Van Dyke Parks on His Invisible Career, Surviving the '60s and the Role of the Beta Male
Van Dyke Parks doesn't give interviews; he speaks in pull-quotes and aphorisms. If Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker had spent their formative years among rock & roll royalty, as Parks did as an arranger, songwriter and singer, they might have viewed that world with the same big-hearted verbosity that Parks brings to bear in conversation.
His career is rivaled by few: as an arranger and producer, he shepherded the careers of Randy Newman, Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt in their infancies. As a lyricist, he is most famous for the long-buried (and recently released) Smile sessions for the Beach Boys, taking the group's sunny pop songs into beautifully bizarre visions of Americana. His own albums, particularly Song Cycle and Discover America, set his high tenor voice against and ever-evolving tapestry of classical tropes and West Coast pop confections.
He is touring in support of a series of new 7-inch singles that are distributed through his Bananastan label and which feature artwork from Art Spiegelman and Klaus Voorman, among others. The Mississippi native is based in Pasadena, but his Southern gentleman's lilt came across the wire as we discussed his upcoming tour of the United States (which stops at the Luminary Center for the Arts on Thursday), the first-ever undertaking for an artist entering his seventh decade. "70 is the new 69," as he quipped.
Christian Schaeffer: We're excited to have you come to town. Have you been to St. Louis before?
Van Dyke Parks: Christian, I want to tell you something. My mother noted that she and my father were impressed that I put my retirement before my career. I've been in California for 40 years, hermetically sealed. I've paid for three college tuitions with this somewhat anonymous profession. This tour is a great adventure for us and I'm just absolutely amazed.
What will your performance look like at this week's show?
I bring what I think is the irreducible minimum - a percussionist and a bassist. And I sit at the piano and I sing. And sometimes I don't sing. It's really a great blessing for me; it's a novelty for me. This is George Plimpton time - this is a whole new role for me. It's exciting and terrifying and consoling. My peers did this years ago - Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, the Beach Boys - anyone who is still alive has been doing it for a living. David Crosby's been doing it for years - I can remember well when he offered me a position in a rock & roll band.
I really think that I'm at the peak of my powers as a tunesmith. Things are slower but surer. I have managed to clarify my aims. I love this song form - it is the most politically potent form. It is something that lives in the heart. It's not serious music I do, but I take it seriously. But that doesn't mean that I don't strive for durability.
As I look at it, I'll be singing a lifespan of work. I've ended up with a motto - the older I get, the better I was. I'm amazed at the craft I put into the song. Every day the hand is a little father from the head. When I think of Mick Jagger, when I can recover from the nausea, I marvel that he is still doing these geriatric gyrations he did as a youth. With this tour, I'm getting a chance to discover America, as it were. You know I'd go there. [Laughs]. My agent put a career in these terms. Who is Van Dyke Parks? Get me Van Dyke Parks. Get me a young Van Dyke Parks.
You've chosen to release your first new music in fifteen years via 7-inch records; what about that medium is a good fit for these songs?
Each of them, I pray, is a work of art, an objet d'art. It's a tactile experience with the vinyl. It's something that escapes the jewel box. I'm doing a tour with a 45 record, each of them graced with a great artist. I'm in the endgame of life and I'm doing what I think is right.
I've loved Mozart all my life--I know what a genius is. I sang lead in a Mozart opera when I was nine. My music is not genius, but it is utility. I think that the single is the perfect medium for me. I thought that an LP would be an immodest thing to do. I love the visual icon of the record itself.