Written by: Alex Green
By Paul Gleason
Caught in the Carousel: What draws you to American roots music?
Van Dyke Parks: I’m an American. When I took a class from Aaron Copland (while at Carnegie Institute, studying composition and piano), a student asked him: “What makes ‘American’ music ‘American’?” He responded: “It was made in America.”
CITC: Do you think roots music influences the musical arrangement of “Heroes and Villains”?
VDP: I view the French horn solo and the cello tripletized arco fundamentals as the best musical influences in the piece. I’m relieved I contributed those ideas. They are rooted in an American spirit.
CITC: Were the lyrics for the song an intentional way to transition the listener from the fun of the early Beach Boys to the musical and lyrical complexities of SMiLE?
VDP: That’s a complex question that deserves a simple answer, to wit: No.
CITC: In 1966 Leonard Bernstein said that “Surf’s Up” is “a symbol of change many . . . young musicians see in our future.” Do you think that Brian’s performance did instigate a change and pop music?
VDP: If you mean to type “…a change in pop music,” I suppose so. The controversy in SMiLE enhanced its influence on other writers.
CITC: Was this impact immediate or did it resonate with more current musicians, such as Joanna Newsom, with whom you’ve worked, and Grizzly Bear?
VDP: I don’t know. I don’t listen to “pop” music much. I didn’t in “the sixties” and I have less time for it now (at age 70). I view “pop” music as intolerably “first world”; self-absorbed, whining, and boring. I get my kicks from music outside the box, from the disenfranchised 2nd and 3rd worlds. This is beyond the confines of the (self congratulating) Grammys and usual playlists. My interest in “genre” is decidedly “world beat.” Is now, as ever was.
CITC: You’re performing at the Grizzly Bear-curated I’ll Be Your Mirror festival in May (or is it in November?). Do you see yourself playing a role in inspiring bands like Grizzly Bear?
VDP: The show in London with Grizzly Bear has been postponed until November 2nd. I hope I have a positive role in inspiring others. I don’t think that group or any other group that’s worth spit would consciously connect to my effort in theirs.
CITC: When you were in your brunette era, you released Song Cycle. What was it like to release that record in 1968, when many people in your age group were playing less complex blues and folk rock?
VDP: It was simply a matter of being true to myself, and trying to do the right thing.
CITC: Was the title of the album a pronouncement that you were experimenting with nineteenth-century music?
CITC: Was the way you appeared on the cover an intentional challenge to your long-locked contemporaries?
VDP: The front cover was taken in my dining room. It was where I lived. Such a lovely home (in Fremont Place), I felt it was a generous gesture to be seen as I was. I considered going back to that dining room, to take a similar picture of me at age 70 (I was 24 in the first one). Yet, when I inquired about having a photo shoot there (for the new album Songs Cycled), I was dismayed that the present owner of that house stripped the fine oile-painting (and the sterling Tiffany sconces) from the walls, in a re-modeling of that great home I’d lived in for a short while.
CITC: Song Cycle has its “psychedelic” elements, but it doesn’t seem as contrived as many “psychedelic” albums of the era. What makes the record stand out from its contemporary releases?
VDP: That’s a complex question. I don’t know the answer. I don’t see the album as any more “psychedelic” than Bach’s cello suites. It may well be that you use that hackneyed derogative term because the music is unusual to you. For me, it was highly confessional. In that, it may look like it stands out from other efforts.
CITC: What’s the connection between Song Cycle and the calypso of Discover America?
VDP: Nothing that I know of. Both are products of my sticking to the rule of “Literature 101.” That is: “Write what you know.” Both albums are products of my social interests and social obligations.
CITC: Why title calypso records Discover America and Clang of the Yankee Reaper? Are these titles ironic (and playful) political statements?
VDP: “Discover America” was a Greyhound Bus commercial theme. I was trying to get a bus for The Esso Trinidad Steelband (whom I produced for WB – now a reissue on my bananastan label). “Clang of the Yankee Reaper” is a title of poet Will Carlton, a great uncle of mine. His title, better than the poem he wrote, in that collection of rural observations Farm Ballads.
CITC: Do you see yourself as a playful and punny poet? Your words remind me not only of Melville but also of writers like Pynchon, Barth, Ashbery, and Barthelme, who produced their best work in the years when you were working on SMiLE, Song Cycle, and the calypso albums.
VDP: Is “punny” a word? Shakespeare observed that the pun is the lowest form of humor. I agree. It’s also noteworthy that Shakespeare was an obsessive punster. No less, was Dickens, with his Master Bates and other allusions. The pun may be used to great advantage in stopping exposition in a lyric. I use it sparingly now.
CITC: When describing your new album Songs Cycled, you say, “A light hand and heart can draw more approval than a heavy-handed scold.” Has this always been your approach, especially when making political statements as you do on this record?
VDP: I try to keep entertainment as my primary goal. Political relevance is the life-blood of a song’s continuing service. I try to wobble between those influences deftly.
CITC: “Money Is King” is a very theatrical song with “conversational” lyrics. Was it your intention to build a performance in the listener’s head?
VDP: No. My intention was to honor the author’s intention, and not get in the way.
CITC: You say that “Money Is King” “picks up where ‘Wall Street’ ends.” What do you mean by this?
VDP: They both relate to greed (Christ’s central thesis).
CITC: Why, then, do you reverse the running order of the tracks on the record?
VDP: That has to do with technical matters (striations of grooves on vinyl), and is too lengthy to address in this nifty Q & A.
CITC: One more question about “Wall Street.” Once the strings take over, they don’t seem to fit together melodically with the vocals from earlier in the song. As the strings progress, however, I realize that the strings and vocals are a perfect fit. Is it difficult to create movements in a song that fit together but paradoxically remain distinct from each other?
VDP: I have no formula for working, either as a songwriter or arranger. I just do my best to serve some common good. That’s my prayer.
CITC: Why do you feel the need to revisit the idea of a song cycle after 45 years? You even revisit “The Old Golden” from the 1968 Song Cycle album.
VDP: I don’t “feel the need”! I’m content. I love that tune, and felt it deserved further public regard. The song has to do with war and peace. Got any better ideas? I
I decided to present it in the irreducible minimum, with vocal and piano.
CITC: I’d like to ask you about your collaborations with other artists. What drew you to working with Joanna Newsom on the Ys album?
VDP: Joanna asked me to arrange for her. She rented a harp and a room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. I went there (with my wife) to hear her songs, and was really impressed.
CITC: Do you and she share a similar musical and/or lyrical sensibility?
VDP: That hasn’t occurred to me before. I doubt it.
CITC: What did you see in Rufus Wainwright when you advocated that Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin sign him?
VDP: An inevitable recording success story. At that point, lifted up from hopelessness.
CITC: How did you become involved with Silverchair’s Diorama album?
VDP: They called me on the telephone, long-distance from Sydney. I’m happy they did.
CITC: Would you please describe your work with Tim Buckley?
VDP: I can’t do that, as I haven’t listened to that work in over 40 years. I don’t have a record collection. My wife and I live in a small house that prohibits storing collections.
CITC: How have you produced such a diverse body of work without becoming a deliberate chameleon?
VDP: Pure ignorance, and the inability to take instruction. I do my best to try to profit from my mistakes. Let’s just say “The laughs come hard in ‘Auld Lang Syne’.”
Read a review of Van Dyke’s Songs Cycled here.