Van Dyke Parks discusses 'Arrangements,' Skrillex collaboration
While the name of 68-year-old musician Van Dyke Parks might not ring a bell with many listeners, it’s almost certain that you’ve heard his work. His curriculum vitae expands across musical genres and generations: from session work with the Byrds and the Grateful Dead in the 1960s to arranging momentous albums from the likes of Joanna Newsom, Rufus Wainwright, Inara George, and even breakout dubstep star Skrillex in the 21st century. And then there’s his singular solo work.
To commemorate four decades of work as an arranger, Parks has released a CD compilation of such work, aptly titled “Van Dyke Parks Arrangements Volume 1,” on his own record label, Bananastan. In addition, he’s started releasing a limited-edition series of 45 singles, featuring full-color sleeve art from the likes of Art Spiegelman, Ed Ruscha and Charles Ray, a curiously arcane choice in an age of digital media consumption. Stacks of these CDs and singles rest on the piano at Parks’ residence, a modest house in Pasadena set at the foot of Mt. Wilson.
Parks sits in his parlor, mentioning that coyotes still roam his street. It seems a fitting animal for him, a loner subsisting outside the parameters of the industry after his more successful peers have faded from the musical landscape. “I’m a pariah here and they still don’t know which bin to put me in,” he said, settling into his seat. “I survive without all that. I’m not going to make a headline in the L.A. Times out of the quiet work that I need to do.”
“Whenever you meet Van Dyke, you know there’s something going on.” So spoke one of Parks' intermittent collaborators, Brian Wilson, back in a 1999 interview with the "London Guardian." “Van Dyke got it all out of me, he pulled it all right out of my soul.”
Of course, Parks' most notorious byline remains for a project that never saw the light of day, as lyricist for The Beach Boys’ aborted 1966 album, "Smile." This week the original album –- rather than the re-recording of it by Wilson that was released in 2004 -– will finally see a release some 45 years on. Yet Mr. Parks adamantly refuses to answer questions about that album, flashing a bit of latent Southern irascibility in his gruff “no comment.”
It’s understandable, as an album that was never heard by the populace somehow still overshadows four decades of ample work. Born in Hattiesburg, Miss., in 1943 to a distinguished family, both his grandfather and father were musically inclined, his father a member of John Phillip Sousa’s Sixty Silver Trumpets.
Mid-conversation, Parks marches over to a piano tucked in the corner of the room to demonstrate the blues underpinning his second 45 single, “Come to the Sunshine” (included on the “Arrangements” CD), adding that the piano belonged to his grandfather and has been in the family since 1911. He next shows off his grandfather’s conducting baton, inlaid with ivory.
Van Dyke Parks came to Hollywood as a child actor, but switched to music, where he wound up at Warner Brothers as an arranger, composer, lyricist, and idea man. After the “Smile” recording sessions foundered, Mr. Parks began composing 1968’s “Song Cycle,” one of the singular albums of that decade. “I’m trying to bring the street into the parlor and that shows,” he said of his solo work.
Forty years on, it remains unclassifiable, one that is highly personal as well as political, touching on the death of his older brother as well as the death of President John F. Kennedy, mixing Mexican rancheros with the orchestrations of Charles Ives. When Joanna Newsom approached him about arranging her 2006 album, “Ys,” it was because of that work. “That astonished me that it struck a sympathetic note in her,” he said. “I realized there was another generation out there that did not need a rationale about ‘Song Cycle.’”
But the idea of recording an album or having a solo career was never a high priority: “A solo album didn’t occur to me. I didn’t need to be recognized. I wanted simply to be in the studio.”
Some of those earliest studio sessions appear on “Arrangements.” In addition to getting fellow musicians like Ry Cooder, Lowell George and Allen Toussaint signed, he also helped get their music down to tape. He relished his role as an arranger above all: “This CD is a validation that I tried to be a useful ally while I basked in other people’s glory. My motives are not at all musical; they’re social. That’s the thread that runs through everything.”
In hindsight, it almost sounds like a strategy for surviving the music industry over the decades. “I wasn’t anybody in the '60s or '70s,” he explained. “I never walked into a room and got mad because they recognized me. Or perhaps mad that they didn’t recognize me because I wasn’t famous enough. I’ve seen that dichotomy in everyone who has been infected with celebrity. I’ve seen so many friends build a persona and be enslaved by it.”
By not being famous and trapped in one sound, he’s remained relevant for younger artists. He explained a recent arranging job: “I had 40 musicians in a Capitol studio on a job that took me two weeks, 24/7, from before sunrise to well into the night. I worked very hard on what I hoped would be my best work. I did it for this guy by the name of Skrillex, who I’ve never heard of.”
So in addition to working with the pre-eminent electronic music star in the U.S., Parks also recently opened for Fleet Foxes. “I can still beat the ... out of that piano,” he said, regarding his steady hands. “I’m amazed with what’s left of my body that I can approach this stuff with the athleticism of my youth and still handle it.”
His new series of 45s finds him releasing music on his own terms. “I’m going back to that world I once inhabited in a marginal way, the world of vinyl,” he said. “I’m going back to it on an uncompromising level.” In the end, he prefers the single medium to a full album: “In an age of shuffle mentality, where no one can pay a ... bit of attention, this was a very attractive thing for me to do to survive and try to shine as a miniaturist.”
-- Andy Beta
Photo: Van Dyke Parks performing at a benefit at the Troubadour. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times.