Versalite artist Van Dyke Parks talks about the Beats, Horatius, Sinatra, Pythagoras, Ry Cooder; and the 60s

"The Arts are not a decoration. They are not to follow the understanding of political curves. The Arts are hear to inform the body politic—-to inform as well as entertain—and to resist authority if it doesn’t stand inspection."

Van Dyke Parks: Make The World More Beautiful

Van Dyke Parks established a recording career as artist, arranger, producer, and songwriter in 1963. He relocated to Los Angeles with the intent of being involved with the growing west coast Beatnik subculture. In that year, he had his first professional job in movie music as arranger for "The Bear Necessities". In 1964, he signed his first contract with MGM Records as singer/songwriter, continuing through the sixties and into the nineties with eight of his own albums, and countless others, as arranger, studio musician, and producer. In 1969, Parks joined Warner Brothers Records as Vice President of Audio/Visual Services and in A&R.

Parks has worked with such notable performers as Brian Wilson, Phil Ochs, Tim Buckley, Haruomi Hosono, The Byrds, Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright, Harry Nilsson, Beach Boys, Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Keith Moon, Frank Zappa, and Ringo Starr. In addition to producing, Parks has released seven studio albums of his own recordings: Song Cycle, Discover America, Clang of the Yankee Reaper, Jump!, Tokyo Rose, Songs Cycled, and with Brian Wilson, Orange Crate Art. He has also released a live album, Moonlighting: Live at the Ash Grove. Parks has produced, arranged, or played on albums by artists including Delaney Bramlett, Vic Chesnutt, U2, Cher, Sam Phillips, Frank Black, The Beau Brummels, The Manhattan Transfer, Carly Simon, Little Feat, T-Bone Burnett, Bonnie Raitt, Gordon Lightfoot, Sheryl Crow, The Everly Brothers, The Thrills, Scissor Sisters, Laurie Anderson and more.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Folk and Beat Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Apples and Oranges don’t compare.

First off: All music is folk music, and I’ve been interested in folk since earliest childhood.

Provincial lingo has always appealed to me. Eskimos have 17 words for “snow”. Why should that be silenced their horizonless panorama.

If you mean “Folk”—beyond idiom or genre—it refers to our global musical tapestry.

To unravel that talestry would be a crime.

I was taught to savor a broad menu in music, and I’ve sought it out all my life.

Bach and Beethoven, Chopin, Dvorak, Smetena, Charles Ives, Percy Grainger, Vaughn Williams, Gershwin, Howlin’ Wolf, Woody Guthrie...and an anonymous array of Greek composers in the wake of Pythagoras, Egyptian immigrant to Athens, the Elvis of his time):

All of their best hits have hit the street, because their themes and idioms all came up from the street.

I’d been into it.

As a teen, piano literature plunged me into a “folk” frenzy with music of New Orleans’ Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869).

I saw that music from the street could compete with the elite and that is where I offer my seat.

For his last recording session, I arranged one of Gottschalk’s pieces for masterful Allen Toussaint (on the Nonesuch label).

Without Gottschalk having written it down for piano, (when he was court composer to the Spanish queen), we wouldn’t have “Malagueña”

There were Albéniz and Granados, to take me through the Moors and Kingdoms of Spain.

Two things stand out to rationalize my passion for what I infer you mean in

your use of “folk”:

1: Folk music thrives on great melodies and rhythms. In songs without words, the choreography is evident in the ear. Regionalism doesn’t have to apologize.

Provincialism is knowing the trees where you live—-memorizing them—writing about them—bringing all the power of diversity to the World Beat.

That distinct diversity may be, one day, the only cure to a world so in need of a new tonic.

Folk may yet yank that First World out of its hall of mirrored fame and its Goddam box.

Beat culture drew me to coastal California in 1962, when I played coffee houses with my brother. (We sang folk songs like “Sagapo”).

Of all the Beat poets, the greatest still lives: Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

He is clearly the Greatest living American poet.

Get his “Coney Island of the Mind” collection.

Within its pages, in “I Am Waiting”—

He writes:

“....and I am waiting for the American Eagle to really spread its wings and fly right....

And I am waiting for the two lovers on the Grecian urn to catch each other up at last and embrace

And

I am awaiting, perpetually and forever, a renaissance of wonder.

With that sample of Beat culture, you may detect I was wowed by the anarchy of his words, when fat cat America, smug in its victories, started selling its culture to the world....leaving them to rock on..singing the songs of Babylon.

Just sayin’

Where does your creative drive come from? What do you love most about the act of writing and play music?

As an average American, I work for my rent and medication. We have no national health policy to guarantee life support.

I don’t wait to be asked to work. If I’m not writing a song (time so tight) I’m arranging for someone I admire. I’m up before dawn, waiting to seize what’s left.

“Drive”?

Out of nowhere

A few months ago I was asked by a legit “folk” artist to arrange around her voice, both in melody and spoken poetry. Solo.

Verónica is from The Yucatan peninsula, in southern Mexico, and plays Indian harp.

The blood of her ancestors courses down the mountain rivers past her home, in that mezo-American mystical pyramid culture

She writes about small events that somehow resonate with empathy.

Very much like The Blues or Fado do.

Verónica deserves an orchestra—-to give a proscenium to her eloquent folk music.

So that’s what I’m doing now.

I hope we’ll find a label that’s interested in preserving such unique variety in uncharted music sales.

This is the big bang this year, pending my next studio-driven album if new songs.

Whether we get a label to distribute an album of folk music by Mexican harpista poet Verónica Valerio and myself:

Anyone who will have heard it will know it’s my best work yet. I couldn’t be more content.

But what “drives” it?

This present project, like the last album (“¡Spangled!” with Guatamalan Gaby Moreno, dist. 2019) has an over-riding motive:

We must take that sting out of multi-culturalism. (As did Androcles for the lion).

Latino culture crawls across the border to do hard labor in the USA.

I want to be part of that “browning of America”, and infuse our musical lingo with a southern exposure and aromatic winds.

Music adds best confection to cultural entente.

In my cross-hairs, our President’s prejudice. As for the mob he brings with them?

My arsenal is a cache of Latino music.

For a man who is 77 and actually doing finally what he’s prepared to do all his life-

I feel like Columbus, after Trinidad.

I too had no idea where I was going. All I knew was right from wrong. Yet I arrived safely after an Odyssean life-adventure, and was spared a shipwreck on the Isle of Lesbos. With a truly informed optimism.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?               

If your wife sings hymns out of tune, don’t let her take over the kids’ lullabys.

(It can be become an issue if they’re taking violin lessons).

What was life like during the Beat 1960s era? What stands out most in your mind from that time?

The 1960s were a distressing decade, of civil brutality in the USA, war with its bloody reveal on US TV at dinner time—my cherished elder brother Ben’s death at age 23 in ‘63, and then that of JFK (whom Ben knew from his State Dept. Job in D.C.)

“Song Cycle”. Protesting.

The Sixties evaporated in ‘69 with the Manson murders....and more significantly, the first great coastal oil-spill by a tanker (off the coast of California) in the Earth’s ecological battle of survival with BIG OIL.

That decade also “stands out” from “the ‘60s”?

In that short span, analogue recorded music hit its apogee—and its sound control rooms

from aircraft bomber control knobs to flying faders and automated mixes.

From the microphone to the stylus and beyond to the hi-fi speakers, it was the best pre-recorded sound would ever sound,

“The Sixties” would also made a great sound track in Pop culture.

Its generational-bond that girded the world, awakening to the continued political punch that suggests “We Shall Overcome”.

Zappa got a street named for him in Prague.

Music withdrew The Iron Curtain.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? How has the world changed most since those days?

The only thing I miss is the LP. album format, and a system at home on which to play it.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

The Arts are not a decoration. They are not to follow the understanding of political curves. The Arts are hear to inform the body politic—-to inform as well as entertain—and to resist authority if it doesn’t stand inspection.

What I would change in the musical world?

Great question!

I would prohibit the revolting Grammy celebrations, and the fundamental insistence that artist should categorically compete.

I would fund merited artists and get the U.S. Congress to eagle-eye the books of large record labels, to correct unapologetically abusive and felonious artist contract policies.

Yet, as Congress (on the dole from what’s left of the record industry) guards artists’ rights...mice now guard our cheese.

Etc.

What touched (emotionally) you from Einstein and Zappa? What do you think is key to a life well lived?

Serve others with all your might.

Remember on whose shoulders you stand.

To thine own self be true.

Bloom where you’re planted.

Find the rhythms in your own roots.

Like a tree, planted by the water.

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently?

Death in the family, lost & found love, eco-catastrophe.

How would you characterize the philosophy of Van Dyke Parks’ music and songs?

The song-form as the most potent political tool is to be used to make the world more beautiful.

More accurately, to leave the world as beautiful (in all its variety of expression and life) as it was the very day I entered it. I remember always, that we our legacy is the populace that succeeds us. They, to judge us by what

We have done in our time. Songs reveal that as fully as any carbon foot-print, in the geological Age they call

Anthropocene.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

My life events escalated exponentially when I lost my virginity. That was in 1963, in the Endless Summer.

That same year, I lost a brother, a President, heard the first albums of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys. The Beat era that drew me to Southern California with its poets and coffee houses, all vanished.

What was the relation between the Beats and the 1960s Folk boom? How important was the Beat generation in the 60s culture?

I am sorry that the "Folk Boom" dismissed the Beats, who were marginalized by a generation gap.

"Age-ism" is a problem I face often, but not as an arranger, as I serve artists younger than my own off-spring--yet, the generation gap was a phenomenon of "the '60s", for anarchy and distrust of authority were at the very core of its sense of re-invention.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the music and which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

I loved visiting Frank Sinatra in his building at Warner Brothers’ Pictures, encouraging him not to give up just because the Beatles had made him passe. I gave him my brother Carson’s song (“Something Stupid”), which became his first gold record. When I left the office, he shot “…thanks kid….I learned a lot!”

Oh yeah...I met Einstein…he played his violin while us carolling boys sang to him on his porch one Christmas.

We went into his kitchen for another hour. Einstein told me no secrets however.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

That would be on the piece “Hollywood”. It’s when I played with Ry Cooder. Check it out on YouTube.

We went on a fine tour together. That was by far the best jam I was ever in.

Which memory for Beach Boys, Little Feat and Ry Cooder makes you smile?

I don’t get a smile out of the Beach Boys. Lowell George made me smile all the time. Actually, it was either smile or projectile vomit humor; he was such an incredible riot. I can’t begin to tell you how insanely humorous he was,

or how infectiously humanistic.

Once, when a Japanese group (“Happy End”) came to Los Angeles, to visit me at a studio, Lowell and I were making up a tune called “Sailing Shoes”. The group walked in, unannounced. They wanted me to make them “The California Sound”. I wasn’t sure what they were talking about, and thought they should leave. I told them I was too busy (with my own album “Discover America”). We were in the control room, and it was out of control. Lowell walked over to their briefcase, next to their manager. It was opened, and filled with brand-new $100 bills.

Lowell walked over to the briefcase, fondelling it tenderly, and announced “….I think we can make music out of this!”

So we did. Lowell and I wrote a tune on the spot called “Sayonara America”. It became a number one hit in Tokyo, and established the group.

Ry’s another lengthy story. The most fun I had when producing his first album was in modulating up a half-step in “One Meat Ball”. I arranged strings for that piece, and others, for that (his best) album. A great video for his first album (I started a video department at Warner Brothers’ Records and produced one for him) captures his youth, idealism, social concerns, and elegant roots sensitivities. It can be seen at “Bananastan.com” (my web site).

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Tin Pan Alley and New Orleans culture with 60s "Acid folk" and beyond?

None that I can think of. I know that Louis Armstrong smoked pot, but I wouldn’t listen to Acid folk if you paid me

a brief-case full of $100 bills. As a matter of fact, Acid-folk is an oxymoron. Did you make up that word?

In your opinion what was the reasons that made 60s to be the center of the artistic experimentation and searches?

They were desperate times in America. We had war, we had racism. We needed shock therapy to change our social agenda. The same urgency could apply to Greece today.

What do you miss most nowadays from the 60s? How has the music changed over the years?

Not a damned thing, but my youth. Old age isn’t for sissys. Music has become far more elastic. More world-beat emerges, refreshing us from the Rock-Nazis who’ve controlled radio far too long. To escape the toothless “Rock” generation (that’s losing its teeth and its bite), I seek out what’s beyond the American cultural imperialism of Mac-World, in roots rhythms of Europe and Africa.

What from your memories and things (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

I am my only time capsule. My very body, worth only its salt. I have no possessions. My house is too small for a record or CD collection. I have one thing that matters: My grandfather’s Steinway piano. It came into our family on March 11, 1911. I play it often. It’ll go to my son.

You have been traveling around the world. What are your conclusions?

We’ve multiplied and subdued the Earth. It is ours. If there are ghosts within the trees, they are our ancestors.

Yet, we’re chopping down what’s left of them, and mankind needs a few harsh lessons in toilet training….the way we disrespect out environment. Ecology was the watchword of “the ‘60s”. Now, it’s Anthropocene. We’ve entered a new geologic era (the day the first Atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima). This new geologic age requires we draw in our skirts, change our life-styles, live more modestly, limit our carbon, and sober up.

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to the new generation?

My mother said it best: “Don’t let your ambition outweigh your ability!”. I don’t. I do small things to make the world a more beautiful, sustainable place. Advice? How about “Write a letter to the Pope about birth control.”

“Treat songs as if they are our most portable piece of cultural goods. Make them durable. Make sure they serve as our most potent political weapon. Remember Pythagoras, the flawless legacy of the Ancients’ modes---built to please the Gods. Make music pleasing to them, and to the casual observer.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of world and music?

In the words of Horatius: “Man could die no better, than by facing fearful odds; for the ashes of his fathers,

And the alters of his Gods”. Make courage contagious. Lift people in song. Those that do will get my attention and gratitude. I have no time for the Blues----I left my birthplace of Mississippi familiar with despair.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you?

The laugh? It was when I was in bed with my wife. None of your business.

Emotion? When I just learned I face imminent hand surgery. I’d taken it for granted I would play with velocity until I hit the grave. That is now in question.

Are there any memories from Beat poets which you’d like to share with us?

The finest and deepest impression of Beat Poetry that I can think of is Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "I Am Waiting"

I Am Waiting

BY LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI

I am waiting for my case to come up  

and I am waiting

for a rebirth of wonder

and I am waiting for someone

to really discover America

and wail

and I am waiting  

for the discovery

of a new symbolic western frontier  

and I am waiting  

for the American Eagle

to really spread its wings

and straighten up and fly right

and I am waiting

for the Age of Anxiety

to drop dead

and I am waiting

for the war to be fought

which will make the world safe

for anarchy

and I am waiting

for the final withering away

of all governments

and I am perpetually awaiting

a rebirth of wonder

 

I am waiting for the Second Coming  

and I am waiting

for a religious revival

to sweep thru the state of Arizona  

and I am waiting

for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored  

and I am waiting

for them to prove

that God is really American

and I am waiting

to see God on television

piped onto church altars

if only they can find  

the right channel  

to tune in on

and I am waiting

for the Last Supper to be served again

with a strange new appetizer

and I am perpetually awaiting

a rebirth of wonder

 

I am waiting for my number to be called

and I am waiting

for the Salvation Army to take over

and I am waiting

for the meek to be blessed

and inherit the earth  

without taxes

and I am waiting

for forests and animals

to reclaim the earth as theirs

and I am waiting

for a way to be devised

to destroy all nationalisms

without killing anybody

and I am waiting

for linnets and planets to fall like rain

and I am waiting for lovers and weepers

to lie down together again

in a new rebirth of wonder

 

I am waiting for the Great Divide to be crossed  

and I am anxiously waiting

for the secret of eternal life to be discovered  

by an obscure general practitioner

and I am waiting

for the storms of life

to be over

and I am waiting

to set sail for happiness

and I am waiting

for a reconstructed Mayflower

to reach America

with its picture story and tv rights

sold in advance to the natives

and I am waiting

for the lost music to sound again

in the Lost Continent

in a new rebirth of wonder

 

I am waiting for the day

that maketh all things clear

and I am awaiting retribution

for what America did  

to Tom Sawyer  

and I am waiting

for Alice in Wonderland

to retransmit to me

her total dream of innocence

and I am waiting

for Childe Roland to come

to the final darkest tower

and I am waiting  

for Aphrodite

to grow live arms

at a final disarmament conference

in a new rebirth of wonder

 

I am waiting

to get some intimations

of immortality

by recollecting my early childhood

and I am waiting

for the green mornings to come again  

youth’s dumb green fields come back again

and I am waiting

for some strains of unpremeditated art

to shake my typewriter

and I am waiting to write

the great indelible poem

and I am waiting

for the last long careless rapture

and I am perpetually waiting

for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn  

to catch each other up at last

and embrace

and I am awaiting  

perpetually and forever

a renaissance of wonder

Van Dyke Parks - Official Website

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