Van Dyke Parks, who abjures words like "quirky" and "idiosyncratic," has nevertheless led a unique career as rock musicians' (from the Beach Boys to Skrillex) favored performer of pre-rock functions like lyric-writing and arranging. Proud that he "didn't spend a life learning how to sing the blues," Parks now pokes fun at the British bands who were hardening rock while he pursued America's other musics on albums like his 1968 debut Song Cycle, which introduced his abrupt -- and undeniably quirky -- shifts of rhythm and key. ("It had no beat" is how he explains the cult album's commercial failure.)
On July 23, Bella Union will release Songs Cycled, Parks's first solo studio album since 1989. The twelve tracks were originally released on six handsome 7" singles and range from the topical ("Wall Street," "Money Is King") to the archival: a new rendition of Song Cycle's "The All Golden"; a Saint-Saëns adaptation recorded with the Esso Trinidad Steel Band in 1972. The album is already out in the UK and follows Super Chief: Music for the Silver Screen, a limited-edition Record Store Day survey of Parks's many film scores. ("That's how I got three kids through college," he says.)
I met Parks and his publicist recently in the lobby of Manhattan's Dream Hotel. A hand injury had forced him to cancel the previous night's scheduled performance at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. He introduced himself by presenting a business card with the text "Mr. Van Dyke Parks apologizes for his behavior on the night of ______ and sincerely regrets any damage or inconvenience he may have caused." Homespun -- or rather, home-punned -- aphorisms litter Parks's slow, high-pitched drawl. The Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday" played as I pulled out my recorder.
Van Dyke Parks: I played piano for Ry Cooder, do you know that name?
We did that and we were sweating like horses, we worked so goddamn hard. Get offstage, really work our asses off. This guy is just rocking out. Ry had just done a great show. Get backstage and this guy walks up to me, says, "Hey, I'd like to meet Mr. Cooder." And I ask, "Who should I say it is?" And he says, "It's Eric Clapton."
"Oh, Eric Clapton, okay, I'll tell him."
So I go to Ry. "Ry, there's this fellow here to see you."
"He really really wants to meet you. Big fan and he loved the show."
"Who is it?" he said.
"Eric Clapton?" he said. "Get that motherfucker out of here now! Get out of here!"
So I don't know what happened next, I can't remember. I was put in a completely impossible position, having to go back and telling this guy, "You can't talk to Mr. Cooder, he's indisposed."
"Down in Hollywood," from Ry Cooder & the Moula Banda Rhythm Aces: Let's Have a Ball (1988), dir. Les Blank.
Was this recently?
Oh no, this was like ten years ago. It was actually real good, we were a real good group. If you Google my name with "Cooder," "Hollywood," you'll see who we were. My favorite group experience, playing with a group. That was so dynamite. We went all over the place to publicize a record called Get Rhythm. It was great.
You mention that because...?
Oh yeah, [sings to the tune of "Ruby Tuesday"] "Goodbye..." Because Ry actually had gone over to London, you know, with Jack Nitzsche, and played a whole bunch of stuff, you know they had him in the studio for a couple days. Ry's a very amiable guy, playing the riffs. He started playing guitar when he was five. And you know, everything was Delta. So he was playing his ass off. Then they said, "That's nice, we'll take it." And they did. You know, "Honky Tonk Woman." They ripped the motherfucker off so bad, creating this Anglo-American contretemps, diplomatic mare's nest that Ry never recovered from. So you know, it's like Jack Kennedy once said, "Forgive your enemies, but remember their names."
Now you're in an imploded industry.
You've been frank about the economics of releasing this music yourself. Have you been making money?
I'm almost even. I'm almost even. I'm perfectly happy about it. But that's really a minor issue. The issue is that I'm exalted that I have a new record at the age of seventy. Now that doesn't mean that I am seventy just because I'm of age seventy. It means I am in my seventy-first year. Which means that I'm in my eighth decade. So doing the math, it makes it a little more startling and wonderful that I've come this far and have a record that's coming out in the States in July and just came out in the U.K., is coming out in Japan in a couple of weeks. It's a big deal for me. So I have no complaints.
There's a bit of older music on the record as well. What was the thought behind including that?
Its relevance to these times, its coming of age. Wine gets older, that doesn't mean that it isn't a novel experience uncorking it. I think for example, speaking of an older piece, "Aquarium" by the Esso Trinidad Steel Band is a perfect illustration of oil and world power, put up there with that song I wrote recently called "Black Gold." There is a relationship between oil and world power and the marine environment and it's something that's fascinated me since I saw my first Whole Earth Catalogue in 1968 and saw the Earth as a fragile little place. And that permeates my work. An echo of consciousness. I just couldn't avoid it, in spite of the stigma that's on old things.
The idea of creativity is to position what's old in a new context, reconfigure it either in presentation or reconstruction. That's what arranging does, that's what I do for a living.
Young journalists, for example, are pleased to rush in with the question, "What's new?" Matter of fact, it may be an occupational necessity to find out what's new. I have never run into a journalist who asks, "What's old?" Or really gives it much regard. That confounds me. I don't understand it. The idea of creativity is to position what's old in a new context, reconfigure it either in presentation or reconstruction. That's what arranging does, that's what I do for a living. To put both old and newly conceived objects in the currency of the present tense in a prism of contemporary understanding. That's what I try to do in my work. But it does make it a challenge about how to start a coherent album. I'm still learning how to do that.
I know you've been very specific in terms of the presentation of the singles you've been releasing. [The 7" records, released on Parks's own Bananastan label, are illustrated by the likes of Art Spiegelman and Ed Ruscha.] Is that also something you've been considering in releasing this whole collection?
I released the singles as a way of getting to the album. I did not want to approach a physical product through YouTube. Vinyl's old, but it's also of superior quality. It's the best form of audio transmission available to us. It's funny, isn't it. Because the estoppel is where the needle hits the striations of the groove, the carborundum, the vinyl plastic. That's the only estoppel. There is nothing digital that is available that can capture the spectrum of sounds that are available on vinyl.
There's a new generation, whether Gen X or millennial, who understand that they've been duped by the CD. It's a more brittle kind of a result, in spite of what the industry has told people to think. And I know well about it, because I've been to Eindhoven where the CD was invented by Philips. But I would say that we've been duped by it, and I like that other world. I like the world of vinyl. I have had to surrender to the accessibility of CD, and as a matter of fact I want to do the CD, because I want to communicate, I want to be available and I want to be a messenger of my--I don't mean to be highfalutin, but I do, I want to reach people. And if not now, when? This is my endgame.
My mother said, "If they ask you, 'Do you want another?' you've had enough."
Do you also record to tape then?
Oh yeah. And I go through a lot of tubes to get there. And an outboard. And I love it. I love it all. I just go for it all. As long as it's good. And I'm not a Luddite, I use a lot of computer in my work. The only way I can. If I have a film deadline or an arranging deadline and I can't just write my way through it. I had some recent hand injuries. I cannot write the way I did with the rapidity that's required and survive. Deadlines are that deadly these days. So I use a computer as an adjunct to that. Often, for example, I've done a lot of PBS show where if we just quantify it to 40%, I go 60-40 analogue live orchestra with 40% synthetic results to fool the common ear.
[To the waiter:] I would like another, yes if you please.
My mother said, "If they ask you, 'Do you want another?' you've had enough." My mother was so smart. How's your mother?
She's very well.
Does she pick on you?
Does she pick on me? No.
Mine did. Mine picked on me. I loved her. She was always appropriate.
How did you get into journalism, if you don't mind me asking? Did you just study it or just fall into this thing?
I kind of fell into it.
Well, I've studied the record business, but there is nothing anybody could have taught me that I couldn't just better learn myself, that's what I learned. I learned after I got out of school.
What kind of mistakes did you have to make?
I made all kinds of mistakes. We don't have enough days for me to elaborate on mistakes that I've made. I married in haste and other things. But, you know, marry in haste and repent at leisure. But that was just my first wife, my practice wife. I've also believed in music and in art as well, we can use that word, I think you must reserve the right to fail. You must. Otherwise you never reach anything of any permanence or value or significance. You must reserve the right to be wrong. I learn from it all. I learn as much from success as failure. And I have lived long enough to regret some of my decisions. But I'm also equally amazed at the things that I didn't do that I'm glad I didn't.
Part of the American hegemony and the rock revolution that once served a great purpose, now it's just something that doesn't translate easily into Islam.
Any in particular?
Yeah. I didn't spend a life learning how to sing the blues. I didn't co-opt the Delta blues. This is an age where black people can't get a job in the House of Blues. White kids got the blues. Famous white kids, celebrities, got the blues. Claptons. People that facsimilate the American lingo around the world. Part of the American hegemony and the rock revolution that once served a great purpose, now it's just something that doesn't translate easily into Islam. So we get things like fallen towers on Wall Street. With first-world problems locked in the blues. So I'm happy that I didn't have to rely on a life of bottleneck guitar.
[At this point my recorded stopped recording. We resume twenty minutes later as Mr. Parks describes his arrangements for Joanna Newsom's acclaimed 2006 album Ys.]
But I turned to Ms. Newsom at the end, because I was just astounded by her work. It didn't occur to me until I was leaving the room. I was thinking she maybe she heard something I did for Bruce Springsteen or Rufus Wainwright or, you know, Natalie Cole, I didn't know what. What had she heard that drew me to her? Why did she call me? Because that would help me as an arranger to know what she liked. Because then I could repeat it.
I said, "What did I do that you liked?" She said, "Song Cycle." I want to tell you something. That just buckled me. Because it just was all of a sudden, this record, which had been condemned, it was upsetting to people that they couldn't figure it out. There was nothing to figure out. But it's a highly personal record. But I got in trouble for it. Because it wasn't disco madness. It wasn't convenient, it had no beat. It wasn't marketable. All of a sudden someone younger than my own offspring is telling me that it was an inspiring record. Can't tell you, I thought I was gonna bawl. I really thought I was gonna bawl.
You said the "supra conscious," I think was the phrase you used [in the unrecorded conversation]...
I don't think my way through my work. Ever. To me it's like a Buster Keaton movie, or Charlie Chaplin. It's a man in crisis, always painting yourself into an impossible dilemma. You know, into a corner. That's to me what the creative process is: one crisis after another. And if you know where you're going, you'll end up in a braindead product, as the object of a braindead reality. I think only by real inquiry, by inquiring, by discovering, do you ever get anywhere. And in the end if you wrap it up in a package someone might say, "That's a nice concept." They might say, "That's a very bad concept." They might call it an Edsel. But I think it's important, absolutely vital in any creative process not to know. You cannot know where you're going. Unless you're Presbyterian. Then, hey! You know where you're gonna be tomorrow. That's dullsville to me. I would rather not know. That's what I mean about not knowing.
There are things that you have to know. Firstly, you have to know that you don't know. And I know that. I know that I don't know. The other thing is you have to know quantities. You have to know how much time you have to do how much work with how many people. Or no one at all. Certain figures come into play. So it's an informed guess, at best, any record. Like this one. I wanted to hear a song called "Hold Back Time." I wanted to hear it sung! It wasn't sung well. [Brian Wilson had sung "Hold Back Time" on Orange Crate Art, the album he and Parks recorded in 1995.] I know that. And I wanted to sing it. I wanted to present the song with conviction. I wanted the Steel Band to be heard, because that record had sunk without a trace.
There was a group. Twenty-eight men. That was a group that could start a piece and end at ten minutes. You know why? Because they were in flight formation. Because they had incredible talent. Incredible talent. And if they had gone a second over ten minutes, they would have been disqualified. That's what they do to groups in Trinidad. They were smart. And I felt that they deserved that exposure. Because they're friends, there's a great deal of personal interplay in all of these relationships. The birth of this record all has to do with people I know and love that are close to me that I have great respect for. It's safe to say that there's a great deal of sacrifice, not my own but a lot of people who have contributed a great deal to make it what it is. And it will finally pop in July.
How much does your work change in the process of recording? Do you start out with something on paper and then have to change it once you hear it?
You know, I made my living doing premeditated work. I sit down alone, in a little room, alone. I used to do a lot of extemporaneous work. I was even mentioned in Jazz Greats of the Twentieth Century as a pianist. I enjoy when that can happen now. If you YouTube "Van Dyke" "Ry Cooder" and "Hollywood" you'll see what I'm talking about. How I enjoy being an extemporaneous player. Great moment in performance history as far as I know. Beats opera.
So you asked how my process changes. What I do for a living and even with respect to myself, I take what's extemporaneous--that's off the cuff, unpremeditated--and then put premeditation, or notation, into that. Kind of like to keep framing that stuff, give it definition, but without ripping the heart out. Making an interplay between what is unanticipated and even accidental and working like with monastic devotion in a cell to raise it up with all the powers of prediction at my disposal. So it's just getting between those two worlds, extemporaneous and premeditated musical results, that's what I do for a living. Whether I'm doing it for somebody else or for myself, it's fascinating. I love it. I love being an arranger. And the song form is where I like to do that. I believe the song form has so much power. I think I have a place in that process.
When you say the song form, I imagine this is something you've studied going back to...
My childhood? Yeah.
But in the terms of the development of the song...
Well the funny thing about the song is it just keeps redefining itself. What a song can or should do. I mean [slips into voice] These kids today, I'm telling you, they're crazy! What they're doing with song, using powers of deception, tape-to-tape, they make the stuff that I did as a brunet look tame. There's just all kinds of outrageous new licenses to kill, in song.
I Googled his gaggle, I got him on the giggle.
A big moment for me, when I orchestrated for Skrillex. They called me, he had just been on a stage in front of 350,000 people in Belgium. I came there to see him. They were pissed off. Skrillex was on the phone, he wanted me to orchestrate for him. I had never heard of him. I Googled his gaggle, I got him on the giggle. He was onstage with a laptop computer. He was pouring beer onto the computer. The crowd went into ecstasy. I think, with some ecstasy. And they all jumped into the moshpit. I didn't understand that world. I didn't even know what he does. All I knew was who he is.
Suddenly there's a man with a great constituency who are looking at music through an entirely different understanding than anything I had ever anticipated. Total new world. And a world of political, sociopolitical, if I can get real heady with you, value. People who were out of the loop, who deserved in, who deserved to be considered and served. And so I did. I served him. Stuff like that can happen to a person in music faster than anything that I can imagine in the diamond lane of progress and profit. People just thinking about the eroticism of wealth. No, it takes uncertainty, it takes exploration, and it takes a flexible social agenda to be able to get self-reinvention through what music brings.
If I put all these people in one room, believe me, it would be combustible, explosive, all the people I've served of different political stripes. It blows me away. Very hard to figure out how to hold an all-encompassing party of these political misfits that I've served. And most of them now are younger than my own offspring. And that's what's wonderful about arranging is that I get this opportunity, you don't get it in pictures, film scoring.
I do something that is very rare. Not that many people want to do what I do, which is work real hard for little money. Record production, I don't understand, people call themselves producers. That's nice but I think that where the rubber hits the road is in arranging. That's where you make a difference in serving the artist. That's where the real work is done. And I'm having a ball.
Are there younger arrangers you think are doing well?
Nobody comes to mind. Somebody mentioned the word "Gabriel Kahane." I'm sorry I was dismissive. I felt that it was rather pretentious, but then again, he's very young, and I was also pretentious when I was young. You have to pretend to something at some point. But maybe there's something also, I think something that people have feared about my own work. It's like if you get a string section, maybe you're a snob. Very interesting, it can't be denied. The thing is, in doing, in fancifying with arranging, you're fanciful.
A lot of Delta blues artists, white kids with the blues, think maybe it's not hep to put on a string section or something. I think this because there's a proper caution, and the caution is you lose the proletarian chic, you lose the work, you lose the soul if you ornament extravagantly. The idea is to keep an economy, keep transparency in the work, keep the heat of the street in the work, if you want the elite to pay attention. That's the job of the arranger.
What were some of those experiences working with different directors like? Were some people more hands-on in terms of what they wanted from you?
Yeah, but my favorite director of all of them, I did several different pictures with him, was Tony Bill. Tony Bill got the Academy Award for The Sting. We were doing an Oliver Twist with Richard Dreyfuss. I just remember that Tony looked at the picture, had no music. We were on our way out of the theater and Tony put his arm around me. He said, "You know this picture needs a lot of music." That to me is an ideal director. Someone who trusts you to that degree. And that's when the best results happen. Because you're your own worst critic.
I'm not so afraid of people saying, "You know, I would like to have a flute flourish." You know. The terror is in having that trust given to you. That's what to me is awesome in the true sense of the word. It's absolutely awesome to be trusted. And how to treat that trust. And that's the glory train, that's the big deal. There are directors who were just the opposite who I've served who are well-known and I'm not gonna talk about them. Music, even in film, requires a lot of exploration. It takes a lot of work to figure out how to make two people, two actors who detest each other, say an actor and an actress on the scene in an embrace and they hate each other, feel it. But if you put music underneath and it's romantic, convincingly romantic. It's as if they have flaming desire. So the remedy that music has for pictures that are failures in acting or in scripting, it's just phenomenal. And that takes a lot of trial and error. Highly self-critical process.
And how did you end up on Twin Peaks?
Well, the director [Graeme Clifford] asked me to be on the show, and it was the last episode. And I loved him like a brother. And I got on there, I played the attorney, and it turns out that I knew the judge. His name was Royal Dano. Royal Dano had been a man that I'd met in New York City in 1953, I was on a television show with him. And all of a sudden, there he was, and I was a grown-up and he was an old man. I hadn't seen him in thirty years or something.