songwriting I’ve done what I could, my best. And I must be satisfied that way. But now what I want to do is finally promote it! Promote those durable goods! Even if they’ve gone beyond their expiration dates. Even if they recall a perspective that is passé. I wanna explore it. And, to me, this is just an act of kindness to which I’m responding, and find myself in the same room with this splendid, virtually unknown group, Clare and the Reasons, and I want to be part of their emergence.”

Well, I think that’s perfect, because if there’s anything I like more than traditional music, it is new bands that sort of have musical ties to what rock ‘n’ roll has ignored.

“You know, that is such a good point. See, I don’t know…I’m going with the theory here with you, that we’re not going to underestimate an audience. That that would be the height of arrogance. So let’s just say this: I think what you just said is absolutely true. By the way, ‘traditional music’ is a beautiful title. My daughter said, ‘Dad, Song Cycle? They should’ve called it Song Psycho!’ (laughs) But she was so right – I made every mistake I could possibly make at the age of 24, when I did that record. I didn’t know what a song was. But I knew what one song was, and that song started the album, and that was ‘Black Jack Davey.’ ‘Black Jack Davey,’ a ballad, a great American tune, bringing out a druid marrow of our experience, those of us who come from families that came from Europe. So there was ‘Black Jack Davey,’ and that was to herald, to trumpet my regard for traditional music. But the music I do, the songs I’m talking about, the song form that I want to extol, I mean, I want to rest my case on it. Songs are so important to me. With such potential to agitate, move, change hearts, to open hearts, to change minds, to protect and defend what is worthy of protection.  But anyway, I just wanted to emit that. And to do that, I’ve done many things – basically, I take a lot of traditional songs and fancify them for the parlor. That’s where I want to be, at that Maginot Line. I wanna try to do that. Great people that I love, influences, [like] Percy Grainger, are real inspirations. People who take folk music and glorify it, for the parlor. Bring the street into the parlor – that, for me, is the job. It’s not to bring parlor music into the street. Nobody needs it.”

I look at the subjects you have tackled – everything from the Popeye soundtrack to Joel Chandler Harris to Trinidad music – and you just seem to be in love with music, the same way I am!

“Yeah, to me, it’s just celebratory. You know, this is it! This is as good as it gets. The idea of just associating with music to see where it takes us. And it’s always to a better place.”

You know, I almost had a fight once because of you.

“Tell me about it. What was her name, how old was she…”

It was Dave Marsh.

“Who he?”

Thank you. He is the most over-indulgent rock critic in the world. Wrote for Rolling Stone.

“Oh, Rolling Stain. You know, when Jann Wenner came into my office at Warner Bros., I was right under the Chairman of the Board on an org chart, in the corporate sense. They had a thing called an org chart – that’s kinda like pecking order. And I was right under the Chairman of the Board. Only one man needed to answer my question – yes, no – and I got a lot done. I got 10,000 feet of raw stock film to Fred Weintraub for a movie called Woodstock. I worked, hard. Daily. And here comes a fella from a magazine called Rolling Stone, and he asked us to be his debut – his first record company revenue. And I said we would advertise in his paper. And as he left the office I remember saying, ‘And Jann…’ He said, ‘Yes?’ I said, ‘Staple the next issue.’ (laughs) I’m telling you the truth. I’ve seen the rock critics’ game, their swagger.”

Well, I was talking to Dave Marsh, and I said, “Well who do you idolize?” Because I was criticizing statements he made about The Who. But I mentioned Van Dyke Parks. And he goes, “The most overrated musician of the 20th century.” And I said, “Well, coming from the most overrated music critic of the 20th century, I will ignore what you say.”

“Well, I don’t know what his instrument is. I view the music critic generally the way I view the Pope on the issue of birth control. If you don’t play the game, you don’t make the rules.”

So let’s talk about Clare and the Reasons. How did you first encounter the band?

“Well, I got an offer to possibly play a beautiful jewel box of a theater called the Marigny Theatre next to the Louvre in Paris. It’s a place with great ghosts in it, a wonderful place to play, with an orchestra! I get these occasional disparate offers, and I said to the man who owned it, ‘Who’s played there recently?’ He said, ‘Clare and the Reasons.’ Well, then, because I have a sense of loyalty, I know Geoff Muldaur. His daughter is the leader of that group. Well, Geoff Muldaur, if you’d ask me the two people, in a race for celebrity in 1964, who came from the folk music swell, there were two that I would have looked at – and I noticed, very memorably – one of them is Bob Dylan and the other is Geoff Muldaur. And if it were a horse race, neck and neck, I would say that Geoff would have triumphed as a person who’d become a household name. I still hold that the guy is just a giant. So his daughter is the leader of this group – de facto, because they’re actually, they’re all anarchists (laughs), but I sought her out, and boom-boom-boom, sooner or later I was on a tour-lette of the West Coast – Seattle, San Francisco, Portland – and because that went well we headlined at the Primavera Festival in Barcelona. I’d never been to Spain – not to quote Hoyt Axton, but, you know, you can’t say anything without quoting somebody, it turns out – and then we played the Royal Festival Hall, we sold the aisles, everybody was happy, and I’ll tell you why – because this group, in my view, is a rapture. They have that power. They’re conjurers. The room becomes a place for transportation. Everybody gets lifted off the ground. These kids have a dream escape. And it’s successful because they have all the human qualities to deliver it. They are modest, they’re musical tweezer-heads,– they all, every one of them has perfect pitch. I mean, I’m the street heavy. But they are real musicians, and they play cello, violin, bass, they might pick up a French horn, or this other guy play a clarinet, some drums – there’s a bass drum here, a kick there. And maybe a kazoo will come out at the right moment – at the right moment – and do something comic and tragic, and really take you somewhere that is, to me, akin to…well, if we ever use the expression ‘pop art,’ this group has a vise-like grip on it, because it is the type of thing that is music-reduced, and plain yet fancy, and tragic yet comic, and leaves you wobbling in a very healthy state of mind (laughs), and I love it! I think they’re a very fine group, and what I like about it is just being part, and then I follow that, and they accompany me.”

Tragic and comic – those are things that have been left out of music for the last two decades, replaced by anger, I think.

“Yeah, that’s right. They say anger’s a sin, and I think whoever said that is right. It really leaves the generator in sad shape. But you see, I don’t think songs should tell people how to feel. And this is the song form that they’re spinning around, and me too. This is what we’re doing, this is our discipline, this is how we suffer. We go through this thing, this titanic, this epic process called ‘songcraft.’ And we’re working on it. They in their way and I in my own. As a matter of fact they’re giving me a chance to do what I love to do, which is, for the first time in my life, remove that other wall, to the irreducible minimum. And bring the struggle forward to the people! (laughs) In other words, yeah, the absolutely, stripped-and-bleeding, and accessible. And in this, I’m doing songs, myself, when I follow them, after their inescapable charm, then I come on and follow this with this 40-odd years of due diligence in songwriting as well. And I do some songs that I intend for my next album. Which I intend to have them play on.”

It’s been how long between your last record and this record?

“Well, you know, if you think that is germane…”

No.

“I don’t, but it’s been since 1995 since I did Orange Crate Art, and wrote all those songs for Mr. Wilson to sing…”

See, I was going to try to do this interview without bringing up Mr. Wilson.

“Well that’s mighty thoughty of you, because of his ubiquity. I have time for the man-child. But only so much.”

I was attracted to your music because you not only understood the essence of a pop song, but you went one step further than idols of mine like Joe Meek and Phil Spector, and as you say, it was the SONG that was every bit as important as the arrangement, the production… Do you think I’m right on that?

“I tell you something, I’m very moved that you have such an insight.”

I’ve lived with your records for years.

“No kidding? And the fact of the business is, I want you to know something – it really touches me that you would appreciate the work that I’ve done… Because I am not a great musician. This is a fact. It’s too bad. Of course, there’s always somebody greater, right next to you, breathing down your neck, a hack, a Bulgarian with greater ability, probably watches the halftime at the Super Bowl while he’s mailing out great orchestrations for a big picture company. Well, there’s always these people breathing down your neck, and I know that. My ability is common, but yet my work ethic, my desire to compensate for my own obvious limitations, is so unrelenting. I really try to please the casual observer, and find the forces of agitation and detergents that it takes, to get man out of his stasis and degree of satisfaction, that I think is essential to any social improvement. And society has disappointed me. As it does at adolescence.”

Oh yes.

“We all learn how society disappoints. My father was a great psychiatrist. He was the chief examining psychiatric officer at the liberation of Dachau. I had a peripatetic youth – it was because my father was super-tentative, a nut-hatch. For a hospital! And I once asked him why someone had done something vile in my presence. I said, ‘What’s the matter with that man?’ He says, ‘It’s not really that man. Man’s problems are with society.’ And I think that that is true, and I know that sounds far afield from just doing a song, just shutting up and singing, but (laughs) that’s not how I rest my case. My drive into music isn’t because I consider myself the next Schubert. I have no such vainglory. But I do think that the songs that I write must have some utility, some purpose.”

I saw you play at the Hollywood Palace with Ry Cooder back in ’84, and after speaking with you, I’m more of a fan than ever.

“Well, that’s so sweet. I tell you something, I think some of my greatest joy is in the work I did for Ry Cooder. I showed that I could be a beta male, without reducing any of the dynamics of that potential for a cooperative spirit. The real height of my achievement has been to encourage the best – and GET the best – out of the people around me. That doesn’t make newsprint, but that’s what matters, and that’s where I get my contentment.”