It's impossible to easily sum up the many creative endeavors of Van Dyke Parks, even though he may argue against his own creativity in his specialty, the art of arrangement, working over the years with an absolute army of A-listers including Phil Ochs, U2, Ringo Starr, and many more.
As a songwriter and a TV and Film composer, he's been not only prolific, but influential, an influence felt in almost every area where music spreads through culture.
As a young man in California in the 1960's, Parks came to collaborate with Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson on a project known as SMILE, which was never released then, but is now a famous chapter of music history, finally released a box set in 2011. But Parks and Wilson reunited on a project that Parks spearheaded and the two managed to complete together, released in 1994, Orange Crate Art. This endeavor celebrated the history and beloved nuances of the state of California. Now, Orange Crate Art has been re-released, specially remastered by multi-Grammy award winner Michael Graves on its 25th anniversary.
Van Dyke Parks joins us today to talk about a lot of very interesting things, including his experience of Tower Records in the '60s, why the year 1963 was so important, how it feels to look back on Orange Crate Art 25 years on, and what goes into the subtle art of arrangement.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Do you have any stories about visiting Tower Records locations?
Van Dyke Parks: There’s one. I think it’s probably a Youtube away. Of me appearing on film, not video, so that should date it, in front of Tower Records in Hollywood. That would have been maybe in 1967 or a bit later, but definitely in the 60’s, because I have a chapeau to prove it, and long hair.
And if you were there, you can remember. And I do. Of course, I spent many, many hours in Tower Records, and it opened gates with the catalog they had there, that spanned the Americas and World Beat, before the world was known to have a beat. Got it at Tower Records. Across the street at Tower Classical, you could get some music of people whose names you couldn’t even pronounce. Wonderful! With somebody at the counter who knew all about it. Amazing! It’s a great legacy.
HMS: Thank you. You’re someone who has worked in so many musical genres, even from a young age. Do you think that Tower influenced you to push forward with that?
VDP: I think it would be just as fair to say that I pushed Tower forward! [Laughs]
HMS: Yeah! I’ll agree.
VDP: Individuals who pushed me forward would be Alan Lomax and Jac Holzman, who founded Nonesuch Records. Amazing stuff if you wanted to hear choir music from Bhutan or whatever, when remote recording was very difficult. Until the Sony Walkman, which I believe happened in 1971. I had the first one in the United States.
HMS: Are you serious??
VDP: Actually, I had two of them, given to me by the head of Warner in Japan, Mr. Yamamoto. I met him in Japan and he sent me two Sony Walkmans, and I was the first kid on the block to have one. I used one to go over and record Brian Wilson in a confab. And produced the song and dictated the music [plays the piano]. That became a song and I added the words. Those were the Blues that I had that day to get Brian out of bed. We’ve had a long history! How about that for a bunch of connected facts?
HMS: These connections are amazing. But I think your life is going to have those, particularly.
You’ve worked so much in popular music; you’ve worked so much in Classical music. Have you always very clearly separated them in your own mind? Or did you use to more than you do now?
VDP: Well, I cannot claim to be a Classical composer. I’m very particular about those terms. A lot of people who dabble in soundtracks for film call themselves “Composers”. I call them “Film Composers”. What you call somebody can matter. A lot of serious painters are terribly concerned that they are only considered “Illustrators” because that’s how they make their money. But I don’t have that problem. To me, the business of branding is a jobber’s concern, not mine. They need to put something in a bin. The reason I’ve worked for so many people over such a long time is that none of these so called “genres” are things journalists are too reliant on, and don’t understand the universality of music. I’m not concerned about it.
My parents had Fats Waller in the house. My brothers, and I’m the youngest of four, had Little Richard, when he popped up, we got him right away. Bill Haley was on a 45 in our house, on with a Magnavox, the finest record player ever built. Along with the entirety of Mozart and Haydn symphonies and so forth. Everything was there. And a good dose of hymns. We went twice a week to a Methodist church. And a trip the barber shop once in a while, where they had their own “genre”. No, this didn’t concern me. But yet I do feel that, although I’m not the greatest arranger I’ve ever met, my work is good. Because it is rare that people make effort to do the strings divisions and so forth. The things that it takes to create a framework around a simple song without obliterating it.
It takes care not to be the center of attention when you have the potential to be the center of attention. I’m not the center of attention in my work, they are. The people who conspire with me, the bowing arms, the singers. I’m perfectly happy being a man behind a curtain. That doesn’t make sales any easier!
When I was little, and I had seen, in 1963, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and this may sound a little philosophical for you, but this is a matter of survival to me: I saw how damaging fame can be. I wanted the blessings of anonymity. To be able to walk to work quietly and get a lot done without worrying about who gets the credit. It happened that way for me. And I can say in that, I feel like a success. I got the anonymity I deserve! [Laughs]
HMS: And a list of credits that goes on for pages, and pages, and pages…
VDP: But I was lucky to be the right card, or maybe the only card at the right time. Because nobody else was interested in doing the job that I wanted to do. I almost ended up in this job by forfeit. I was playing guitar very ably until 1963, and Bob Dylan, who I admire completely in spite of his humanity and flaws, which we all have.
I never worked for him. I worked with him, once: “Do Re Me”. That’s a Youtube away.
It was fun, it was for a Peoples’ Encyclopedia, which discovers America, which is what it’s all about.
I try to discover what’s here. That’s what I do in my work. I’m not a creative person. If I could predict the future, I would be a Presbyterian, saying “God wanted this.” No, I’m not turning to Jesus for any of this shit. This is ad hoc, and who needs what, when, how. And why. The why is especially easy in these hazardous times [of COVID].
I’m retired. I’m 77. Honestly, I’m retired but I’ve never been so busy in my life because I’m better at what I do now than I was 20 or 25 years ago. I listened to Orange Crate Art, for example, with an examiner’s reserve, highly critical of everything.
I can see my slip, “shining, from the East down to the West”. I can see that.
HMS: It must be hard not to be critical of work over such a period of time.
VDP: Well, also the technology changed so rapidly. The technology possible for the recording that we’re talking about what at the height of analog, but really at the dawn of digital interaction with it. It’s rare to see such emphasis on analog.
But if you want to be a writer, you can go to school and spend a lot of dough to learn it, but I’ll tell you the clue: job one is write what you know. I know what’s on this record. I do remember, “two bits for cokes and jokes at the diner, when life was a magazine”. I remember that. And the associations it brings with, there’s “blood on the tracks”. There are people who aren’t here to back me up that they saved my respective ass.
But there are pieces of the past, aromas of the past, and all of this is what I wanted to bring to this collective mindset that Brian and I had both come from. Familiar things. A sense of hymnology, the art of cliché, and even Barber Shop, and the Pop sensibility. The Pop world which was the Renaissance of Brian Wilson as well as Andy Warhol.
1963 is not just the year that The Rolling Stones came out with their first album, and Brian Wilson and his band came out with their record, and Bossa Nova, and Steel String guitar overcame any thought that nylon string people might have of making a living.
That’s when I turned to piano, and it’s a matter of record that I got my first union arranging job on “The Bare Necessities” in 1963, on a Disney film [The Jungle Book]. So, yes, I always ended up where no one else wanted to be. But there was a message in the [film] medium, after the McCarthy era.
Left-wing liberalism: Yes. I’m all too often found flapping my left wing, and I’ll tell you why. It takes two wings to keep a bird up! And it’s time for the left wing to flap.
HMS: Yes. I haven’t even asked you how you’re doing right now.
VDP: My wife and I have been in quarantine since March 15th. That means that by edict of the Governor of the State of California, that means that it’s a finable offence to be caught outside without a mask at the age of 77. In my 8th decade, I don’t need any persuasion.
I see this push for the progress of profit. An arrogant human display of Biblical absurdity. It’s absurd as anything that ever occurred in the Bible. And this time it’s not an armada. Our enemy is mindless. A thing that can’t even think has got us by the throat!
VDP: As Mel Brooks said in Blazing Saddles, as a man in crisis, looking up to Heaven: “You’re so strict!” This is God being strict, if you want to put it in divine proportions. It’s as comedic as a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin movie. I do believe that laughter is the shortest distance between two people. Right now, my wife and I have maintained our martial, I mean marital, bliss.
HMS: It can be very pressurizing right now.
VDP: Well, what I’m doing is that I’m on to something. I am without a studio, but I’m in the middle of a studio. Though music is, for me, totally a collaborative medium. At some point. That’s what I do. It takes a bowing arm to make a good string line, unless you want digital, which makes me go to sleep. I go numb. I get shell shock.
HMS: That’s not your medium at all!
VDP: No, it’s not our medium. It’s being imposed upon us. This is the thing: part of an artist’s obligation is to somehow up-end the present tense, to jar people from the present-tense. The present-tense stasis is not acceptable. We cannot accept what this is. And in entertainment, my goal, my evil motive, is to drag people out of that present tense any way I can. And if that’s viewed as a function of memory, which some people dismiss as nostalgia, nostalgia is a subtle a tonic for the disease that presumption becomes. And those are the ones not wearing the masks, by the way.
Because, for example, it’s impossible to laugh at the same time on the iPhone. Steve Jobs made that impossible. Alexander Graham Bell made that possible. When the iPhone came along, they developed a different kind of "Noise Gate".
It influences the muting of send or receive signals and prevents simultaneous laughter. That, to me, is the tip of the ice-berg—in the aspects of diminished powers of communication in product design. Fidelity—a pressing interest that may one day yet get priority concern of the Me Generations! Improved Noise Gates will help. So you’ll notice there’s always a kind of disconnect, and this is a distancing the artist must somehow traverse. To get beyond.
HMS: A lot of people who have never done the screen stuff are doing it now, due to quarantine. They feel they have to figure it out, or their jobs are requiring it.
VDP: I just handle every day as best I can, considering the urgencies pushed upon us by this spasmodic president. The priorities continue to shift, and there are different fires to put out. But my umbrella issue is ecology. All of this, red state, blue state, religiosity, dogmatic stuff can be muted if all of us simply live on a sustainable planet and prioritize ecological realities. We may find that it is enough, and we may all survive somehow.
But what I’m doing for a living right now is getting out of that box. I have a cousin who was a Pittsburgh Steeler, number 68, Gary Dunn. He’s got three big diamond rings. Poor old Gary can’t do what he does now, he’s too old. Got too beat up. But I can do what I do as an arranger, and I’m doing it better all the time.
Nobody, without patronage, is in a position to pay for arranging. That’s why it’s viewed as a bauble. Pretty much the way the arts are viewed.
HMS: Oh, like an extravagance?
VDP: As an extravagance, yes. I disagree entirely. I think record production shows the opposite. When you create a proscenium for an artist, whether it would be Bobbie Gentry on “Ode to Billie Joe”, or Ray Charles on his incredible arrangement of “Eleanor Rigby”, you see how the strings lift and create a transparency, a foundation for the artist to draw in the casual observer. To make someone give a damn about what those words say.
Also, arranging is very subtle, and that’s why I love it. Jerry Goldsmith, the great film composer who did Chinatown (and I did the sequel), he said, “When you’re scoring a man on galloping hooves, don’t score the hooves, score the mind of the man.” Very much like when arranging a song, when recording an accordion, a violin, or a tenor who can sing, sometimes it’s not the accordion, or the violin, or the tenor who can sing that is underscored. Sometimes it’s good to stay off the singer’s back!
I’ve always been very concerned, though, about raising the singer to messianic proportions. To make it so great what the singer is doing. But what I’ve always loved about arranging is that it’s an exercise in mutual empowerment.
HMS: That is really cool.
VDP: You can empower somebody. It makes me feel great. It’s a 180 degrees from the Grammys, which is, “Look at what I did”. It’s not about that.
HMS: Also regarding the different people who are key components are the ones you’re giving their due attention rather than, as you say, elevating the singer to heroic proportions, or the lead guitarist. You’re giving all the different contributors a chance to shine.
VDP: Right now, what I’m working on, was I was asked in October, to get somebody a record contracts, who’s a harpist from Veracruz, from the southern tip of Mexico. She’s a solo harpist and poet, always with an incredibly convincing eurythmic sensibility. Her work is meso-American, toe-tapping stuff.
I told her, “Of course not. I’m way past that. Get me a contract, for Pete’s sake!” But I felt bad, so wrote back and I asked her to send me what she does. And she did, and I was floored and elated. I decided that this woman, who is 38, almost the same age as my daughter, who makes this transcendent music, that is very important to her locality, has engagement. We’re not talking the Eagles here, we’re not talking arena rock, we’re not talking crowd-pleasers. But I decided to surround her with strings and woodwinds, a chamber orchestra.
HMS: Oh wow!
VDP: Yes, get her on a stage. Well, first you have to make the music, and then you have to make it sound good. And it sounds incredible. I’m six tunes in, on my own dough and my own time.
HMS: That’s really nice of you.
VDP: Oh, yeah, it is nice of me, but it’s also smart of me. Because if getting there is half the fun, being there will not be too much. I’ll still be happy about it. I have the target in mind, the office that I want to assail for her. Because it’s not Jazz, it’s not Classic, it’s not Folk. Although there is a saw-tooth guitar in there, which adds a degree of piquancy. A saw-tooth, by the way, looks very good, on a screen, sonically. It’s amazing how these things reduce themselves to sight for those who care about such things. It’s used well in music to excite and dominate.
HMS: Does this work have vocals, or is it purely instrumental?
VDP: Oh, it has vocals. I swear to you, it’s all there. I’m very happy about it. I would equate it to Fado, or the great Italian songwriter Paolo Conte. It gets you to the point where you don’t know what the hell they are saying, but you agree with them completely, and that takes a lot!
I’m very pleased and honored to be given that trust. And that’s how it is. What is a Producer? I have no idea. I know that I know how to get a Chinese Chicken Salad in two hours at 2AM. I’ve proven that.
HMS: Even during lockdown?
VDP: No, no, no. I’m not sticking my head out of the trench right now. Anyway, that’s what I’m doing with my life right now.
HMS: That’s wonderful. That’s keeping you creative, and engaged, and working during this time. I’m sure it makes things easier.
VDP: I still don’t think that anything is easier. And darnit, I really appreciate your grace, but the fact is, this is new territory, what we’re going through here.
I see some people stepping out to the ford, and they are acquiescing. They are surrendering to the low-fi production standards.
HMS: [Laughs] Oh, yes, they definitely are. But they are seeing it as a kind of challenge.
VDP: It’s all fish-eyed, as if lens-shot by Jacques Cousteau.
HMS: [Laughs] Yes, it is.
Stay tuned for the second part of our interview with Van Dyke Parks!