The Californian Soul of Van Dyke Parks

Randy Newman, Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Joanna Newsom, Rufus Wainwright, Fiona Apple, Skrillex–he’s worked with everyone

If anyone in 2013 could pull this hat trick, it’s Van Dyke Parks. Songs Cycled, the 70-year-old musician, producer, and composer’s new album, is his first LP in nearly two decades—except it’s not quite new and it’s not a traditional album. Parks assembled the melting pot of a record from original songs, covers, and re-recordings of earlier tracks that he once released as 7-inch singles wrapped in fine art (it’s a method seldom used these days but it’s the one Parks holds dearest).

Lyrically, Songs Cycled touches on the September 11 attacks, Wall Street, and environmental concerns but sonically, it glances in the rearview mirror. Full of lush orchestration and a dash of Tin Pan Alley, the album is a bookend of sorts to Parks’ 1968 debut, Song Cycle. By the time Parks released that album, he had already arranged “The Bare Necessities” for Disney’s The Jungle Book, briefly performed with Frank Zappa’s The Mothers of Invention, and collaborated with Brian Wilson on the “lost” Beach Boys album Smile. (The legendary project dissolved for a number of reasons, including Wilson’s drug use and mental instability, leaving fans to make a patchwork album from bootleg outtakes until Wilson released Smile in 2004.)

Parks put out five more albums after Song Cycle, but he donned more hats as he turned to scoring films, producing, and arranging for a number of artists including Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Joanna Newsom, Rufus Wainwright, Fiona Apple, and—more on this shortly—Skrillex.

Chatting with Parks, we delved into the Californian soul of Songs Cycled and left with some unexpected life advice.

How are you?
I’m fine. Another perfect day here in Pasadena where grass is greener, honeybees hum melodies, and orange trees scent the breeze. [He’s referencing Al Jolson’s “Pasadena.”] 

What was the motivation behind Songs Cycled?

It’s very funny: I was sitting at a table in a hip restaurant on the west side with a recording engineer friend. We weren’t being served. It was obvious I was the oldest thing in the room. There was a beautiful young waitress running around serving the young and hungry. Finally, my friend yelled to the waitress, “Hey lady!” The waitress stopped to look at us. My friend pointed to me and said, “Don’t you know who he used to be?” So, I guess I’m putting out another record to remind people that I’m not going away. I’m circling ominously.

Ominous? Your music is nothing if not bright.
I try to make beautiful music. I know I don’t have the most beautiful voice in the world. It changed at one time. When I was a boy, that wasn’t so. I could sing like a canary.

Your music combines classical seriousness and contemporary lightness. How did those collide?
As a young boy I went away to the American Boychoir boarding school outside of Princeton, New Jersey. I went for about six years and sang all the dead white guys’ music. Sang at the Metropolitan Opera. Got my social security number when I was 9 years old, just by walking across the stage at the Metropolitan Opera and singing a small part in La Bohème. Played Carnegie Hall with the boys’ choir, got directed by Arturo Toscanini and all the great conductors. My life was filled with music. In 1948, Spike Jones came along and shattered everything with Cocktails for Two. Sound effects like whoopee cushions and breaking glass, xylophones and marimbas: a different kind of ear candy for me. It could not but help to give my ears an entirely different trip, and I took it. I fell in love with recorded music. It sounds like small change, but it’s what happened to me. It’s how my world was formed.

I went to Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, conservatory level. Blood, sweat, and tears—many tears. Trying to be a great pianist, trying to learn composition and orchestration. I came out and played coffeehouses in 1962 to take a break and that changed my life. That’s where I took the fork in the road and became more interested and serious about music that isn’t serious. I thought it was a gray—black and white, at best—world of serious music. Then I got sprung from college, came out here, and became an arranger in 1963. It was “The Bare Necessities.” My first union check was The Jungle Book. That convinced me I had some ability. I played in studios during the ‘60s and worked my you-know-what off.

You’ve collaborated in some capacity with such an array of artists from Brian Wilson to Joanna Newsom, Fiona Apple, even Skrillex. What draws you to the artists you work with?
In the cases of all the young artists mentioned, I was approached. Maybe I’m the last man standing. Maybe I’m one of the last few people who really put a lot of work into his arranging. I think there are many young people who are self-arranging very beautifully and with great imagination. A lot of the people are younger than my own offspring—amazing!—I do “Yes, sir” this and “Yes, ma’am” that. That’s because I can easily admit that I don’t know. I meet artists who are bold enough to admit that they don’t know, we enter this kind of easy, passive truce where I’m allowed to follow my nose and come up with an arrangement that will dignify the artist and serve the aim of the song.

You weren’t fond of popular music when everything went electricBeatlemania, and so on. Yet you’ve worked with many contemporary pop artists.
Right. A couple of things attract me greatly: smarts. Smarts works. But much more important than that is intent. I just hang around with people who I think are ultimately trying to be a part of that solution. When Skrillex called me up, I’d never heard of him. I pretended I knew who he was. I said, “Where are you?” He said, “I’ve just played a concert for 30,000 people.” I said, “Oh, really? And did they come to see you?” And he said, “Yes, Mr. Parks, they did. Would you do some orchestration?” I said, “Well, send me the piece, and if I feel able, I’ll do it.” I don’t have any hobbies, you know. I love music; I do it everyday. And he said, “Oh, thank you, Mr. Parks. We will destroy the world.” I said, “Okay…”

I Google him and there he is, on YouTube, in front of 30,000 people, pouring beer onto a laptop computer, at which point the crowd jumps into the mosh pit and has an erection. I think, “My, God. Who are these people?” I’ll tell you who they are. They are the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the hopeless European youth in rage. I have two things I can do: Run away from all this in horror because I’m so superior or dig in and serve and try to bring hope to the hopeless. That can be done behind the curtain, and that’s where I’m very comfortable working.

Does the anonymity of “working behind the curtain” give you the best of all possible worlds?
It’s funny. I have an Einstein calendar. Now, we know Einstein’s smart. I turned the calendar to the next month, and I was very chipper and happy to step into July until I saw this quote, “Truly novel inventions emerge only in one’s youth. Later, one becomes ever more experienced, famous, and foolish.” That’s Albert Einstein. “Yikes” is all I’m saying. My hedge plan, because I’m not a man of property but I do fit into some society, is this: I’m betting on another generation to evolve in understanding. I want to be in lock step. I want to be in motion. I want to be in that parade—or at least throw some confetti on it. I treat every job as if it were the very thing that will define me. Nothing is beneath me. I think that is evident to people who ask my best. That’s why I get to do what I do.

Much of Songs Cycled samples the past. Did that spirit move you to release it as a series of 7″ singles?
When Bob Dylan came out with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963 and the Stones came out with their first record, I lived in that world—the world of vinyl and singles and album art. Here I am, 50 years later. I’m 70 years old and I’m trying to hold on to what is most precious to me. This virgin vinyl world that’s about a handshake away. Sooner or later, there won’t be a hand to shake who can remember what it’s like to roll back a tape.

With vinyl, we get to see the artwork on a tangible sleeve. The Songs Cycled artwork, and the short essays paired with each piece, seems as important as the music itself. You have Klaus Voorman, Ed Ruscha, Art Spiegelman. How did you end up with these contributions?
The big word there is “contribution.” All of these artists did this for nothing. Charles Ray making two statues of me for nothing? Life-sized statues of me not for one thin dime. This record is, above all, an act of human kindness. The visual artists mattered as much as the all the musicians. I wanted to make an object of art, forgive my fanciful aims. I wanted it to be something you could hold and wouldn’t mind having in a cluttered apartment. I wanted it to be something of beauty that someone would want to possess and still to be able to reference the big problems of our times.

But take Ed Ruscha, for example. He did the art for the song “Dreaming of Paris.” I met Ed, who’s known as a minimalist, many years ago when he was going to art school in 1961. Anyway, he came up with something for “Dreaming of Paris” and he gave me a picture he’d done back then. It was just a colored pencil [sketch] of the word “Paris.” When I got that I thought, “Man, this guy’s really being stingy on me!” Turns out, about 24 hours later, I get another email with a PDF. This time, it’s a sketch of the same picture of the word “Paris.” Now it says, “Hey, Van Dyke, here’s an idea.” He scribbles little things on it like “Irregular border in black and white,” and this, that, and the other. Then he says, “Van Dyke, what think?” When I got that sketch, I knew right away that I’d asked plenty of him and it was just perfect.

What about the cover?
I’m sitting in a restaurant in old town Pasadena. I’m about to finish a record. I’ve no idea how I’m going to sleeve it. A man walks over to the table where I’m sitting with my wife and says, “Are you Van Dyke Parks?” And I said, “Yes, how much do I owe you?” And he laughs and says, “No, my name is Kenton Nelson. I’m an artist. I’ve always admired your work, and I’d love you to have anything I have done or will do to use freely.” Well, Kenton Nelson depicts a world that is disappearing in front of our very eyes. It’s an ideal world. It’s Southern California. It’s a world that is beautiful. In the process, because it is Songs Cycled, there is a cyclist, a woman. That work by Kenton Nelson brought me home to what it was that I wanted the record to really be: a profile. Filled with doubts, but still a beautiful place to go.

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