Van Dyke Parks

One of the most distinctive, idiosyncratic contributors to the American songbook, Van Dyke Parks is best known as an arranger for artists ranging from The Byrds and The Beach Boys (the legendary lost album Smile) to more recent work with Inara George and Joanna Newsom. Before that, he was a child actor, starring opposite Ezio Pinzo on the TV show Bonino. (He also played a lawyer on an episode of Twin Peaks.) But it’s as a solo artist that Parks’ voice is best heard. Beginning with 1968’s Song Cycle, his albums have followed a sporadic and winding path that’s taken him through the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris (Jump!), calypso (Discover America and Clang Of The Yankee Reaper), and the history of Japanese-American relations (Tokyo Rose). Even when he’s drawn on the songwriting of others, his versions sound like no one else’s: See Yankee Reaper’s swinging take on Pachelbel’s Canon In D Major for proof. Given the eccentric fluidity of his orchestrations, it’s not surprising he’d never found a way to take them on the road, but that changed recently, when at age 67 he undertook the first tour of his career. Backed by the Brooklyn quartet Clare And The Reasons, whose vocalist, Clare Manchon, is the daughter of his old friends Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Parks took to the road to hone songs from an album to be released in 2011. As he finalized his preparations for the tour, Parks talked to The A.V. Club from his home about inventing music video, scoring “The Bare Necessities,” and the songwriter next to whom Neil Young and Paul Simon are “a bunch of trash.”

Van Dyke Parks: What’s A.D. stand for?

The A.V. Club: A.V., like audio-visual.

VDP: Oh wow, that’s amazing. Years ago I wanted to make movies for records at Warner Bros., and it became a problem what to call the department. I knew that we wanted video, and I knew that we wanted to promote audio, but I didn’t know which word to put first because that hyphen didn’t exist. That’s 1970. Now it’s a common hyphen.

AVC: When you say you wanted to make movies for records, do you mean proto-music videos?

VDP: Absolutely. I used the expression MTV. I was directly under the CEO, the head of the company, whose name was Mo Ostin. I asked him for that permission; I used that expression. I told him “I wanted my music television.” I made 13 films, put them on a 10-minute reel so they could show it at a neighborhood theater.

AVC: One of the things that’s interesting about your career is that you’ve moved back and forth between music and film, or worked in both at once.

VDP: First of all, I just want to thank you for saying that I have a career. My mother once said to me, “Van Dyke, we’ve always thought it was amazing how you put your retirement before your career.” I’m coming out to tour to change all that. I wanted to develop an income stream for artists that I thought were being too hard-pressed to do road promotions; they needed a new way to promote their music and that’s why I did it. Years before, when I was a boy, I was on a television show with a great actress, Dorothy Gish. She had made the film industry, she and her sister, for D.W. Griffith and other equal film people. An American seed, a French invention, and they ran with it. I was told when I was a boy, “That woman over there in a bit part was once the great Ms. Gish, who was a great global film star who made the film industry what it became.” So I complimented her when we had a few minutes off. I had a big part, she had a little part. I said, “Miss Gish, I understand you were very important in the silent-film era.” She said, “Thank you very much, young man.” I was about 9. I decided not to leave the conversation there. She seemed to be kind of lonely, and I said, “Miss Gish, weren’t you scared when you heard the talkies were coming?” She said, “That’s a good question. Actually, when we first heard that film would have sound, they didn’t use that expression. We all just naturally assumed that the sound would be music.” Now that’s to illustrate that people have thought of sight and sound as one megillah. There’s a very symbiotic potential for film and music, and I’ve always been interested in it. I never forgot that. It was a big deal to hear that from a person of her age and rank. It confirmed in my mind that music and film would be something I would explore. So I did.

AVC: Obviously, when you’re scoring a movie, you’re responding to the images, but do you create your own images when you’re writing songs?

VDP: I do think that music, can—pardon me, let me use a big word here—enunciate, give clarity to, what is being visually seen. It can bring something in the most subtle way, make something rise to a conscious or cognitive level, where people finally recognize something is happening. Of course, the way to find that cannot be told, it has to be discovered, but I’ve spent many, many, many efforts agonizing about that. The thing I’m up to now is a total departure from all this stuff, of 40 years of recording records, and living my life in seclusion, in a monastic kind of isolation, doing television shows, scores for movies long forgotten, and orchestrating for many other people. I just thought at the age of 67 I might as well start spending my so-called retirement in full battle speed, and enjoy discovering what performance is all about. And performance of course is an art. I love Marcel Marceau, I love people who try to present the performance art, and I want to learn something of that. I want to be a companionable presence in the room, but I also want to learn from this. I want to get my land legs in performance, because I’m perched to release an album in the spring. I’ll have it done in the spring, probably about February of next year, and I want to tour again, but with some lessons learned. My campaign motto is “I’ve suffered like hell for my music all my life. Now it’s your turn.”

AVC: One of the things that’s characteristic about your sound, both your own recordings and the arrangements you’ve done, is a real diversity of instrumentation, using the orchestra for accents and not just to sustain chords. You’re touring this time with a band, not a symphony orchestra.

VDP: Yeah, it’s an entirely different thing. I’m so fortunate, the opening group, which is of no lesser rank, Clare And The Reasons. Clare Manchon, do you know how to spell her name?

AVC: I do.

VDP: Okay, just because she matters to me. Clare, her husband, Olivier, he plays violin and everything else. Xylophone, they go everywhere. They’re just great, and they’re all superior musicians. They all have perfect pitch. I don’t. I’m just a working-class stiff, but I’ll give them a run for their money. They’ll open the show, and they are mystical, magical, marvelous, dreamscape, seductive, so appealing, a beautiful experience to see these kids do their work and then they stay and have the good grace to accompany me on my set. I’m a lucky guy is what I’m saying.

AVC: You’ve earned some of it as well.

VDP: All the stars came together. This is the first time I’ve really found an opportunity. It just happened. I was so thrilled with it that I decided finally to get an agent. Now I’m in show business.

AVC: Why haven’t you toured before? Was it stage fright, or just never having the motivation?

VDP: I had three kids to put through college. I worked hard here to do what I know, which is basically to be part of the collaborative part of music in many anonymous activities. I’ve made a living at it since I came out here. My first job was as arranger for a song called “The Bare Necessities” on The Jungle Book score. My first union job. Since that time, I’ve spent a great deal of time obsessing on the potential of the studio, the technology. Because there is a difference between canned music and live music, and I love canned music. I can remember 1948, Spike Jones; that was my first awesome experience. It totally floored me to hear what Spike Jones did with a piece called “Cocktails For Two.” 

AVC: That’s an amazing record.

VDP: Lot of tuneful percussion in it, marimba, xylophone, things that honked. And then in 1953, Les Paul and Mary Ford. Les Paul attracted my ear. This was totally ear candy. It was stunning, serious music. It had nothing to do with my style, but it took me beyond the confines of my boarding school where I was studying classical music. At the American Boychoir School, which is the truth, I heard this thing, Les Paul and Mary Ford doing “Lover,” and that changed my life, because that was the first multi-track guitar. Les Paul by his own invention arrived at an eight-track machine. How did that happen? It was all just so mysterious and delicious, a confection for the ear. And then the great, great Esquivel, who did such thrilling things in the age of hi-fi stereo, and then the synthesizer came along. I did commercials on that. That was in ’69. And all of this, having seen Road Runner cartoons, and having a lot of cartoon consciousness, you hear that kind of inescapable low-brow approach to music—not epic, but still somehow I played out that feel of cartoon consciousness. It was my contribution to pop art.

AVC: It was a revelation when those Carl Stalling Project CDs came out to hear just how radical the scores for some of the Looney Tunes were, very much in the vein of Spike Jones. You don’t hear it when you’re watching the cartoons, but they’re amazingly avant-garde in some respects. 

VDP: There were the Carl Stallings, and [later] Hal Willner and The Beau Hunks, with the Laurel And Hardy stuff. They sold 250,000 units of that stuff, The Beau Hunks. That’s a lot of people interested in old-time music. But my point is that I played it out. I have no idea what the future will bring, and hopefully I can do a definitive work with music and film, but for now I just want to take this moment to do something in music. What really brought me here when I came to California to play in coffeehouses with my brother was the live arena.

AVC: Given the live sound of this tour, will the next record reflect that stripped-down instrumentation?

VDP: Absolutely. The idea is to pull forward. I took it to the limit; I made every mistake I could possibly make on my first record. I played it for the head of Warner Bros., and he said, “So where are the songs?” My daughter, later on, she grows up, gains beauty, at the age of 16 or 17 she heard Song Cycle for the first time. She says, “Dad, they should’ve called this Song Psycho.” 

I realized the turbulence I came from. I was a basket case in the ’60s. My brother died, my older brother, my sainted brother, the lion of the litter, he died and left me bereft. Then John Kennedy died, then Robert Kennedy died, then Martin Luther King died. I mean, everybody was dying. Our nation was in trauma. Any individual who was awake knew that we were in a catastrophic situation, socially, economically—the race issues, people getting hosed down in the South, the war, sitting down at dinnertime and watching the news seeing babies burn from American napalm. So there was every reason to be in a state of agitation, and I’ve got to say that many people tuned into Song Cycle and forgave it for being a real example of the pathology of the ’60s. Yet I really learned from that. I made all my mistakes, and even to this day I believe this is absolutely vital, pivotal to the creative process: You must reserve the right to be wrong. You must reserve the right to fail, or you’ll never get anything done. It’ll be brain dead. Either brain dead or condemned to be a product with the lifespan of a jar of yogurt. Durable goods, that’s what it’s about. I think, I believe, unless I’ve miscalculated, I will bring durable goods.

AVC: Your experience of hearing Les Paul while studying at the American Boychoir School reminds me of Jimmy Webb, who grew up playing organ in his father’s church but had his life changed by Elvis.

VDP: We share that in common, absolutely. I love Jimmy, you know, as a person.

AVC: You can hear the combined influences of classical and pop in your songs.

VDP: Don’t get me wrong here. Nothing disturbs me about dead white guys’ music. My favorite composer is Bach. If I was only allowed only thing, it could be Bach’s cello suites, solo cello. Just something satisfying where every line ended up on its feet. Every cat got turned up and down on its feet again, up and down the tree. Listening to Bach is like watching a Fellini movie; all of the subplots are resolved, and there’s logic in them, so I love them. I think Bach is the sexiest composer. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I’m constantly learning about what the song form should be. My favorite songwriter, by the way, is an Italian man by the name of Paolo Conte. Here’s a guy who just puts every American songwriter that I know, and that probably includes me, into a long shadow. I’m talking about all of these navel-gazers, Randy Newman, James Taylor, Paul Simon, you name it, Manny, Moe, and Jack, Neil Young—this is all a bunch of trash considering the enlightenment and high craft of a man like Paolo Conte. Stuff comes to me out of the ether, from nowhere; there’s no reason for me to have my head turned like that—it’s not fair. This is what that guy did, absolutely floored me with his ability. I’d say he’s the greatest songwriter of our time. It’s like Brian Wilson. What does he have that I don’t have? Courage. Look at the courage that he put into himself. He was punished for it; they treated him like a rusty nail and tried to bang him down into the shingles, but they couldn’t do it. 

Tom Waits, you look at Tom Waits’ work; every record he does demands a little bit more of his audience. He’s a tunesmith, but he’s in a constant pattern of self re-invention. I don’t think he’s trying to be testy; I don’t try to be testy by being non-classifiable. I’m just a guy, I’m trying to respond to what’s around me, to the immediacy of others’ needs, not the advancement of my popularity.