As Brian Wilson’s post-Good Vibrations lyricist and collaborator, Van Dyke Parks’ subsequent career, like that of The Beach Boys themselves, has been somewhat overshadowed by Smile:
However, finally, there is an overview of one part of Van Dyke’s career, prior to and post-1967 – this was released in September 2011:
(on Bananastan CD and gatefold vinyl – digital as well, but fuck that, get the vinyl)
And this was released in May 2011, the first in a series of six 7″ singles:
(cover artwork “Towers” by Art Spiegelman)
Listen to Wall Street:
Play it while reading on. If you haven’t heard a Van Dyke Parks composition before, start with something contemporary.
‘Wall Street’ is a 9/11 song, beginning with the biz-talk and chatter of a workday (“Drop me off at Walk Don’t Walk”) before turning to ash, blood, and confetti, and the indelible image of a man and woman holding hands as they fall to the pavement. Yes, that happened, and this song remembers.
‘Money Is King’ picks up where ‘Wall Street’ ends, with an A major chord. Adding a dense and varied string arrangement to a melody by the Growling Tiger (Trinidadian calypsonian Neville Marcano), Parks tells some transcultural truths about the lives of the rich and the poor. The rich man? “He can commit murder and get off free, And live in the governor’s company.” What about the poor? “But if you are poor, the people tell you ‘Shoo!’ And a dog is better than you.”
There is was a good interview about ‘The Van Dyke Parks Singles Club’ here – but all interviews he does are usually entertaining:
Speaking to MOJO from his home in Pasadena, Califronia, Parks, in his inimitably cinematic style, talks of his loathing for the CD, his love of sleeve art, the courage of the pioneering musician and the not-so-small matter of the soon-to-be released Smile Sessions.
A few comments that follow the Mojo interview offer dissenting voices, somehow irked by this ‘inimitably cinematic style’ (‘Damn, he’s a pompous fart’ and ‘What a horribly pompous man’) – and they get some solid support:
I agree this man is pompous. Let the punishment fit the crime. I say stone the evil doer.
Posted by Van Dyke Parks at 5:52 PM GMT 23/05/2011
In the sleevenotes for Arrangements, Van Dyke Parks says
Here’s Volume One, dating from my earliest studio adventures in the ’60s. Come To The Sunshine was the first such arrangement. It was written about my dad and his band ‘The White Swan Serenaders’ (who played at the White Swan Hotel in Punxsutawny, PA.) This single on MGM gave me my first real adventure at the dawn of multitrack recording (although it was done in just 3 takes). Throughout, you’ll hear what I learned about arranging. Bear in mind I went on to scratch out my own hard-scrabble life as an underpaid arranger, yet able to propel three offspring through their collegiate careers. They learned enough to avoid my occupational mistakes, pursuing other careers. Volume Two will be a different matter, with an exponential craft improvement on my part. Still, this must be my confession, as a review of my past work may offer great instruction to others who move the recorded arts beyond my wildest dreams. Clearly, my best work lies ahead. – Van Dyke Parks, Pasadena, CA, March ’11.
Arrangements is a great introduction to Van Dyke Parks – but so is any Van Dyke Parks record. Depending upon taste and tolerance, any song/track/arrangement/performance should make an impression. If, for instance, had his 1969 single The Eagle And Me been granted radio play, even in the late 60s, it might have stopped listeners dead…play it from this youtube link when Wall Street ends.
One of the most exciting anticipatory pleasures of any official Smile Sessions release was that, finally, Van Dyke Parks would be given the space to talk about his role, and about his lyrics (having often shrugged off discussion of the latter, due maybe to Mike Love’s various verbal reiterations of the ‘acid alliteration’ attack). And, so, finally, in the The Smile Sessions book, Van Dyke Parks says…well actually, he doesn’t say anything at all. From the Mojo interview above (from May 2011):
When somebody mentions Smile, what’s the first thing that pops into your head?
Crows over a cornfield [a reference to the Parks-penned line in Smile’s Cabinessence]. I hear the box set is going to be absolutely beautiful. It will be very comforting to see that it’s finally commercially available.
On Smile, what was your contribution beyond the lyrics?
You must forgive me. I have no comment on Smile. I’m so sorry.
Though Van Dyke’s voice is absent in The Smile Sessions book, Tom Nolan (identified as “the author, most recently, of Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet: His Life and Times“) speaks for him:
But what about the lyrics? What are they saying? What’s it all mean?…Van Dyke Parks took to answering questions about meaning with phrases like “I have no idea” or “It doesn’t mean anything”.
Nolan then quotes Brian Wilson’s own explication of Surf’s Up from Jules Siegel’s Goodbye Surfing, Hello God article, but with a caveat:
of course it’s not required that your mental movie follow even a co-creator’s script.
No, of course it isn’t.
Mike Love offers some further observations in his own Smile Sessions essay. The emphasis is mine:
the lyrics on some things were not my cup of tea, and the term I came up with to describe some of those lyrics was “acid illiteration“.
Has Brian and Van Dyke’s most notorious antagonist been misquoted all these years? Mike’s objections to Smile‘s lyrics (and the lyricist he neglects to name) coins a neologism that might be worthy of Van Dyke Parks himself (were it not so inherently perjorative); what was understood verbally as ‘alliteration’ takes on a whole new meaning in print. Mike Love also observes, about his own lyrics, that “I am not sure that “excitations” is really a word frequently used in the English language”. So here are two surprising illustrations of his own personal pleasure in verbal and lyrical wordplay, plus his perception that there was an illiteracy that undermined ‘the Smile project’.
However ‘pompous’ anyone might find this ‘cinematic style’, you’ve gotta be some kind of complete fucking ignoramous (musical or otherwise) to regard Van Dyke Parks as lacking an artistic literacy. No, I mean, really. Come on. You’re joking. Surely.
Most people seem to have come to Van Dyke Parks through Smile, and to Smile through The Beach Boys; being the contrary twat I was twenty five years ago, I became interested in The Beach Boys via Van Dyke Parks (all here). Before discovering Cabinessence, but after noticing his name for the first time, I bought his most recent album Jump!, came straight home, and put it on the turntable straight away – and in the company of two close friends, who both normally trusted my musical choices. One was curious; the other: “what the HELL is this?!?”
I wasn’t sure myself, lifted the needle before its overture was over, put the album back in its sleeve, and listened to the rest of it later. In private. It was a long time before I got any grip on what I had bought.
An ad for Van Dyke’s third album, The Clang of the Yankee Reaper, in a 1975 Rolling Stone, says it all way better than I could:
The Clang of the Yankee Reaper was likewise as baffling to me (Pachelbel’s Cannon in D as some kind of crazy ’70s TV cop theme?), as was Discover America, for different reasons – although its opening track, wherein The Mighty Sparrow sings on a crackly record about an older lady (‘she could be me granny’) ‘walking round at night with de face like Jack Palance” is immediate and hilarious, it becomes confusing very quickly. The sleevenotes, ‘a Periodical of Carifta Co. and Warner Bros Records, Volume 1 No.2’, didn’t really help much.
Paradoxically, Song Cycle was his only album that made any immediate sense on first listen,
if only because a) it was a crazy 60s record, and b) it was Van Dyke Parks’ first released work after Smile was abandoned. It felt a little closer to Smile than, say, Smiley Smile.
Song Cycle deserves an entire essay of its own. Usefully there is a very good one already:
There is probably more that could be written (it’s a small book, hence the small pic, more an essay than a full ‘study’), but would need an audience familiar enough with 1968’s Song Cycle to care. The 33 1/3 blog has a ‘league table‘ of their publications’ sales in 2010: Neutral Milk Hotel and Celine Dion hold the top spots; Van Dyke Parks is number 74 – of 74. Reader interest suggests that an audience for anything more extensive doesn’t exist, not just yet…
Specific details about Song Cycle‘s recording process show what Van Dyke learnt from working with Brian Wilson during the Smile sessions, but his approach in the studio seemed much more ‘experimental’ than Brian Wilson:
The album’s producer, Lenny Waronker, recalls hustling from studio to studio, both he and Parks carrying armloads of multi-track tape boxes. As he put it, “we weren’t crazed over a particular studio’s sound. We were just looking for tape recorders, going anywhere we could grab studio time”.
Brian Wilson always sounds surer of what he wants right away on Smile sessions; Van Dyke (with Doug and Bruce Botnick) used no end of gimmicks and effects throughout Song Cycle. Bruce Botnick, as engineer, invented ‘the Farkle’:
I took splicing tape I think or masking tape – very thin – and would fold it so like it was a fan, lots of blades sticking out, and wrap it around and tape it to the capstan of the tape machine, so as it was going round it had these fins all the way around it and what it would do is cause the capstan to bounce.
This is the effect heard on the harp in the introduction to The All Golden. The most basic of free VST chorus plugins could get a similar effect now. But probably not the same.
There are various levels of incomprehensible craziness throughout Song Cycle – but, like the Best Brian Wilson music, you keep discovering it anew. With Song Cycle, the realisation that there were songs took a while. Richard Henderson’s book mentions that, like Smile (as Dumb Angel), Song Cycle had a ‘working title’, of Looney Tunes.
Van Dyke, in a 1996 interview in Paul Zollo’s Songwriters On Songwriting, says about his own albums ‘I have a small output. My best work, and my least conspicuous, has been in the service of other records‘. The Arrangements compilation is (hopefully) the first of a series of this ‘service’. Jim O’Rourke persisted for years in trying to persuade Van Dyke Parks to release his earlier work as a compilation (for O’Rourke’s Mokai label, which also re-released Fennesz’s amazing cover of Pet Sounds‘ Don’t Talk in 1999). Arrangements Volume 1 is as close as that will get, and excludes both his first single Number Nine (an extraordinarily-camp ‘sunshine pop’ take on Beethoven’s Ode To Joy), plus
(from The 1969 Warner/Reprise Songbook sampler, hear it)
Come To The Sunshine is here purely to illustrate his ‘earliest studio adventures in the ’60s…this single on MGM gave me my first real adventure at the dawn of multitrack recording…throughout, you’ll hear what I learned about arranging‘.
Arrangements Volume 1 also has One Meat Ball from Ry Cooder’s first album, which, I suppose, might be considered a ‘typical’ Van Dyke Parks String Arrangement: all the musicians sound drunk, the arrangement lurches along ahead of and behind the beat, swells, stops, starts, but somehow it all makes sense…this is crazy music. Damnedest thing I’ve ever heard.
Van Dyke Parks has done a few interviews to promote Arrangements (which is self-released) – here is an hour-long ‘fireside chat’, as useful a career overview as one might need. If anyone reads this, and only knows Van Dyke because of his Smile lyrics, this podcast might broaden an understanding of one of America’s most interesting musicians/composers/arrangers currently still working; comes with illustrative audio, including Spike Jones’ Cocktails For Two alongside some of his own work, plus a raucous Come To The Sunshine by The Esso Trinidad Steel Band.
While still trying to get to grips with Jump!, Victoria Williams released her debut album Happy Come Home.
She’s more well-known for being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1993, without health insurance, and the celebrity Sweet Relief tribute/benefit album/concerts/fund (to assist with her medical costs); not sure how many other people rate Happy Come Home, separate from her illness.
Victoria Williams has a voice that can immediately polarise listeners (in the same way that Robbie Basho and Joanna Newsom can empty rooms), and you could mistake her for some ‘kooky’ girl singer, if you didn’t actually listen. The entire album is wonderful – and Shoes, Main Road and TC have Van Dyke Parks arrangements.
There is maybe a poignancy to these tracks for post-1993 listeners, exercabated by a knowledge of Victoria Williams’ illness…dunno. But TC has its own poignancy, which is heightened by how Van Dyke’s strings accompany her spoken and sung voice:
I think I’ll go for a walk out in the woods,
not sure just where
might go see if TC’s there.
The dew had not yet left the yard,
diamonds in the grass.
A wealthy girl and all
took all my good friends
(whistles) “here Booger, here Rex!”
Way across the field they come – here they come. Here they are.
The ‘accompaniment’ walks out with Victoria; the dogs arrive; words, phrases and TC himself (who is now ‘just a memory’) are illustrated by the arrangement:
(Victoria knocks on door)
‘Miss Gibson, is TC here?’
(Victoria speaks Miss Gibson’s response)
‘Well he’s out back, honey’ (Victoria runs out back)
Van Dyke’s strings trot along out back with Victoria. She recalls TC’s younger days; and then, when TC was older,
these animals that come around,
and he feeds them at twilight.
TC’s got many a story to tell,
with the dancing light in his eyes –
he plays ukelele:
‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…’
(strings play a fragment of You Are My Sunshine)
‘O my darling, O my darling, O my darling
(a fragment of Clementine)…T – C.’
And so on. There is so much movement, humour and sadness in the words of this song, but there is as much, if not more, in the arrangement itself. Like the best Carl Stalling Looney Tunes soundtracks, it is as if there is an arrangers’ universal vocabulary, a literacy which can convey joy, pathos, movement, with just an encapsulated phrase; Shoes and Main Road do the same things, with different stories and in different ways, but using that same vocabulary.
I have no idea how any of this works. Damnedest thing I’ve ever heard. And my feelings about TC are maybe not shared by too many other people (though I hope they are). As a series of personal reminiscences, and set to a musical accompaniment that is almost alive in its responsiveness, it’s still one of the most perfect things I have ever heard. Up there with Cabinessence.
You can see a DA Pennebaker film about Victoria Williams and Happy Come Home here (in four parts – 2, 3, 4 here) – Shoes and TC are in part 2, live versions intercut with the recordings; Main Road is in part 3.
Van Dyke Parks also contributed an arrangement to U2’s Rattle and Hum in 1988. On the album (and in the accompanying documentary),
the band explores American roots music, and incorporates elements of blues-rock, folk rock, and gospel in their sound. The motion picture was filmed primarily in the United States in late 1987 during the Joshua Tree Tour and it features their experiences with American music. (Wikipedia)
I watched the whole of fucking Rattle and Hum, assuming that U2’s choice of Van Dyke was because he was part of their ‘exploration’ of ‘American roots music’, and, similar to their fetishising of BB King, ‘the angel of harlem’ et al, Van Dyke would be treated with a similar reverence. All I Want Is You plays over the end titles. No Van Dyke Parks footage.
This turgid two-chord dirge (and series of lyrical platitudes – ‘from the cradle to the grave’ indeed…) gets interesting after about 2 minutes, as Van Dyke’s strings come in, but then Bono starts singing again…skip to 4:40 for the best bit. I imagine there is not a lot an arranger could do with such dull chords…Van Dyke, when asked about this years later, said he thought he was going to be working with The B-52s.
This is a rare example of work with an incompatible artist – and, while work is work, and bills do need to be paid, the kind of people who choose to use Van Dyke Parks (as player or arranger) often make interesting music themselves. Wikipedia’s list of Work For Other Artists is extensive. Of these, I have albums by Tim Buckley, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, The Beau Brummels, Little Feat, Ry Cooder, Joanna Newsom, The Everly Brothers…I bought records by Sam Phillips, Peter Case and Silverchair, plus Happy Come Home and the first Rufus Wainwright album, solely because he was involved in some capacity.
His name on a sleeve isn’t an immediate recommendation, but it does suggest that this might be an interesting album, and it rarely isn’t. U2 excepted. Randy Newman claims that, as U2 visited poor black Southern states of the US, people came out to welcome them with open arms, saying “thank you for the gift of your music”.
yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!
Another personal favourite arrangment is the choral vocal for Jennifer Warnes’ Leonard Cohen cover A Singer Must Die
(Len’s draft sleeve for Famous Blue Raincoat – The Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1987)
but it isn’t even on youtube, although other tracks from Famous Blue Raincoat are. Its arrangement (with Bill Ginn) is a creepy all-vocal ensemble – and, as ‘the ladies go moist, as the judge has no choice, a singer must die, for the lie in his voice‘, the arrangement accompanies the vocal lead, as Greek chorus, judge, jury, executioner – and lubricious ladies…
Always modest about his own albums, their sales were often as modest – Tokyo Rose (from 1989, which came and went very quickly)
concerns the intersection between Japanese and American cultures, particularly as reflected in the competitive “Trade War” of the 1980s. The intersection between the two cultures is nowhere more obvious than in the album’s first song, “America,” an adaptation of “America the Beautiful” with numerous pentatonic shifts characteristic of Japanese music, played on a combination of standard Western instruments and traditional Japanese instruments, such as the biwa and the koto.
This might sound like a offputtingly-serious record; however, this is its composer on the back cover:
Watch a performance of America live in Japan, by Van Dyke Parks & The Discover America Ensemble:
The Beach Boys left Capitol Records in late 1969 for a new contract with Warner Brothers (the same label that released the loss-making Song Cycle):
Two years and seven months after leaving The Beach Boys camp, Van Dyke Parks…re-enters the scene. to assist with the group’s signing. Parks tells Scott Keller in 1973: “I was working at Warner Brothers’ Records at the time…in A&R. The Beach Boys were at a very low point in their career…they ended up at Warner Brothers because I personally begged [WB boss] Mo Ostin to sign them…I’d pressured Mo to sign the beleaguered Beach Boys to the label, in spite of industry-wide reservations about the group’s ability to deliver. They were considered a problem at that time. They were an industry albatross, simply because there were so many egos involved. Everyone at the label just wanted Brian Wilson to come over and write some songs.
(Murry Wilson, The Beach Boys’ father, ex-manager, and custodian of their publishing, sold The Beach Boys’ song copyrights outright the same week. Not the best timing.)
‘Brian Wilson’: (with back to camera, to Nik Venet of Capitol Records) I’m writing a Teenage Symphony To God, Van Dyke is helping.
‘Van Dyke’: You see, The Beach Boys are this pan-patrotic kind of trans-presidential vibe, they’re Americana personified, and that gives us a platform to bring a kinda Mark Twain irony thing into rock and roll.
This is from The Beach Boys – An American Family, a US TV drama from 2000, which uses ‘published texts’ for its dialogue (and thus its claims of veracity). That blond guy is ‘Van Dyke’, who is some kind of showy fop, at least in the eyes of the filmmakers: verbally ostentatious, musically precocious, egotistical (and possibly homosexual)…but the examples used to support this character assassination could only convince the most cretinous of partisan viewers. There is neither verbal nor musical dexterity on show here, just the lowest of lowbrow suspicion and loathing of intellect.
And here, the substance of Van Dyke and Mo Ostin’s defence of The Beach Boys, despite their being ‘an industry albatross’, somehow gets transmuted into dialogue that ridicules the support offered, when no other label would touch them.
Van Dyke has, however, stayed supportive of The Beach Boys, and despite his (well-documented) treatment during Smile – maybe because he was ultimately trying to help Brian Wilson himself. He has appeared on a few Beach Boys recordings since 1967, on the Surf’s Up album in 1971 (although he doesn’t seem to have been involved in the recreation of the title track, despite co-writing the song); and as one of many authors of Sail On Sailor, from the Holland album:
Tuesday September 10th 1972
[The Beach Boys] submit the completed master of Holland to executives at Warner/Reprise…the group feel confident that they have a strong album, and a November 5th release date is tentatively set. But they are aghast when the company rejects the disc. Warner/Reprise want a hit single but says they cannot hear one…the group is forced to drop the weakest track, We Got Love…and replace it with a song with hit potential.
Van Dyke Parks once again enters the scene and reminds Brian of the song they composed (allegedly with Ray Kennedy and Tandyn Almer) around May 15th.
From a 1975 interview Van Dyke says
I came up with that lyric when I was working with Brian, as well as the musical pitches those words reside on. I did nothing with that tape until I saw the Beach Boys’ crisis at the company where I was working, earning $350 a week. Well, they recorded the song, and it was a hit. And I’m glad that everyone the came out of their little rooms to claim co-writing credit on that song. But I never questioned it, just as I never questioned the various claims on the residuals.
On my CBS Nice Price 80s CD copy, four people contributed to Sail On Sailor, but Van Dyke Parks doesn’t even get a writing credit:
so he would have gotten fuck all in royalties for that reissue.
“Many years later, when [producer] Terry Melcher wanted to take the song ‘Kokomo’ to the tropical islands, he called me and wanted to use my Rolodex, so to speak. So, I brought some great musician friends — people who’d played with Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Cecil Taylor — to play with me on that session. I was paid well for my work, although it was a nonunion session — no hospitalization, no dental, nothing extra if it went commercial. The Beach Boys, after all, were Republicans — unions weren’t something to mention to them. We weren’t dealing with Studs Terkel. We were dealing with Bruce Johnston and Mike Love, who’d become the entity known as the Beach Boys. Of course, the song went to number one, and Mike Love always made a very big deal out of the fact that it was made without Brian Wilson. And that was always very alarming to me because beyond the Beach Boys’ beautiful music, my allegiance has always been to Brian Wilson, who hired me years ago and told me he’d give me 50 percent of anything we wrote together. He said that speaking from his throne at a time when I was nobody. Isn’t that the sign of a marvelous person?”
Parks recalls he saw Love one final time when Melcher called him to Monterey to play synthesizer on the Beach Boys’ final album, recorded without Brian, 1992’s dreadful Summer in Paradise. A neighbor offered to fly the musician to Monterey in his one-engine plane if Parks agreed to cover gas and other expenses. When he got there, Love was meditating in Melcher’s living room. “For the first time in 30 years, he was able to ask me directly, once again, ‘What do those lyrics — Over and over the crow flies, uncover the cornfield — mean?'” Parks said about that meeting in ’95. “And I was able to tell him, once again, ‘I don’t know.’ I have no idea what those words mean. I was perhaps thinking of Van Gogh’s wheat field or an idealized agrarian environment. Maybe I meant nothing, but I was trying to follow Brian Wilson’s vision at that time.” Parks says Love asked if he could fly back to L.A. in the plane with him. “We had a nice chat and he insisted that he wanted to split the cost of the flight with me, so he gave me a card with his number on it. The next morning, I called to discover it was a disconnected number. And that was the last time I saw Mike Love.”
(originally from the New York Times, April 6, 2000 – quoted here)
Mike Love has offered reassurances (here):
Now why do you want to talk to ME about that? I like Van Dyke Parks
But there does seem to be a unwavering animosity from Beach Boys Inc. towards the man. It seems like Van Dyke himself should be the person bearing the grudge – and quite justifiably so. Mike Love might never forgive Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks for Smile, but this sole artistic infraction happened nearly a half-century ago.
Mike Love is, after all, the guy that brought the term ‘acid illteracy’ into print in 2011. One would think, with that particular literary success, he could finally let lie a long-past professional disagreement, as a 25 year old (and with a 22 year old). It’s difficult to conceive of a grievance worth maintaining for that long – somebody would need to kill to prompt that in me. But I am not Mike Love. And I wasn’t there.
While writing all the above, this turned up in the post:
Published in 1999, Palm Desert, A Book by Rudy VanderLans Based on Lyrics and Music by Van Dyke Parks
grew out of a simple packaging design for an audio CD containing four loose adaptations of one of Parks’ musical compositions. The initial design, however, quickly outgrew its jewel case confinement as the mix of photography, two essays, music and review begged for a more spacious book format. The point of departure was “Palm Desert”, a track on Parks’ 1968 debut album Song Cycle, one of my all-time favourite records, and a mythical release of impressive proportions itself. While perhaps not his best album, Song Cycle left a lasting impression on me. Simultaneously otherworldly yet oddly faniliar, its musical compositions are timeless, or perhaps froma specific time impossible to define.
It’s kind of an ‘art book about Van Dyke Parks’ – but a proper book, not the art-platitude drivel contained within the ‘exhibition in lieu of a gallery’ that is Brian Wilson: An Art Book, derided here. The accompanying CD is incidental (didn’t hear anything much that caught my ear unfortunately); but, had I read Rudy VanderLans’ Foreword before writing most of the above, I needn’t have bothered, as this makes a much more concise case for Van Dyke Parks, post-Smile:
Ironically, to a large music contingent, Van Dyke Parks is best known for his collaboration on Brian Wilson’s never released Smile album, which perhaps solidified Parks’ mythical status more than anything, and which is how he ended up in the aforementioned video [this clip]. Without intending to take anything away from these brilliant collaborations, (Wilson was at the absolutely top of his creativity), the Smile sessions tend to unjustly overshadow Van Dyke Parks’ other accomplishments. His long and prolific career incudes six solo albums, numerous movie scores, children’s books, and uncounted credits as a session musician, lyricist, producer and arranger for a host of fellow musicians both past and present.
This curious and quite elegant little book…represents a fan’s homage to one of the finest minds operating on the margins of contemporary music, via a series of photographs and essays, two of which are by other hands. The author’s introductory essay is quite touching and his photographs combine the precision and obliqueness of their source material. Like his subject, Vanderlans is an outsider looking quizzically at the idiosyncrasies and mythologies of California
Richard Henderson (in his 33 1/3 Song Cycle essay) elaborates:
Weird but true: during the last couple of decades, the impression is deeply received that European and Japanese audiences appreciate Parks’ solo work more than his own compatriots do. All of his writing has struck me as American to the bone, so much so that I’d assumed it to be indecipherable by foreign audiences. So when a Dutch street orchestra performs “Jack Palance”, the calypso tune personalized by Parks on his second album, or when Parks is accosted repeatedly on the streets of Tokyo by fans…I’m glad for him…but it’s all the more bewildering for me.
I’m English, so I fit within the above – and, to me, so much of Van Dyke’s work seems to be ‘about’ America, historically, musically, whatever…his Smile lyrics were the beginning of a career-long elaboration upon the US, while also conveying ‘transcultural truths’ ; Wall Street is its 21st Century manifestation. If his music were just a series of signs and ciphers, it would only work as ‘art music’ – but if this is ‘rock music’, or even pop music, if it’s not fun to listen, it fails.
1968’s Song Cycle could not have happened without the possibilities that Sgt. Pepper’s release (and popularity) in 1967 brought to this nascent new music; if 1966/7’s rate of artistic development was any indicator of American music’s future, pop music’s vocabularies should have expanded exponentially between ’67 and ’68. Song Cycle‘s commercial failure seems inevitable in retrospect (it’s a crazy album, on every level), but I’m sure its composer expected an audience as advanced as the music on the record.
That popular music (the popular stuff, the records in the pop charts) atrophied into rock’s basic archetypes so quickly (they’re all in 1967’s Inside Pop), and all still exist as templates half a century later, must surely surprise more musicians than just Van Dyke Parks…
But this is becoming Rock History Reductionism again, and if this seems like an oversimplification…well, of course it fucking is. Much as it might be nice to rewrite the history of rock music, this is just some guy going on about why Van Dyke Parks makes music that is often the damnedest thing he’s ever heard, inside and outside pop.
By the 1980s, when I first heard Van Dyke Parks, he
operates on fringe of popular music, with low profile, many credits, layered sounds, eccentric image
(says Donald Clarke’s eccentric 1988 Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music)
and, now, as pop music audiences came to expect less and less of music, and got what they expected, one of the most consistently-interesting figures of modern American music arrives in 2011, without a record contract, self-releasing his own new music. Like Harry Partch and his Gate 5 label, Sun Ra and Saturn, The Residents on Ralph, or Jandek On Corwood.
I could go on: not even mentioned Ys by Joanna Newsom (but you can hear Monkey & Bear in the Fireside Chat), or Diorama by Silverchair (no really), or An Invitation with Inara George – an Amazon reviewer says about the latter
the main accompaniment is Van Dyke Parks and his string arrangements. I wont argue with anyone who likes them, but I have to be blunt about my own reaction: the orchestral parts are busy, harmonically dense, the rhythms lope, flit, and lurch uncomfortably without a steady beat, and they basically just dance all over the place, with unrelenting hyperactivity. Not only are the arrangements hyperactive, they seem dynamically constricted. There is a want of pianissimo and fortissimo. Furries of notes and chord changes cannot substitute for dynamic contrasts between loud and soft to add life and drama to the music. I guess this is a factor that doesn’t concern Van Dyke Parks.
Watch a clip of Inara singing Tell Me That You Love Me from the album, with Van Dyke at the joanna (no strings ‘dancing all over the place’); hear Rough Design from An Invitation, featuring the offending orchestral parts. ‘Busy, harmonically dense, the rhythms lope, flit, and lurch uncomfortably without a steady beat, and they basically just dance all over the place, with unrelenting hyperactivity‘. And this is a problem?
According to recent interviews, he will be working with a US dubstep guy called Skrillex…whatever this turns out to be, there will be neither Fat Boys nor Smart Girls involved. It may be the damnedest thing Skrillex’s audience has ever heard (and if they are as ignorant of The Aphex Twin as Skrillex’s messageboard seems to suggest, they will probably shit their sagging pants when they hear it).
Gavin Bryars says that
There are several books that need writing on Van Dyke Parks and [Palm Desert] may well be one of them (provided it is not the only one!). The range of his work and the diversity of his career is astonishing. Vanderlans refers to most of his achievements, though he misses what is perhaps one of the most strikingly oblique: the brilliant cameo appearance in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Now that could have pointed the author in a few other directions….
(Oh yeah, he was in Twin Peaks as well. Forgot about that.)
And one day there might be a book (or a film, or better yet both) about Van Dyke Parks, which treats Smile in the same way that David Leaf’s Beautiful Dreamer film treats The Beach Boys: as the precursor to a long and fascinating musical life, creating timeless music. The start of something.
Oh wait, Brian Wilson didn’t get that luxury.
Although Wilson/Parks’ own creative career as co-composers was cut short in 1967, and despite attempts by The Corporation to write Van Dyke Parks out of Brian Wilson’s greatest work, he just won’t go away – kind of like Smile for The Beach Boys. And I’m sure that ‘Mike Love, who’d become [with Bruce Johnston] the entity known as the Beach Boys’, if he could, would just wish away Van Dyke Parks forever…
Mike was interviewed in December 2004’s Mojo about Smile, and his forthcoming (and still unreleased) solo album. Here he tries out something new: the postulation of a brand new paradigm. Asked about Smile, he responds
I thought it was some brilliant stuff…the Fire tapes for instance…
Maybe no one noticed; maybe it worked: maybe Mike Love got away with it, and has successfully set the record straight.
But wait – Feb 2005’s Mojo letters page has the following response:
I read in your excellent journal (in Bill Holdship’s charmed article) a quote from Mike Love “…when they say that I didn’t like Pet Sounds or it was partly my fault that Smile didn’t come out. Then I have to draw the line.”
I appreciate all Mr. Love has done to perform Brian Wilson’s music through the ages, but I just have to draw the line at his revisionism. In 1967, Mike Love was disparaging about Pet Sounds. Closer to home, he was antagonistic toward Brian and me in our efforts during the production of Smile. (Brian recently attributed this simply to mere jealousy.) It may not help the rehabilitation of Mr Love’s career to state that his attitude in ’67 was at odds with his present remarks. Alas/alack, it’s too true.
In spite of any constructive contributions Love could have made to change the face of Smile in ’67 (he made none), his open hostility was the deciding factor in the delay of Smile. I can forgive but won’t forget this, in light of the time it cost Wilson in his work.
As Brian recently pointed out, this is a time for healing. Yet I must add, it’s also a time for learning the real beauty of truth. Truth is Beauty, as John Keats once observed. Truly.
Van Dyke Parks, via e-mail
Van Dyke Parks has been a continuing catalyst for Brian Wilson.
The Orange Crate Art album from 1996 is co-credited to Brian and Van Dyke, but Brian Wilson only performed the vocals for Van Dyke’s compositions; Pete Ames Carlin in Catch A Wave says
Brian dragged his feet into Van Dyke’s first session, interrupting the start of his first take to ask an excrutiatingly simple question: “Wait a minute. What am I even doing here?” Van Dyke hit the talk button without missing a beat. “You’re here because I can’t stand the sound of my own voice!” Brian thought about that for a second, nodded his head, and stepped up to the microphone. “Well that makes sense! okay, take one!”
In Paul Zollo’s Big Book Of Songwriters On Songwriting mentioned above, Van Dyke says
As I worked on the record [Orange Crate Art], I thought about [Brian’s] reputation and trying to protect it and nurture it, as I was trying to, of course, build my own by doing it.
and also that
I’m happy with the record [Orange Crate Art]. And I think it’s the most distinct work I’ve managed in a thirty year career in avocational record production. But, it to me was important for one reason: it renewed my relationship with Brian Wilson. It helped bring new events to the relationship and the promise of working again. And that’s why I did it. So I achieved my objective. Everything but sales.
This renewed relationship leads, eventually, forwards and backwards in time, to Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, and then The Smile Sessions.
‘Timelessness’ is a term that gets overused in relation to music, especially by people that think that musical time began with either Elvis or Sgt. Pepper. If one definition of musical timelessness might be a longevity uncoloured by nostalgia, Song Cycle, as a distinct product of the late 1960s, still sounds like nothing else, then or now. It retains that same ‘what the fuck am I listening to?’ as Les Paul’s New Sound, or 20/20‘s Cabinessence. It has stayed new.
In Philip K. Dick’s 1966 novel The Crack In Space,
Softly [Tito Cravelli] played one of the cloud chamber pieces by the great mid-twentieth century composer, Harry Partch. The instrument, called by Partch ‘the spoils of war‘, consisted of cloud chambers, a rasper, a modernized musical saw, and artliiery shell casings suspended so as to resonate, each at a different frequency. And as a ground bass accompanying the spoils of war instrument, one of Partch’s hollow bamboo marimba-like inventions tapped out an intricate rhythm. It was a piece very popular these days with the public.
Maybe Song Cycle is pop music’s Sgt Pepper in PKD’s 2080 CE.
In the Songwriters On Songwriting interview, Van Dyke Parks says about his own writing,
I’m not trying to do anything novel. I’m trying to do what good songs have forever done. Songs should outlive their writers. They should stand the test of time. Some songs you hear the first time, and you know that they haven’t stood that test.
and I felt the latter when I heard most of The Beach Boy’s post-Smile output for the first time: what will this music mean in 50 years, when it’s so immediately anachronistic in its own time?
The ‘timelessness’ of Song Cycle is maybe proven by the fact that, 25 years after first hearing it, and being baffled by it, I could now whistle the entire album from start to finish…this album, like all of Van Dyke Parks’ music that followed it, seems to use some weird kind of ‘immediacy’: over time it makes more and more sense, until unexpected chord changes seem the only way each composition could work. His 1969 single The Eagle And Me (as mentioned above) now sounds like one of the catchiest tunes I know, and I’m whistling 2011’s Wall Street more and more – until I reach the line about ‘ash in the air, confetti all covered in blood‘, and remember what this song is about…
And, for one final perspective, The Common Swings volunteered the following in an email:
one of the things i like about VDP’s music is that sometimes it’s like a mad painting that you look at for hours and can’t quite fathom. and then it snaps together suddenly – there’s a painting by Rex Whistler in a Welsh country house called Plas Newydd:
it looks nice doesn’t it? but when you stand in one position it suddenly becomes apparent the whole thing is one elaborate optical illusion which seems like the wall disappears and the room is actually on the coast. it’s gorgeous and doesn’t distract from your initial view of it. it just makes *sense* more. and that’s what VDP is like to me. it’s a wonderful, crazy noise that sometimes shifts together to make *sense*. but that *sense* isn’t what makes it so great in the end either.
But enough of this. I could go on, and I have. I’ve even encouraged other people to join in. Time to stop.
(a) Van Dyke Parks, post-67, has made a bunch of timeless, or out-of-time records – music which reflects the time that it was made, but will still be listened to as long as there is equipment to play it.
(b) But his contribution, 45 years ago, to the creativity that is contained by the 5CDs of The Smile Sessions, is still presented by The Beach Boys Inc., as random, meaningless, a product of drug consumption – acid illiteration.
In the light of the literacy Van Dyke Parks has demonstrated over the past 50 years – verbally, lyrically, musically, thematically, historically – does this really seem likely?
A future post (and with an eye to fairness and balance) will deal with Mike Love’s music, including his inscrutable (and commercially unavailable) solo work.
(thanks to The Common Swings Library for the Mojos, and to Michael Leddy, for the correct attribution of his “imaginary liner notes” for Wall Street & Money Is King)